By Jason Sandy
Without the River Thames, London would not exist! At the end of the last Ice Age, the retreating glacial ice cut deep river valleys in the chalk hills, and groups of hunter-gatherers began to visit England, tracking herds of animals along the River Thames. Both the animals and early humans came to the Thames Valley in search of fresh water and food. The Thames provided plenty of natural resources and was used as a vital transportation link.
Because of its important role, the River Thames was highly revered by early inhabitants who considered its waters to be sacred. During the Stone Age, beautifully crafted flint tools were purposely deposited in the river as votive offerings to the river gods. While mudlarking along the Thames in London, Nick Stevens found a stunning Mesolithic adze (hand axe) made of flint (above). It was knapped between 8,300–4,500 BC and used for hunting, cutting, and scraping. Stone tools, like the adze Nick found, attest to the great skill, ingenuity and workmanship of the Stone Age flintknappers. According to the Museum of London, over 400 Stone Age flint axes have been found in the Thames, which were possibly deposited in the river purposely as an act of worship and thanksgiving to the life-giving waters.
Searching in West London along the exposed riverbed at low tide, a mudlark discovered a Neolithic polished stone macehead from 2900–2100 BC, which illustrates an extraordinary fineness and accuracy of craftsmanship (above). Originally from Norway, the stone was carved into a macehead and polished so that the transverse stripes of the natural stone create an ornamental effect. This mace would have been a highly valued object. Weapons were symbols of power and authority, so perhaps they were placed in the river to demonstrate humility, self-sacrifice, and acknowledgement of the power of the river gods.
During the Iron Age (800 BC to the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD), Celtic tribes also deposited valuable, highly decorated offerings in the River Thames. While dredging the Thames riverbed during the construction of Battersea Bridge in 1857, workmen discovered an exquisitely crafted shield decorated with swirling foliage, stylized animals, and inlaid with red glass (above). Called the “Battersea Shield,” this ornate bronze shield was not used in battle, but was produced around 350–50 BC as a status symbol to display the wealth and power of the owner or used for posturing in ceremonies.
Workmen made another extraordinary discovery while dredging the River Thames near Waterloo Bridge in 1868. Decorated with repoussé ornamentation in the La Tène style, a unique Iron Age helmet with horns from around 150–50 BC was pulled from the dense mud of the Thames (above). Although ancient Greek literature describes Celts with horned helmets, this is the only Iron Age helmet with horns ever found in Europe. Iron Age warfare was about posturing and prestige, so this spectacular helmet could have been worn to intimidate enemies or impress onlookers during a ceremony or parade. Discovered in the River Thames, the Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet are two of the best examples of Celtic Art found in Britain and are on permanent display in the British Museum in London.
In Medieval England, pilgrimage was an important part of one’s spiritual life. When pilgrims travelled to a holy shrine, they would buy inexpensive pewter badges as souvenirs to wear on their clothing and hats to show others where they had been on pilgrimage. Over the last 40 years, mudlarks have found a large concentration of pewter pilgrims’ badges near Medieval docks and ferry points where pilgrims arrived back from their religious journeys in the Middle Ages. As the River Thames was considered to be sacred, some historians believe that pilgrims deposited their badges into the river to express their gratitude to God for their safe return to London after completing their pilgrimage to places as far as Rome and Jerusalem.
The majority of pilgrim badges found by mudlarks in the Thames are from Canterbury, which was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Medieval England. Written between AD 1387 and 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous book, The Canterbury Tales, describes a group of pilgrims who exchange stories as they walk from London to Canterbury during a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Many pilgrim badges found in the River Thames represent Becket, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (above) who had fallen out of favor with King Henry II. In AD 1170, four knights associated with King Henry murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and he quickly became a highly respected saint. In 2016, Mudlark Tony Thira found an intricate openwork pilgrim badge from the 14th–16th centuries which depicts the martyrdom of Thomas Becket within an architectural frame surmounted by a cross with trefoil terminals (below). Becket bows his head with his hands folded in prayer as a knight holds his sword ready to slay the Archbishop.
When Saint Thomas Becket was assassinated by the knights, his blood was carefully collected by the monks of Canterbury Cathedral. The blood was diluted with water to make a miraculous potion, which could supposedly cure any illness. According to legend, it could even bring the dead back to life. During their visit to Becket’s shrine, pilgrims bought ampullae containing precious drops of the healing “water of St. Thomas.“
An ampulla is a small, pewter container that was used to carry a small amount of the holy water. A mudlark found a Medieval pilgrim ampulla from Canterbury dating to AD 1220–1420, which was hollow-cast and decorated with bands of triangular patterns (above). On one end, Saint Thomas Becket is enthroned with his right hand lifted in benediction. On the other end, a knight extends his sword towards Becket who kneels and defends himself with his staff. There are suspension loops on both sides of the vessel where a leather strap was secured so that the ampulla could be worn as a pendant around a pilgrim’s neck.
Over the years, hundreds of pilgrims’ badges, bells, and ampullae have been found in the River Thames, which suggests that they were purposely deposited in the water for religious reasons. The Museum of London has the largest collection of Medieval badges in the world, thanks to the generous donations from mudlarks.
Throughout the history of London, the flowing waters of the River Thames have been considered to be sacred. Valuable, ornate objects such as the Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet were deposited as votive offerings to the River Thames by Celtic tribes. Medieval pilgrims purposely placed their pilgrim badges into the Thames possibly as a propitiatory gesture to gain favor or blessings.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
Jason Sandy shares his favorite Thames finds
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2019 issue