Mudlarking: Ancient Pottery
By Jason Sandy
Around 4,400 years ago, the Beaker people began migrating to Britain from mainland Europe, bringing with them a new type of pottery vessel called a “Bell Beaker” because of its characteristic bulb-shaped bowl and upward flared rim. In the Beaker culture, pottery was one of their most treasured possessions, and it is often found in their graves.
One of the earliest finger-pinched, rusticated beakers found in the River Thames dates to the early Bronze Age and is on permanent display in the Museum of London (above left).
After the Romans established a colony in Britain in the 1st century AD, they began producing pottery using local clays. Most of the pottery produced in Britain was made for basic utilitarian uses while high-quality Roman tableware, such as Samian ware, was manufactured in Gaul (France) and imported into Britain. Along the River Thames and River Medway in southeast England, Roman pottery production was prevalent. Mudlarks Simon Bourne and Steve Trim have found several complete Roman vessels as well as hundreds of pottery sherds. In August 2020, Simon discovered an incredible, complete black-burnished ware vessel (above right).
“When I saw the black turtle-like object about 20 feet from me, my heart skipped a beat,” Simon explains. “I was so excited, but also apprehensive. A complete pot is super rare. Could this be my lucky day? I scraped off the mud with my fingertips, realizing I was the first person to touch this pot since the potter made it nearly 2,000 years ago! I felt like I’d won a competition. We believe the vessel to be a 1st to 2nd century AD flask, which most likely held wine.” To watch the full video about the discovery of this extraordinary, wheel-turned flask, check out Simon’s YouTube channel (Si-finds Thames Mudlarking) and see his other mudlarking adventures, too.
With a great passion for finding Roman artifacts, mudlark Ed Bucknall has discovered an extraordinary array of Roman pottery sherds along the River Thames (top). Many of these sherds are Samian ware, a type of fine red-gloss ceramic used primarily to serve food. It was reserved for special occasions and was intended to impress the guests at the dinner table. Samian ware was often decorated with molded figures in relief such as mythological gods and goddesses, animals and beasts, hunting scenes, flowers, and foliage. Mudlark Richard Hemery found a beautiful sherd of Roman Gaulish terra sigillata depicting an archer with his bow and arrow drawn taut, ready to fire at a wild animal while hunting (above). Decorated with a palm tree and band of ovolo (egg-and-tongue) pattern along the top, this sherd has been dated to the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.
Mudlarks Monika Buttling-Smith and Ed Bucknall have discovered incredible Samian ware sherds illustrating gladiators in battle. Monika’s sherd of Gaulish Samian ware (below) was probably produced in Lezoux (France) between AD 65–90. The molded decoration depicts a helmeted warrior standing on a plinth with his right arm raised and a small, round shield in his left hand. Another gladiator is shown facing right within a circular medallion and a band of ovolo decoration above. Monika took her sherd to the Roman amphitheater where gladiators once fought in Roman Londinium over 1,800 years ago. What a thrilling, spine-tingling experience!
From 200 to 300 AD in the Nene Valley (England), Roman Britons produced expensive and fashionable tablewares made of a thin, pale fabric with a dark brown color coat. In the River Thames, mudlarks have found many sherds of Roman hunt beakers and cups decorated with barbotine and painted decoration. They often depict hunting scenes, mostly dogs chasing wild animals. Hunting was a popular sport in Roman times. Mudlark Duncan John found a beautiful sherd of a Roman hunt cup depicting a cute rabbit with raised ears (above left).
In the medieval period, clay continued to be used as an inexpensive material to make essential household items such as jugs, cooking pots, pipkins, pitchers, jars, dishes, bowls, plates, and chafing dishes. To meet the large demand for pottery, there were many kilns in and around London in the Middle Ages. Surrey border ware is one of the most prevalent types of medieval pottery found in the River Thames. It is made of a slightly sandy, whitish fabric which was wheel-thrown by hand and shaped into the desired form before it was fired in a kiln. To decorate the vessels, a “bib” of lead-based, green glaze was often applied to their surface in localized areas.
Several years ago, mudlark Mark Paros spotted the base of a medieval jug protruding from the mud. He carefully extracted the base and four other pieces. Fortunately, Mark was able to carefully restore the 15th century greenish-brown glazed jug (above center). Known as Cheam border ware from Surrey, the jug has a carinated shape and would have been used in a medieval household for storing and pouring liquids.
Mark also found a large medieval jug which was unfortunately smashed into 87 sherds. After hours and hours of sorting and cleaning the individual pieces, he painstakingly reassembled the medieval jug like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. To his utter amazement, the large vessel was mostly complete with only a few pieces missing (above right). It is nothing short of a miracle that Mark was able to reconstruct the 14th century bung-hole pitcher which is 13 ½ inches tall.
Medieval pottery was sometimes decorated with small figurines of people and animals. Mudlark Tom Bland discovered a 14th century zoomorphic form in the shape of a dragon (above). The animal has a snout with two circular nostrils, wide mouth, and long neck. It is made of coarse border ware with a green glaze. The dragon could have been attached to a medieval lobed cup which was used as a communal drinking cup for ceremonial purposes.
