Steve Brooker, 6 ft. 5 in. former professional skateboarder, sub-3-hr.-marathon runner, survivor of multiple strokes and the self-appointed tutelary spirit of the Thames, thinks he has found something. To me it looks like mud, but I'm not in a position to argue. Brooker, 48, is a member of the Mudlarks, a society of amateur archaeologists who are licensed by the Port of London Authority to scavenge the banks of the Thames for historical artifacts. Because of Brooker's oversize frame, his talent for major discoveries and his overall awesomeness, he is known by admirers as the Mud God.
Brooker rubs a big blackened thumb over the clod of dirt in his hand, and a coin appears minted, it turns out, sometime from 1625 to 1649. "That's a Charles I rose farthing," he explains, pointing to the vague outline of a royal crest. On the open market, it's not worth much maybe $60 but "to a mudlark, your first Charles I should be priceless." He tosses it into the bucket with the rest of our haul for the morning, which includes several Tudor hairpins, Victorian clay pipes and a 17th century ferry token.
Britain is crawling with so-called metal detectorists, who make a hobby and often an obsession out of unearthing treasure from the country's rich past. Occasionally they strike gold, like Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old Staffordshire man who, it was announced Sept. 24, discovered more than 11 lb. of Anglo-Saxon gold on a farm north of Birmingham. But mudlarks, who consider themselves élite archaeologists, tend to view treasure seekers with disdain. While anyone can obtain a permit to search the five or so miles of the river's southern foreshore between Westminster and Wapping, the 51 licensed mudlarks are the only people allowed to excavate the historically rich north side of the river, which since A.D. 50 has provided docking points for Roman, Saxon, Viking and Norman occupiers and, more recently, for British trade boats and royal ships. (The south bank, Shakespeare's side, is notable for its abundance of brothel paraphernalia.)
Mudlarks follow a strict code of conduct. All objects more than 300 years old are taken to the Museum of London to be logged. Thames mud is particularly dense, and its anaerobic environment aids preservation. Curator Kate Sumnall says the museum receives about 500 objects of historical significance a year from mudlarks. Past discoveries include medieval pottery, 16th century oil pots, pewter badges worn by pilgrims returning from Canterbury Cathedral, decorative mounts from Viking chests and Hindu lamps from circa 1895 the year the Thames was sanctified as a substitute for the Ganges as a place for the devout to leave offerings during Diwali. In August, Brooker made global headlines by unearthing a 17th century ball and chain minus the leg it had once encased belonging to an escaped or drowned prisoner.
This being Britain, mudlarks follow protocol from a higher power. Codifying a centuries-old tradition, the Treasure Act of 1996 dictates that any object dating from before 1709 and containing more than 10% gold or silver belongs to the Queen, although the finder and the landowner must be compensated. (The Staffordshire gold has been tentatively valued at more than $1.6 million.) But mudlarks are more interested in connections to history than they are in bounty, Brooker emphasizes. Objects with emblems, seals and signatures are the most prized because they identify their former owner. "Everybody should have someone to remember them," he says.
Memories are especially important to Brooker. Three years ago, while buying a history book at a shop in Kent, he looked down and found that he was unable to count the money in his hand. Tests revealed that a congenital heart defect had caused a series of ministrokes. Talking to his wife, he realized that large portions of his memory were gone forever. He has had surgery and feels better about things now. And on the days when the tide is out, you can find him on the foreshore of the Thames, down on his knees, his large hands digging through the muck for mementos of the past.