Pieces: the Truth in the Treasure

It’s been just over a year since I first ventured into the world of amateur mudlarking. 

(While this is not a profession anymore, a few clicks down the Instagram rabbit hole of mudlarks around the world might convince you otherwise. There are some out there who have truly mastered the craft and, in my mind, have reached professional status. I am not one of them.) 

Late 18th – early 19th century bottleneck, Termonfeckin Beach (Image, Maryann Kelly)

Inspired by the social media posts and later the book titled “Mudlarking” by Lara Maiklem, my history loving heart and magpie’s eye for shiny things led me to wander the river banks, beaches and fields of Ireland looking for anything old to which I can connect – a clay marble, an amber jar, a rusted belt buckle, a colourful piece of pottery. And while I never seem to find the haul that some of the regulars in New York or London or Toronto do, I have been delighted with the bits and pieces I have collected over my short time at the habit. 

Delighted, and frustrated. 

For while finding a shard of history is the whole point of the hobby, it is also a little irritating. I’m picking up mere fragments when what I really want is something whole. The neck of an 18th century wine bottle found poking up out of the sand is one of my star finds, but wouldn’t it have been great if I’d found the vessel in its entirety? With a cork in it? And a long-lost treasure map?

We modern mudlarks differ from those who first bore then name in two ways – firstly, very few, if any, of us depend on the fruits our larking to feed ourselves. Secondly, we’re more keenly aware than ever of each other’s presence due to the internet and especially social media channels. Where once a Victorian mudlark might have witnessed in person a rival finding something of great value (and may have taken some unseemly actions to quench his envy), the mudlarks of today are a polite and friendly bunch who jealously hide behind our computer screens when a fellow lark posts a find. It can easily become something of an obsession, watching with voyeuristic satisfaction as someone posts a video of themselves gently, tantalizingly, sliding a fully intact 17th century long-stemmed clay pipe from the sucking mud of the River Thames. If it turns out to be only the stem, or only the bowl, we bestow impressed golf claps.  

This craving for perfection undoubtedly goes back to the 1990s kid in me who collected sports cards with my dad and brother. We all wanted to unearth the holy grail from a foil packet – the limited edition, gold-edged all-star rookie card. We wanted perfection. Only perfection held a profit. 

Mudlarking also pokes some of my deeper wounds.  There are sharp edges of my own past that keep me awake at night, invisible broken things that I want fixed, crumbling structures I need to make whole again. The slimy ochre apologies I want to make to that friend I blew off after high school. The dusty charcoal remorse I want to express to old boyfriends over my selfishness and immaturity. The rotten brown explanations I long to give to the people who first employed me in my twenties, when I should have listened more than I spoke and been a sight more liberal with my thanks for all they taught me. 

Metaphorically speaking, I sometimes feel I’m wading through the mud of my own past, digging into the silt and clay with my fingers, just hoping I’ll hit upon the pieces of things I’ve destroyed so that they might still be mended. Or, better yet, I’ll find the pieces are actually not just pieces, but a whole object that I thought was broken but was actually OK all along. But youthful misadventures are about as easy to blot out as… any kind of history, really. 

Finding unbroken treasure in the mudlarking world is rare, particularly because most things we find in riverbeds or town dumps or fields were thrown away, not lost. Many of them were likely binned as soon as they chipped or shattered or emptied, and the river or the sea or the plow did its due diligence to finish the job. The pieces we find, these little trinkets and shards that delight us in the moment, were actually once part of someone’s life. These are the things that lived in the hands of our forefathers. 

Anyone who collects sea glass will tell you the best finds are the ones that have been at sea a long time, where the jagged edges have been worn smooth by countless waves scouring the surfaces with sand. The glass has a mottled effect, no longer bright and shiny but muted with a new, tougher skin. It has changed. 

Perhaps change and peace come when one accepts the things you cannot fix, especially when these breakages come from your own hands. Perhaps then, when a reconciliation does come unexpectedly, it is that much sweeter. 

Sometimes all you find are tiny pieces, in life and in mudlarking.  Some pieces, like Roman pottery or Viking tools, may be unrecognizable to the untrained eye. But, if found by the right person, someone who looks deeper and sees something extraordinary, the joyful discovery will be prolonged as she searches websites, books and museums to discover the truth in the treasure. If found by the right person, these throwaway stones suddenly have very great value. Fulfillment in any kind of collecting only comes when you alone value the pieces in and of themselves, whether or not they can be put back together, and no matter what the worth is to others. 

Victorian poison bottle, found in its entirety at Gyles Quay. (Image, Maryann Kelly)

For more pictures and stories, you can find me on Instagram @boyne.mudlark.

2 thoughts on “Pieces: the Truth in the Treasure

  1. Such treaures! I used to go mud larking when I lived near the Thames in Greenwich (over 20 years ago) but I never found a whole clay pipe, just the stems. My sister who lived further upstream found some really old bit of pottery (like 17th century stuff).

    1. maryannk

      I would love to mudlark the Thames! London is high on my list when we get to travel again, maybe a weekend away just the Mr. and me. 🙂

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