Objects in focus
Dirty old river: secrets of the Thames

The Thames has long been important as both a natural boundary and major route of travel and communication – it has often been described as the ‘longest archaeological site’ in the world!

A satire on the cleanliness of the River Thames by William Heath (1794–1840). Monster soup commonly called Thames water, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!!! Hand-coloured etching, c. 1828.

The British Museum has over 2,000 objects in its collection that have been found in the Thames. Some of them predate the city’s foundation, and they can tell us fascinating stories about London’s history. Most were recovered during the 19th and early 20th century, often found by workmen in the course of dredging and the building of bridges and locks, so we do not always know their exact findspots or circumstances of recovery.

Here are eight intriguing objects, dating from the Neolithic period to Tudor times – that’s nearly 5,000 years of throwing (or losing) things in the river!

1. A Neolithic polished macehead

Perforated stone polished macehead (centre), 3300–2300 BC.

Humans have lived along the Thames since the earliest periods of prehistory, with the archaeological record stretching back to first human settlement of the British Isles. Long before London was built, we find scatters of artefacts along the edge of the river suggesting that people were living there. By the Neolithic (4000–2200 BC), we start to see specially produced prestige objects, such as this polished stone macehead, found in the Thames near Twickenham, and made out of precious materials. Research suggests that while maces may have been used as weapons, it is most likely that they are ceremonial and possibly symbols of power because of the effort and skill required to make them. Their discovery may represent the beginning of a long history of deliberately depositing precious objects in the river, possibly as ritualistic offerings.

2. A bronze sword

Leaf-shaped, bronze (copper-alloy) sword dated to the Late Bronze Age. On display in Room 1.

During the Bronze Age (2200–800 BC) and the Iron Age (800 BC–AD 43), the River Thames was a popular place to make offerings and sacrifices, especially along the stretch from Battersea to Waterloo. This may have been the site of crossing points across the powerful and turbulent river, or perhaps a sacred place, or an important political boundary – maybe all of these things. The remains of ancient human skulls have also been found in the river. Perhaps the weapons and other objects accompanied the watery burial of the dead, or were spoils of war being dedicated to the gods by victorious warriors. Casting these beautiful and important objects into the water may even have simply been a display of wealth and power – we don’t know for sure.

3. The Battersea shield

The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. On display in Room 50.

This magnificent shield was found in the River Thames in 1857, where Battersea Bridge stands today. It dates to the Iron Age, between 350 and 50 BC. The Battersea shield is not actually a complete shield, but only the facing – a metal cover that was attached to the front of wooden shield. The shield does not show signs of damage in combat, but this does not necessarily mean that it was not used in warfare. Flamboyant display seems to have been an important part of Iron Age battles, and both weapons and armour are often highly decorative. This decoration is sometimes hidden. Even the handle of this shield was very ornate. Perhaps the swirling designs were believed to hold magical or protective properties which empowered warriors. The highly polished bronze and glinting red glass on the shield would certainly have made for a great spectacle. Ultimately, though, it was thrown or placed in the River Thames, where many weapons were offered as sacrifices in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

4. The Waterloo helmet

Waterloo helmet. Iron Age, c. 250–50 BC. On display in Room 50.

Found in 1868 while dredging near Waterloo Bridge, this is the only Iron Age helmet to have ever been found in southern England, and the only Iron Age helmet with horns ever to have been found anywhere in Europe. It is unlikely to have been used in battle and was probably a form of ceremonial headdress. Being made from thin bronze sheets it would have been too fragile for use in battle. It has elaborate decoration (La Tène style) used in Britain between 250 and 50 BC. Originally, the bronze helmet would have been a shining polished bronze colour, not the dull green colour it is today. It was also once decorated with studs of bright red glass, like the Battersea shield.

5. A bust of Hadrian

In AD 43, the Roman’s established the first major town along the Thames – Londinium. This was a major port and had an important river crossing along a narrow section of the Thames, near where the modern London Bridge is located. Many remains from the Roman town can still be under the modern City of London. Dating from the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 117–138), this head from a large statue of the emperor was dredged up from the bed of the Thames at the site of old London Bridge in 1834. It is very likely that the findspot is close to the statue’s original location in a central area of Londinium. The statue probably stood in a public space such as a forum, and may have been put up to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD 122. There are many known marble statues of him, but this bronze example is a rare survival.

6. A Viking sword

Double-edged Viking sword. 10th century AD.

There are also plenty of early medieval finds from the Thames, including Anglo-Saxon and Viking weapons. The Vikings raided London multiple times in the 9th and 10th centuries in their bids to gain control of England (there’s even a theory that the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down is about a Viking raid!). However it’s not entirely clear why these weapons are there – were these ritual and deliberate deposits or losses during transit or in battle? This particular sword was likely found in the river, and is now on display in Room 41.

7. A pilgrim badge

Medieval pilgrim badge. 14th–15th centuries.

London was the starting point for the most significant pilgrimage route in medieval England, to St Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. The route followed the old Roman road Watling Street across London Bridge to its first stop in Southwark, where pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn (famously the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). In the Middle Ages, the Church encouraged people to make pilgrimages to holy shrines as it was believed that by making this arduous journey on foot your sins would be forgiven. Becket’s tomb became the most popular shrine in England. People would wear pilgrim badges to mark their journey and would often acquire them as tokens or souvenirs along the route. Thousands of pilgrimage badges have been recovered from the Thames, many from around London Bridge, including this one. The three fishes may represent the Holy Trinity or the lombardic ‘M’, a symbol for the Virgin Mary. It is debated if these badges were simply lost in travel, or deposited into the river for good luck after returning from pilgrimage.

8. A Tudor toy

Pewter doll. Late 16th century.

Over the years, many tears must have been shed by children over their beloved toys, which suddenly fell out of their grasp and over a bridge or wall with no possibility of rescue. This doll, found at Bull Wharf in London, takes us close to her original owner, a small girl in late Tudor London. The doll is a rare find. Cast in lead alloy, it is almost complete. Her dress is so exactly detailed that she can be dated to the late 1500s. She wears a heart-shaped hood, a fitted bodice which is laced at the back and a full skirt, which opens at the front to reveal an underskirt. We know very little about who made these hollow-cast dolls, but we think they were sold at city fairs such as St Bartholomew’s Fair at Smithfield in London.

The water of the Thames has preserved these objects for us to rediscover and display today. What secrets will the river give up to future generations? Whatever they may be, they will provide a fascinating glimpse into London’s ongoing history.