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Book Review: Mudlark

Genre: Nonfiction/History

Stars: 4-1/4 out of 5

Synopsis from The Storygraph: Long heralded as a city treasure herself, expert “mudlarker” Lara Maiklem is uniquely trained in the art of seeking. Tirelessly trekking across miles of the Thames’ muddy shores, where others only see the detritus of city life, Maiklem unearths evidence of England’s captivating, if sometimes murky, history—with some objects dating back to 43 AD, when London was but an outpost of the Roman Empire. From medieval mail worn by warriors on English battlefields to nineteenth-century glass marbles mass-produced for the nation’s first soda bottles, Maiklem deduces the historical significance of these artifacts with the quirky enthusiasm and sharp-sightedness of a twenty-first century Sherlock Holmes.

Seamlessly interweaving reflections from her own life with meditations on the art of wandering, Maiklem ultimately delivers—for Anglophiles and history lovers alike—a memorable treatise on the objects we leave in our wake, and the stories they can reveal if only we take a moment to look.

This book first hit my radar as a short program of interest on the history-focused HIT History channel. We watched the short 15-minute program but I definitely wanted more so I went searching for this title and ordered it. This book is filled with all of the tidbits I adore about history. Seemingly mundane, long-forgotten objects that tie into a bigger historical story and picture? Yes, please!

Maiklem starts the book at one of the northernmost points of the Thames, and works her way down to the sea, highlighting docks and foreshore areas where she has gone mudlarking, or scouring the river’s edges at low tide for objects revealed by the ebb and flow of the tide and the water levels in the river. As she take the reader along with her, we get to experience the thrill of the hunt – looking for items of historical note – and as she does so, she also does a wonderful job expanding on the long history of the Thames, not only in the better known Tudor and Victorian periods, but back to the Roman occupation and before. She highlights aspects of the maritime trade that has always centered around the river, as well as the history of various people who have lived along the river. She points out changes in the health (and cleanliness) of the river over the years she has been looking for its hidden treasures, and introduces the reader to seabirds, fish, and botanical specimens she finds as well.

I particularly enjoyed the center section of photos that show some of her various finds over the years, from glass that made up wine vessels for trade to bottled beer and medicinals, to clay tiles from Roman roofs and jetty tie-ups from the medieval period, to perfume bottles, to tin and ceramic children’s toys. The breadth and depth of the artifacts and her approachable writing style made each of the stories of this wondrous river come alive for me. A definite recommended read for English history buffs, or anyone interested in the aspects of social history as told through daily-life articles. (And the kind of book that I wish they used for teaching in schools because more students would likely love history if they had this author as a teacher!)

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