I recently happened upon a fascinating article in Britain's Daily Mail detailing the story of a trench shelter buried during the First World War and only recently rediscovered during road construction in France. Buried by a shell blast in 1918, the trench contained the remains of some 21 German soldiers, many still in relaxed poses, as well as their guns, boots, equipment, and personal mementos. The site was compared to a latter-day Pompeii in its near-perfect state of preservation.
Images of a recently-discovered WWI German trench.
While this trench is an unusually rich and intact archaeological site, such discoveries are not uncommon. In fact, when you start looking, there is evidence of human activity buried nearly everywhere we've been. Ivor Noël Hume the dean of historical archaeological, called rivers "the storehouses of the past's unwanted treasures" in his own rumination on collecting, All the Best Rubbish. Just today, cleaning up along our creek, I found bits of nineteenth-century ceramics and bricks mixed alongside the plastic bags and styrofoam that had become snagged along the course of the stream. In our driveway, a mysterious clutch of early red-colored earthenwares, oyster shells, burnt bone, a spike nail, and other detritus suggests the subterranean footprint of some long-gone outbuilding.
Despite years of archaeological work, my most moving confrontation with old garbage, "the past's unwanted treasures," came not while carefully digging through soil layers in an 1864 Confederate POW latrine or while screening sand removed from a 1770s French trader's home, but in the most unassuming of places, the mucky shore of the River Thames in London. During a trip in early 2010, I followed the few rumors then available online about the possibility of finding a pipe stem or two along the banks of the river at low tide. Used as a common garbage receptacle as long as humans have lived on its banks, the Thames is now a virtual time capsule of man's material life. In fact, as I would find out later, its relics have contributed much to the study of the past. Much of what we know about medieval children, for instance, has been gleaned from the toys found in the Thames. Just recently, a Roman brothel token dating to the first century AD (the first ever discovered in England) made waves for it's risqué rarity.
I was unaware of most of this, however, and completely unprepared for what awaited me in the mud. After some difficulty in finding a place to get down to the water's edge, I stepped off a few wooden steps onto a pebbly bank beside the dark river under the shadow of Tower Bridge. Almost immediately, a small white clay pipe stem appeared at my feet. I was ecstatic. Over the next hour, I gathered up sherds of pottery, bits of pipes, and rusty pieces of metal. The most astounding part was the sheer amount of detritus. Squatting among the mud and rocks, there would often be several objects from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries within reach (and surprisingly little modern trash for such an urban river).
Thames artifacts, February 2010
I came back from England with a large bag of broken old garbage in my luggage, happy that no one in customs had gotten curious about the peculiar shapes that must have shown up on their x-rays. I found out later that my little treasures paled in comparison to some Thames finds. For a few examples (not to mention a fascinatingly deviant take on web asthetics) check out this site (and the "website 2" link at the upper right).
I still have a few ethical qualms occasionally about my little collection and mudlarking (the term for hunting relics along the Thames) in general. After all, I spent several years immersied in an archaeological community that discourages any removal of artifacts from their original context in less-than-scientific ways. But we live in the real world, where French entrenchments get proper care and most garbage doesn't. The Thames will never be excavated in a scientific sense; in any case, the context of its contents can't tell us anything more than the objects themselves because it has been so disturbed by decades, centuries, millennia, of river movement. London's mudlarks also work with the museums of the city, and important discoveries become public property; this is significantly progressive compared to the United States, where just about anyone with a metal detector and a shovel can keep almost anything they find on private land.
And besides, when many archaeological digs are conducted one step ahead of a bulldozer, their artifacts resigned to storage boxes in the back of some warehouse, and their interpretive potential compiled into equally dusty volumes of technical reports, it is difficult to argue that many artifacts aren't much better served, and of much better service, in the hands of people who will treasure them. Last summer, when I taught an archaeological field school, I used my own Thames relics in a lesson to teach my students about the importance of context and how to identify different types of artifacts. Sometimes the potential of the past's unwanted treasures is best fulfilled beyond the realms of science and academia, where they inspire us to imagine the past in vivid new ways. And after all, that's what it's all about. Mudlarks and archaeologists, curators and collectors, we're just trying to recapture forgotten memories.