Mudlarking: Iron Age to Tudor Jewelry

By Jason Sandy

udor gold ornaments (Portable Antiquities Scheme, collage by Nick Stevens)

Since prehistoric times, men and women have adorned themselves with jewelry. These precious objects were worn, not only to enhance their personal appearance, but to display their social status and wealth. Jewelry was also used for ostentatious display, demonstrating power and authority. For instance, large gold torcs, solid neck rings, were worn by great Celtic warriors during battle and various rituals in the Iron Age. Anglo-Saxon rulers were often ceremoniously buried with invaluable pieces of their jewelry made of gold and precious gemstones, as illustrated by the Sutton Hoo burial in England. In the River Thames in London, mudlarks have found some exquisite pieces of jewelry, from the Iron Age to Modern times, which reveal fascinating insights about the people who once wore them.

Celtic La Tène I style brooch (Portable Antiquities Scheme). Roman lion brooch (Portable Antiquities Scheme). Roman boat brooch (Portable Antiquities Scheme). Roman Hod Hill brooch (Portable Antiquities Scheme).

Many different types of Celtic jewelry, such as brooches, beads, and decorative pins, have been discovered in the Thames. A mudlark unearthed a beautiful bow brooch in the La Tène I style, dating to 400-200 BC. That’s more than 2,200 years old! Decorated with incised lines, the bronze brooch was formed into a deep C-shaped bow with coiled springs. Using a pin and catch plate, it would have been used to secure an outer garment over an undergarment. The decorated brooch would have been located in a prominent position to be highly visible and attract attention.

Personal appearance was very important to the Romans living in Londinium. From archaeological evidence, we know that women wore make-up and beautiful jewelry such as necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and finger rings. One of the nicest Roman zoomorphic brooches found by a mudlark is in the shape of a lion, dating to the 2nd century AD. The lion’s mane is formed with engraved, wavy lines, and its tail is curled as it walks with all four legs on the ground. Astonishingly, the brooch is complete and still “fit for purpose.”

Mudlark Jason Davey found a unique Roman brooch, which is the only one of its type found in the United Kingdom. It is a bronze plate brooch from AD 43-410. Cast in the form of a stylized boat, it has a curving prow and representation of oars or an anchor. On the reverse, the pin is fixed between twin lugs and a catch plate.

A complete Roman “Hod Hill” brooch was also found by a mudlark on the Thames foreshore. Dating to AD 43-70, the brooch is curved with decorative fluting, ridges, and two lugs projecting from the middle of the bow. The delicate, hinged pin is still intact, and the brooch can still be worn as originally intended nearly 2,000 years ago.

Roman dolphin brooch (Judy Hazell).  Medieval annular brooch (Portable Antiquities Scheme). 15th century annular brooch with scripture verse (Portable Antiquities Scheme). Anglo-Saxon zoomorphic ring (Victoria & Albert Museum).

In January 2020, mudlark Judy Hazell discovered a stunning Roman dolphin brooch nestled between some rocks on the riverbed. It’s simply amazing that ancient Roman artifacts are still being unearthed, even this year! Dating to the 1st century AD, this brooch has been shaped into a beautiful arch, like a dolphin jumping out of the sea. The spine of the brooch is decorated with two parallel lines, which accentuate the graceful form, and wings project from the top of the brooch where the pin would have been attached.

To display their wealth and social status, Anglo-Saxons wore exquisite pieces of jewelry, including brooches and finger rings. Recovered from the Thames in 1856, the famous “Chelsea ring” is a superb example of Anglo-Saxon zoomorphic art. It depicts a mythical dragon whose tongue and tail are interwoven and surrounded by the heads of four monsters. The silver ring was made in England around 775-850 AD and is now on permanent display in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Brooches were also a popular fashion accessory in medieval England. Mudlarks have found a wide variety of decorated medieval brooches, but circular brooches are the most common. One of the most extraordinary annular brooches found by a mudlark is made of pure silver and dates to the 13th–14th centuries. The circular frame is decoratively cast with a double twisted pattern comprised of a solid strand and a pelleted strand, which repeat around one side of the brooch. Where the pin is fixed to the frame, pellets within stamped circles adorn the pin.

In the Middle Ages, religion played an important part of everyday life. A 15th century brooch found by a mudlark has been engraved with the opening verse from Psalm 6 and Psalm 38. The scripture written in Latin says, “O Lord, do not rebuke me in thine anger.” This annular brooch would have been fixed to a garment so that the message was clearly visible to the onlooker.

