Saturday, February 07, 2009

It's all around us, all the time

But in some places it's more concentrated and more interesting: I'm talking about trash generated by human beings.

The Medieval Material Culture Blog here reprints an article from the Times Online, which talks about one of the more interesting and accessible sources of historical trash, the Thames estuary in England. I have lots of friends who own medieval artifacts that were recovered from this area. Says the journalist, :

When the tide is low and the weather fine, I sometimes walk the dog on the London Thames foreshore. After a good many years I am still amazed at what you come across if you train yourself to see what you are looking at.

Naturally there are broken pub glasses, plastic bags, bottles and buckets, disposable cigarette lighters, condoms, all the detritus of a string of nights before, but the leavings of the past are often strewn even more thickly. There are the half-decomposed, near-petrified, balks of timber going back to Neolithic times, the remains of barge-beds, medieval bricks, tiles and fragments of glass; rings and medals, pins and nails from many centuries; clay pipes and, more rarely, clay wig-curlers, bones, masses of ceramic shards, shoals of Victorian oyster and mussel shells; and strange fragments of marine equipment, hanks of unravelling rope — even the skeleton of a boat left to moulder a couple of hundred years ago.

Once, on the pebbly strand between Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges, where the Millennium Bridge is now, I interviewed Mike Webber, the archaeologist who headed the Museum of London’s 1998 survey of the tidal Thames foreshore. I thought I knew that stretch, and could guess what might turn up on it, but I was proved utterly wrong when he casually bent down and handed me a short, curved object.

“Have a walrus tusk,” he said. “Look, there,” he continued. “A waster. That’s a London delft floor tile, where the glaze spoiled in the kiln, so they chucked it away. Probably from the Bear Lane pottery over there.

“That pottery ring is the mouth of a sugar mould, like a rhubarb forcer for making sugar loaves. Look, there’s the base. Perhaps there was a sugar wharf here …”

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