The river likes to be tidy; she deposits things of a similar weight together. If you can see nails and old bits of metal, there may be coins or jewelry, too.” I asked endless questions, and our guide answered them all with limitless patience. “Yes, the fouled anchor on that button means that it fell from the jacket of a naval man,” and, “Yes, Kate, that does look like a huge uncut emerald, but it’s actually a lump of broken glass,” and, “Kate, I’m afraid that chunk of painted stone is unlikely to be from a Tudor palace. I may be wrong, but it looks to me as if a child has daubed it with paint and thrown it in the river. Maybe three months ago. Sometimes schools do things like that.” That man had the patience of a saint, and without further ado, I was hooked on mudlarking I got my three-year Thames Foreshore Permit, and although I don’t live particularly close to London, I went there whenever I could, eventually “getting my eye in” as mudlarks call the ability to spot the things that lay camou- flaged on the foreshore. I found the odd, inter- esting piece, and a host of marbles in the mud of the estuary village where I was living, but nothing that would make an attention-grabbing headline for one of the many mudlarking groups on social media. I didn’t care. The pins, pottery and pipe stems were all treasure to me-little pieces of history that seemed to dissolve the gap between past and present. To touch a fist-sized piece of Roman mosaic floor just revealed by the tide, to know that the person who stuck those tesserae haphazardly into the knobbly cement had lived two thousand years ago, is to throw open the doors of time. I imagine the mosaic maker, a short man, clean shaven as Romans and Roman acolytes liked to be, hurriedly poking the little squares of white marble into place. Maybe it had been the end of his day and he wanted to get home.
Maybe he was daydreaming of Rome and wondering if he would ever get to see it for himself. Maybe he had backache from bending over all day. For two millennia, while kings and queens reigned and fell, while London burned and plague raged. that man’s handiwork waited to be found. And I was the one who picked it up-the first person to touch it for years too numerous to count. The thought takes my breath away.