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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

Mudlarking The Mind

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

One of my earliest memories is of being photographed as a 2-year-old. It was a blustery day, and I was standing in a neighbour’s garden, wearing a hand-knitted brown jumper, this was the 1970s after all. I had a determined look on my face, and as my mother fiddled with the camera, I remember thinking, ‘hurry up, there are important things I need to get on with!’

What I had been doing was looking for fragments of broken china in the flowerbeds, a pastime I was obsessed with as a child. I could spend hours rooting around for domestic relics, and even as a two-year-old I knew the difference between a common piece of Victorian blue and white transferware and something more unique and special.

Later on, this preoccupation would extend to fossil hunting, and rummaging at jumble sales, but it is the searching for and collecting of pieces of ceramic which is the most curious.

Human beings have always searched through mud for worthless bits and pieces. Roman graves contain collections of even more ancient found things. My sense is that this connects us to our ancestors in a particularly viseral way; the shard of china I hold in my hand has a story. That story is waiting to be told. My fascination with all of this was not learnt behaviour and no one encouraged me to do it. So, is this a case of nature rather than nurture; an archaic need to connect to our past? And what does that say about being human?

Classical psychoanalysis has tried to make sense of this, and it is no surprise that some Freudians interpret a child’s interest in mud as an example of the complicated relationship humans have with their own bodies which produce ‘dirt’. I am going to explore some of these Freudian interpretations here, they are great fun, and shed light on the history of psychoanalysis, but do take them with as large a pinch of salt as you see fit.

The word 'mud' may be derived from the old German word ‘mudde’, which means 'mother', and it is the role of the mother that Freud focuses on in his theory of psychosexual development.

Sigmund Freud postulated that during potty training, a child may resist giving up their faeces to their mother, preferring to hold it in, a sensation which turns out to be surprisingly pleasurable. According to Freud, this compensation for libidinal frustration can lead to ‘self-controlling’, pedantic or stingy behaviour in later life.

We can make a guess at why Freud was preoccupied this theory. In 1891, the Freuds had three children under the age of five. Four years later there would be three more babies. There were a lot of nappies happening in Berggasse 19. At the same time, a new Austrian gold standard had been introduced, and with the ensuing economic uncertainty, the hoarding of gold coins had become a national obsession.

Freud's protégé Carl Jung, took a slightly different perspective from Freud’s gold/shit analogy. He proposed that a child’s obsession with faeces represents the alchemical idea of turning base metal into gold, a metaphor for the journey of self-discovery and personal transformation.

By the mid 20th Century, psychoanalysis had shifted away from sex and aggression as a human motivation to the more scientifically observed focus on attachment. The British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, argued that as an infant begins to experience the mother as a separate entity, they may become anxious about the separation, and in response may cling on to objects that make them feel safe and secure. For me, a cardboard 'museum' of lost and found things was my safe space.

Of course there is a 'Freudian' interpretation to all of this, that the ‘muteness’ of the object reflects the absence of the parent. As for broken pieces of ceramic, another Freudian interpretation might be that the child is trying to fix broken attachment or emotional unavailability.

Freud called psychotherapy ‘the archaeology of the mind’ and his own collection of more than 2,500 ancient archeological knicknacks, which can still be seen at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, reflects his prodigious curiosity.

These days, the image of the psychotherapist digging through the unconscious to uncover hidden experiences is perhaps a little cliched, as the writer and clinical psychologist Frank Tallis explains:

‘... dark discoveries are made by the excavation of unconscious memories and the mystery is finally solved ... all the pieces of the complex puzzle fit neatly together and the patient is restored to perfect health. Exit hero therapist - cue music and titles.’

The reality of psychotherapy is that it is more like finding a broken Victorian clay pipe in an undisturbed Neolithic tomb. Nothing is straightforward, it is certainly not linear, and the goal is not the obvious solution.

It was a clay pipe that I found as I wandered down to the Thames foreshore in Greenwich five years ago. I had never seen a pipe shaped like this before, it had a small bowl which I later found out meant it was manufactured during Shakespeare’s time. There scattered amongst the mud and pebbles at low tide was a veritable treasure trove of lost and discarded bits of history: beautiful hand-made iron nails from 18th century galleons, vulcanite stoppers, a glass marble from a Cobb bottle, fragments of Delft pottery.

My two-year-old self was reanimated, I was on a mission, and my poor partner had to give up on our walk and sunbathe, whilst I continued my search for more treasures.

This began an obsession with the River Thames and mudlarking. Thames mud is anaerobic, which means it has unique properties that preserve objects found in it. Metal for example, often comes out glistening. One time, I was sure I’d found a gold Tudor earring, but it turned out to be a bent pin.

A mudlark is someone who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour, and whilst this conjures up images of Victorian urchins waist deep in filth and detritus, these days children are not encouraged to go onto the foreshore without supervision and protective clothing. However my inner child continues to be inspired, come rain, snow or blistering sunshine.

To go mudlarking, you need a permit and you must follow strict rules concerning digging. Whilst most finds have no monetary value, archeological finds have to be reported. Of course, the river's 'trinket box', as the eminent archeologist Ivor Noel Hume described it, has been well foraged. After the Second World War, mudlarking became all the rage and according to Hume, Londoners descended on the river 'en masse'. Today mudlarkers wait patiently for the tides to draw out fragments and curios from the mud. I believe this is the right way to do it. Whilst some like myself mudlark ‘by eyes only’, others ‘scrape the ground’, and then there are the metal detectorists, some of whom end up digging huge pits which destabilize the foreshore, causing erosion and are therefore are not considered mudlarkers, rather they are more of an environmental menace.

Standing on the foreshore at low tide is a magical experience. The horizon looms large and London feels ancient and mysterious. In certain spots, the lapping water tinkles with the sound of Victorian glass and massive timber ship beams protrude from the mud like sentinels from the past.

The origins of the River Thames go back 170million years to the Jurassic period. In pre-Celtic times, it was known as Tame or Teme, which means ‘darkness’, in the sense of something holy and mysterious.

The Thames spiritual associations are pre-Christian. The idea of Old Father Thames may come from the Greek river god Achelous, whereas the water downstream in Oxford is known as the Isis, named after the ancient Mother goddess. It has been suggested that a temple of Isis was located where Southwark Cathedral is today. It is this life force of divine masculine and divine feminine which I believe makes the Thames so compelling.

As with many ancient gods, the waters can be benevolent or wrathful. The tides give and take. People who use the river need to treat it with respect and those that don’t should be warned. Votive objects associated with ancient rituals still end up in the Thames and during festivals such as Diwali and Krishna Janmashtami offerings and statues of deities can be found washed up on the foreshore.

On a more sinister note, the Thames has been used for human sacrifice. Even as recently as 2001, a mutilated body of a child was found near Tower Bridge, a likely victim of muti ritual sacrifice.

As a psychotherapist, I am fascinated by what is lost and found, the things we mourn and what we yearn for. For me, found objects have a special symbolism. I once went down to the foreshore with a friend who was going through an unpleasant divorce, and the first thing we came across washed up on the pebbles was a faded wedding bouquet.

Freud would have had something to say about that, he was fascinated by how random objects from the past 'haunt us', it's almost like they have their own story to tell. If we stay open to this, they can help us make sense of our own.

Further Reading:

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem

Digging Deeper in the Archeological Psyche by Ewan Campbell and Rob Leiper

The Secret Lore of London edited by John Matthews and Caroline Wise

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