Mudlarking The Mind
Updated: Oct 19
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 chunky brown jumper, this was the 1970s after all. I have a determined look on my face and I remember exactly what I was thinking as my mother fiddled with the camera which was, ‘hurry up, there are very important things I need to get on with!’
What I wanted to get on with, was looking for fragments of broken china in the neighbour's flowerbeds, a pastime I was obsessed with as a child. I could spend hours looking for dumped 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, rummaging at jumble sales and the more prosaic pastime of stamp collecting, but it is the searching for and collecting of pieces of ceramic which is the most curious.
I believe that there is something archaic about searching through mud for lost and discarded objects. Human beings have always done it, it transcends time and culture. My fascination was not learnt behaviour and no one encouraged me to do it. So, is this a case of nature rather than nurture and what does that say about our sense of 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.
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.
In 1892, Freud was living in Vienna, where he had just moved into a new apartment at Berggasse 19, with his young family which included three children under the age of three; there would have been a lot of nappies in the Freud household. At the same time, a new gold standard had been introduced in Austria and with the related economic uncertainty, the hoarding of gold coins had become a national obsession. No wonder then that Freud linked the holding in of faeces with the adult preoccupation of hoarding.
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. In Aztec culture, faeces represents bodily shame, gold was seen as the faeces of the gods, and it was the gods who had the power to transform human bodily matter into something precious, to help them transform and move beyond their embodied sense of shame.
I wonder what Freud and Jung would have made of my infant obsession with searching through mud for ‘treasure’? Maybe my instinctual need as a two-year-old to find fragments of china was an unconscious desire to aggressively hold on to those aspects of myself that I had given up to my mother, whilst trying to make sense of the sense of shame that all small children experience as they realise they are a separate entity.
By the mid 20th Century, psychoanalysis shifted away from sex and aggression as a human motivation to the more scientifically observed focus on attachment. For the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, a child’s attachment to certain objects, such as a blanket or soft toy, or in my case, bits of broken ceramic, was an important developmental step as the child differentiated themselves from their mother.
As the child comes to experience the mother as a separate entity, they experience anxiety about the separation, and in response may cling on to objects that make them feel safe and secure. A 'Freudian' interpretation is that the ‘muteness’ of the object reflects the absence of the parent. As for broken pieces of ceramic, one interpretation might be that the child is trying to fix broken 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 into the mind 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 pieces 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 and on a mission to uncover something hidden in the mud 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. The air is clean and I feel 'grounded'. This is my self-care. The author Lara Maiklem captures this feeling in her beautiful book Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames:
'When I was by the river, I was somewhere else, disconnected from the city and a world away from myself. ... It was where I went to forget about my failing relationship and my unfulfilling jobs, it healed my broken heart. ... Sometimes, just a stolen half-hour was enough. Other times I walked beside it for miles, casting my problems into the retreating tide, telling it my secrets.'
In certain places, the lapping water tinkles with the sound of Victorian glass, massive timber ship beams protrude from the mud like sentinels from the past and at the end of a long day hunting for treasures there is always a pint and a pie at a historic pub such as The Mayflower, The Angel or The Prospect of Whitby to name but a few.
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 recent as 2001, the torso of a boy known as ‘Adam’ was found near Tower Bridge, a possible victim of muti ritual sacrifice.
As a psychotherapist, I am fascinated by what is lost and found. The impact of lost relationships and the need to find our true self are very human preoccupations.
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 found washed up on the pebbles was a faded wedding bouquet, a stiff drink was needed after that one! My mother loved opals, and shortly after her death I found a beautiful opal ring on the foreshore, a once in a lifetime find. It felt significant though of course it was also a coincidence. Freud was interested in this idea of giving meaning to objects from the past and he wrote about the ‘uncanny', an idea that one is ‘haunted’ by the sense of another unconsciousness that lives its own life. Without doubt, story-telling and our ability to make meaning from objects can be healing, it makes us human. Since man's earliest days, sitting around a campfire and telling stories has singled us out from other mammals. For me, psychotherapy is as much about stories as it is about science or even empathy.
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