While mudlarking along the River Thames in London, Mark Paros found a Flemish figurine dating to the 16th century (right). Made of fine white pipeclay, it is probably a representation of an angel or saint, possibly St. Michael.
Finding a bearded face from a Bellarmine jug is one of the most exhilarating mudlarking experiences! Brown stoneware sherds are a common find, but it is rare to find a face. I have been very lucky to find a few of these wonderful pieces of history over the years (above). Each face is uniquely different, and the facial expressions range from friendly smiles in the 16th century to grotesque scowls in the 17th century. Made in the Rhine River Valley in Germany, these salt-glazed stoneware jugs were used to transport and drink wine, ale, and other liquids. Originally, the image of the bearded face is believed to depict the mythical “wild man” creature, popular in northern European folklore from the 14th century.
Around 1630, the stoneware bottles started to be called “Bellarmines” because of their association with Catholic cardinal, Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621), a strong opponent of Protestantism who tried to ban alcohol. To mock the unpopular Catholic cardinal who had a beard, Protestants drank ale and wine from the bearded stoneware jugs, often smashing them afterwards. To find out more about Bellarmine jugs and witch bottles, refer to my article published in the September/October 2019 issue of Beachcombing Magazine.
Mudlark Jo Cook found a beautiful sherd of 16th century stoneware depicting two gentlemen (above). In the foreground, a man is depicted with a well-trimmed beard and curly hair under his flat hat. He is wearing traditional 16th century clothes with a tall collar decorated with a crosshatch pattern and radiating folds below. According to historians, the two German men could be from the Schmalkaldic League, which was a military alliance of Lutheran princes within the Holy Roman Empire during the mid-16th century.
One of my personal favorite pottery sherds is from a 16th century German stoneware vessel (above). A stylish gentleman is shown wearing an undulating “ruff” collar, which was popular at this time. He almost looks like William Shakespeare! The stoneware fragment is decorated with German inscriptions above a series of architectural arches. The column supporting the two arches resembles a bunch of bananas. Above the column is a female face with flowing hair descending to her circular breasts.
Westerwald stoneware is another type of salt-glazed pottery which was produced in German towns such as Höhr-Grenzhausen in the area known as the Westerwald. In the River Thames, I have found many broken sherds of beautiful, bluish gray tankards and jugs decorated with vivid cobalt blue and manganese colored glaze in the 16th–17th centuries (above). The raised decoration is exceptionally detailed with undulating floral patterns, circular shapes, curvaceous hearts, cherubs, lions, and other mythical creatures.
In the 17th century, tin-glazed earthenware became very popular in Britain. Delftware production started in Holland and was exported throughout Europe. As demand for Delftware in London increased, several potteries employing Dutch workers were established along the south bank of the River Thames in Montague Close, Pickleherring, Rotherhithe, Norfolk House, and Glasshouse Street. They produced plates, chargers, jugs, tankards, tiles, vases, and apothecary ware. Ornate decoration was painstakingly hand-painted onto the surface of the pottery before it was fired.
Over the years, mudlarks have found hundreds of Delftware sherds painted with vivid blue, green, orange-yellow, red, and purple colors. Mudlark Owen Ooievaar discovered an exceptionally large piece of hand-painted Delftware. In the center of the dish, a cute blue bird is depicted amongst abstract flowers painted with radiating blue lines (above left). A few years ago, I found a fragment of tin-glazed wall tile with a gorgeous flower created with only a few masterful brushstrokes. I like how the edges of the tile have been worn smooth by time and tide (above center).
One of the most unusual and stunning pieces of pottery found in the Thames in recent years is a colorful, lion-headed costrel (above right) found by mudlark Gryff Rees.
It is 11 inches tall and was produced in northern Italy around AD 1600–1650. The vessel has a tapered neck which swells into a spherical-shaped body and a circular base. The handles on either side of the costrel are formed as lions’ heads with open mouths. The costrel has been glazed with a unique red and white bichrome slip, which creates an eye-catching, marbleized effect.
Throughout the ages, pottery has been enormously popular, particularly for its utilitarian uses. Even now, we use different types of fired clay every day in our homes. Stop to think about it: From your morning cup of coffee, to eating a bowl of soup for lunch, to serving dinner on your finest china, we often use various types of pottery without even thinking about it. Even your bathroom sink and toilet are probably made of porcelain (vitreous china) and were shaped in a mold before being fired in a kiln. We also use beautiful ceramic flower vases, pots for plants, sculptural artwork, commemorative plates, and other objects made of pottery to decorate our homes. Glazed ceramic and porcelain tiles are often used on the walls and floors in our kitchens and bathrooms. Earthenware, stoneware, ceramic, and porcelain still play a very important role in our modern lives.
See more beautiful Roman pottery found in London.
Read more articles about Thames mudlarking by Jason Sandy.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2021 issue.