Glass eyes, medieval combs and human skulls – how mudlarking helped me cope with life

But there is plenty to be found where we are. ‘This is a piece of the palace; this is from a window,’ Maiklem says, bending down next to a chunk of pale masonry. Her hands sweep across the pebbles, plucking items out of the gloop that, to me, are hardly visible. ‘This is a piece of 16th or 17th century German stoneware, so that would have been used in the palace. There are bones, there are oyster shells. That’s a Tudor brick, you can tell by how thin it is. This is where you find little things stuck to the surface, like pins and buttons.’ The river’s natural panning action sorts its bounty.

Maiklem recently found a human skull on the Thames Estuary (mudlarks are competitive and notoriously cagey about where exactly they have struck lucky). She believes it belonged to one of the inmates from the prison hulks that were moored along the estuary during the late 18th century.

‘It’s not a modern skull, you can tell it’s been in there for ages. Other bits of him were lying all over the place. We gathered up all the bones we could find and buried them in a shallow grave, marked it, took a GPS, and then the police went and dug it up.’ She was swabbed for DNA to eliminate her from investigations.

The estuary dungeons were often used as holding pens for prisoners before transportation to the colonies. During the research for her book, Maiklem discovered that one of her own ancestors had been held in them in the early 19th century before a stretch of hard labour in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Paola A Magni, a forensic science lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth, read about the skull on Facebook and got in contact. ‘She is, get this, a specialist in barnacle colonisation of human remains, so she’s over the moon about this,’ Maiklem says. ‘I’m trying to get the coroner to hand it over. But you know what they’re like: “Ah, computer says no.”’

Bending down, she extracts a miniscule aglet – possibly the lace-end to a bodice – from the reluctant ground, which has the consistency of cake mix. Has Thames mud changed over the centuries?

‘I don’t think so,’ she says, prodding the gunk with her finger. ‘Think about what it’s made up of; it’s made of poo.’

Maiklem grew up on a dairy farm in Surrey during the 1970s and ’80s. It was a solitary childhood – she had much older brothers – which forged a fondness for daydreaming and foraging (she would hoard sun-dried snakeskins, birds’ eggs and bottle stoppers). Things progressed fast.

‘I was 10 years old when I found my first human bone,’ she writes in Mudlarking. While picnicking with her mother in the churchyard of Southwark Cathedral, Maiklem found part of a skeleton among the roses. It was, she recalls in the book, ‘a perfect end to a perfect day’.

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