Monday, 1 June 2015

Pot Sherds — Our History, in Pieces

Visiting the Thames Foreshore recently has been quite a disappointment. I only ever practise eyes only searching there and in the forty years since I made my first find in the shingle I have never tried any other method. I rarely scrape, never dig, never detect with a machine. And I like it that way or at least I always have...

However, now I'm seriously considering other methods because the place is picked clean. Where years ago I'd go down and pick up thirty or forty items of non-ferrous metal, some of which would be nice finds, occasionally very nice indeed, now I can barely find two or three and only then by really pulling out all the stops and using all the knowledge acquired in my long mudlark career.

The reason is that nowadays mudlarking is a social event. Families do it, friends do it, every bloody bugger does it! Last time I was there I met a group of four young ladies out for a social fossick. Such a gaggle of hens would never have been seen years ago because the foreshore back then was a fearsome place where nobody in their right mind stayed for long. Nobody except people like me, that is. Those who enjoyed the brooding desolation, the frisson of danger, and the fact that the surface was littered with old stuff.

It still is. But I'm afraid it's littered with what old stuff nobody wants. Bricks and rubble and peg tiles, butchered bones and teeth. Those things that remain when all the nice stuff is gone. And by nice I don't mean hammered coins and pilgrims badges, I mean the sherds of pottery that once you could easily fill a carrier bag with are nowadays noticeable by their absence.

They have become a collectible in their own right. You can amass a collection from the Thames covering every period of British history from Neolithic to Modern if you know what to look for. Of course, the majority of sherds are going to be of relatively recent productions and will hail from the period of London's greatest might and power — the Post-Medieval period from 1550 onwards and into the modern era.  But it's all down there. And people know it.

The thing is, nowadays you cannot go and handle old pots without owning them yourself and that means paying a great deal of money for the privilege because even the most quotidian of 18th Century productions are going to cost well over £100 and the choice stuff, the Ralph Wood figures, the Bow porcelain, the salt glaze and the slipware platters are worth many hundreds and often many thousands. They are simply out of the reach of most people, unless that is they find bits of such desirable things on the foreshore, range them in a collector's cabinet. And they can do that because down there such a thing is possible to achieve, and for free.

Actually, there's something romantic about sherds of pots that complete pots do not possess. I know why people like them. They are small pieces of things hard to imagine in their completeness until you know what they are and have seen examples in the one piece. There's a mystery to solve meanwhile between finding one and finding its parent object through study and research. That's a very enjoyable process.

And it's one I want to write about here. So, I've decided to run an occasional series about pot sherds starting with a very interesting one that was missed by the new breed of collector I've encountered lately but was found by myself and in the most public and popular place on the entire foreshore — the South Bank right below Tate Modern.

No comments:

Post a Comment