Near the site where the former Tudor Palace of Placentia once stood along the River Thames in Greenwich (London), numerous highly decorated, gold artifacts have been found by several mudlarks including Tony Thira, Mike Walker, Oliver Clark, and Steve Brooker. Dating to the 16th century, many of the tiny gold pieces are decorated with filigree and twisted wire to form creative designs, as seen at the top of this post and below.

16th century painting of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, with detail of pairs of gold aglets sewn into fabric of Tudor garment (Jason Sandy). Tudor gold aglet on the Thames foreshore (Tony Thira).

In the 16th century, gold ornamental pieces were sewn onto expensive fabrics. Portraits painted in the 16th century illustrate Tudor aristocracy with gold aglets, beads, flowers, stars, and studs fixed to their sleeves, hats, and gowns to showcase their wealth and social status. When I visited Arundel Castle in England, I saw a 16th-century painting of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-1572), with pairs of gold aglets fixed to his luxurious garment. The decorative aglets look similar to those found by mudlarks in the Thames.

Built in 1443, the Palace of Placentia was the birthplace of King Henry VIII and his famous daughters, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary I, nicknamed “Bloody Mary.” The gold pieces found in the Thames could have been accidentally lost in the river as wealthy royals and aristocrats were getting in and out of boats on their way to the palace. The gold pieces might have been attached to fabulous Tudor garments or hats which could have fallen into the Thames. Over the centuries, the fabric disintegrated, but the precious gold pieces have been perfectly preserved by the Thames mud. Although we will never know the exact circumstances of their loss, the delicate gold objects provide a fascinating insight into Tudor fashion and the incredible craftsmanship of the Tudor goldsmiths.

16th-century merchant’s ring found by John Higgenbotham (Nick Stevens).

As its international trade network expanded during the 16th century, Britain developed superiority in commerce, trade, and industry. As well as importing goods, British products and resources were exported throughout the world. The lucrative trade business was controlled by powerful merchants based in London. They often used personalized rings to authorize and seal trade documents. Several mudlarks have recovered 16th-century merchant rings from the River Thames. Dating to 1450-1550 AD, Malcolm Russell discovered a brass ring with a rectangular bezel and faceted corners, incised with the letters “R D” surmounted by a crown or coronet. After hours of research, Malcolm found the names of six merchants with the same initials who lived near the location where he found the ring.

Brass merchant’s ring (Portable Antiquities Scheme). Gold signet ring with rabbit and dogs (Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Mudlark Alan Suttie also discovered a similar merchant’s ring dated to the 16th century. The interwoven letters “I S” are engraved on the bezel, and the ring band has been shaped to appear like a twisted rope.

An exquisite, gold signet ring dated to the 16th or early 17th century was found by mudlark Steven Camp. Within a square-topped shield surmounted by the initials “T G” the bezel has been finely engraved with two hounds chasing a hare or rabbit. Made by a London goldsmith, this ring may have been owned by a wealthy merchant or businessman.

Tudor heart-shaped brooch (Portable Antiquities Scheme). Above: Tudor love token from a Elizabeth I sixpence dated 1580 (Jason Sandy)

The Tudors were hopeless romantics—just look at Henry VIII and his six wives! One of the greatest love stories of all time, Romeo and Juliet, was written by William Shakespeare between 1591–1595. Several heart-shaped brooches from the 16th century have been found in the River Thames. One of the brooches has been cast with molded decoration across the surface of the heart. A patriotic rose or flaming sacred heart is depicted at the top of the brooch. The original pin must have broken off and was replaced with a piece of crude wire so that the brooch could still be worn.

Centuries ago, silver sixpence coins were sometimes bent into an “S” shape to form a “love token.” In 2019, I found a silver hammered Elizabeth I sixpence coin dated 1580, which was bent into a love token. Coincidentally, I discovered this Tudor love token near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, where I took my wife to watch Romeo and Juliet on our wedding anniversary a few years ago. If a gentleman wished to court a lady, he would sometimes make a love token and give it to her to demonstrate his affection. If the love was reciprocal, the woman would keep the love token. Some of these Tudor love tokens were pierced with a hole, suspended from a necklace, and worn as evidence of their relationship. If she was not interested in the gentleman caller, she would return or discard his token. The valuable silver love token I found in the Thames could have been purposely thrown into the river in frustration after the relationship ended.

From the Iron Age to Tudor period, jewelry was worn as a status symbol and a display of one’s wealth. The exquisite brooches, finger rings, aglets, and ornate pieces made of gold give us a unique glimpse into the culture and fashions of each time period. The beautiful, delicate works of art illustrate the skillful craftsmanship and creative imagination of the jewelry makers over the centuries.

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.

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