Festival of British Archaeology 2009: Museum of London's Family Foreshore visit

By Rachel Hayward | 31 July 2009
photo of a young child examining shards of old pottery on the bank of the Thames

Tobias examines his pottery artefacts found on the bank of the Thames. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Photo feature: As part of the Festival of British Archaeology 2009, Culture24’s Learners and Teachers’ Editor Rachel Hayward has an education in London’s past when she takes her family along for an afternoon on the banks of the River Thames.

As a born Londoner I am fiercely proud of my roots but I’m ashamed to say that until yesterday, I had never set foot on the banks of the Thames. So an opportunity to get down beside the river and explore the history of London was too good to miss.

Showing families looking for archaeological finds along the bank of the Thames in London with a bridge in the background

(above) The banks of the River Thames in London yield rich archaeological finds from medieval times to the Victorian period. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

So it was that my sons and I found ourselves kitted up in welly boots and macs (it is the British summer after all) on the north side of the Millennium Bridge that joins Tate Modern to St Paul’s Cathedral to meet up with other would-be mudlarks as part of the Museum of Docklands’ family foreshore visit.

I know the session was billed as joining the Thames Explorer Trust for a guided visit to the Thames foreshore to learn about its archaeological secrets, but I wasn’t prepared for such a thrilling experience.

Showing a boy and his grandfather looking for finds along the bank of the River Thames

Grandfather Nigel and grandson Tobias enjoy looking for 'treasure'. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

I’d expected our group leader, Andy Hawkins from the Thames Explorer Trust, to start off with a potted history of the Thames and then produce some finds with a Blue-Peter style flourish of “Here’s some treasures we found earlier!” Instead, he knelt down, drew a square in the sand and declared, “Right, let’s start here everyone – what can I find for you in this small patch of foreshore?”

Showing a boy proudly holding out some of his finds

John aged 5: "I like treasure!" Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Within minutes we were spellbound as Andy, with help from some very eager younger members of the group, had unearthed Tudor and Victorian pottery and a pipe.

This activity was Andy’s quick and informative introduction to the types of pottery and glass to be found, as well as the odd animal bone and oyster shell (the olden days’ cheap food equivalent of our McDonald's burger today). It was totally hands-on and gave us a flavour of the fun we were going to have for the rest of the session.

Showing a mother and daughter displaying their finds on top of a sheet that explains what periods of history the pottery comes from

(above) Mum Barbie and her daughter JoJo check their finds against a helpful guide-sheet. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

What was so great was that we all realised we too could unearth some discoveries of our own and we were soon spread out along the foreshore in search of that elusive medieval find.

To help us, Andy provided laminated photographic collages of fragments so we could easily date our treasures. Tip: the thicker the pottery the more likely it is to be older – look out for green glaze too as this could signify a Tudor artefact.

The blue bits are most likely Victorian. Andy even had a sheet full of different types of pipe, so you could date any you found.

Showing a mother and daughter holding up their finds in clear plastic sandwich bags

Eight-year-old Mattie and her mum present their multiple finds. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

“Isn’t it wonderful that within minutes you can get kids and grown-ups being able to identify artefacts?” Andy said to James Doeser from the CBA - the Council for British Archaeology - who coordinate the annual Festival.

James too was soon roped in to help with identifying and interpreting the finds. “Events such as this really help to create a buzz about the Festival of British Archaeology,” he commented as children and adults scrambled over rocks and returned with more and more for him and Andy to look at.

Showing two boys examining a knife find

Nemo aged 8 and Arthur aged 6 examine the knife Nemo has discovered. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Barbie and her 11-year-old daughter JoJo summed up the experience as “Brilliant!” Barbie added, “We went along to a dig they did at Shoreditch Park a couple of years ago. We got to help out the archaeologists, washing and identifying stuff. It felt like we were carrying heritage forward.”

Showing the group leader examining a find and explaining it to the families

Leader Andy Hawkins from the Thames Explorer Trust is a fantastic guide to the archaeology of the Thames. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Judith who had come along with her five-year-old son John noted, “I came here as a child and it’s the one thing I’ve always remembered to this day because it was such a great experience.”

Showing a girl and woman holding up their finds and smiling at the camera

13-year-old Frankie, holding a medieval fragment, and Karen, pose with their finds. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Eight-year-old Mattie, who was with her younger brother Arthur and friends Nemo and Loki, described the session as “Really cool! I want to be an archaeologist because I love crystals.” She proudly showed off her cow’s jaw find. Nemo was enthused by the event and was keen to point out that he looked for treasure all the time: “Every single day I come home with something…”

Showing an archaeologist examining finds with families

James Doeser from the Council for British Archaeology lends a helping hand with finds. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

Karen and 13-year-old Frankie were delighted by their finds. “You wouldn’t think there’d be so many things on this beach,” concluded Karen.

Showing a man and a woman who are volunteers smiling at the camera

Museum volunteers Elizabeth Douglass and Noel Haydyn have fun too. Picture © Rachel Hayward / Culture24

If this feature has inspired you, it’s not too late to get involved with the Festival of British Archaeology 2009.

Museum of London Docklands are celebrating a whole summer of archaeology with their Big Dig experience especially for families.

The Big Dig runs until September 6 2009. You can get kitted up with a trowel and hard hat and search for artefacts in your own trench just like a real archaeologist. Experts will be on hand to observe, record, analyse, identify and interpret your finds so you can find out more about the lives of early Londoners.

The Museum of London’s archaeological summer events include drop-in demonstrations and handling sessions, workshops and story sessions.

Festival of British Archaeology events run until Sunday 2 August 2009. Why not visit their website to find out what’s on near you

Finally, don’t forget YAC - the Young Archaeologists’ Club - for when your kids, like mine, get bitten by the archaeological bug.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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