Tag Archives: history

Mudlarks and History on the Thames

Mudlark Matthew Goode poses for a portrait on the bank of the River Thames in London, Britain May 22, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Mudlark Matthew Goode poses for a portrait on the bank of the River Thames in London, Britain May 22, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

By Neal Hall
August 27, 2016

A torch on his head, Jason Sandy scours the nighttime London foreshores of the Thames river, searching for objects that could offer a glimpse of life in the British capital hundreds of years ago.

As the occasional party boat passes by, its music blasting and lights flashing, the 42-year-old architect only has a few hours while the tide is low to make his finds.

Sandy has been mudlarking for a hobby for the last five years, scouring the river banks for historical artefacts. Some of his finds are so rare they are displayed in museums.

“Over 2,000 years of time, everything has been thrown into the Thames, accidentally lost … dropped so 2,000 years of history are down there,” he said.

“It’s really the thrill of almost like time travelling and knowing that the last person to touch this was from that time period,” he added, describing the feeling of making a find.

Sandy, originally from Chicago, has found numerous artefacts like a Tudor comb, Victorian toothbrush and a Roman women’s hair pin, which the Museum of London dated to AD 43.

Mudlarking is believed to trace its origins to the 18th and 19th century, when scavengers searched the Thames’ shores for items to sell. These days, history and archaeology fans are the ones hoping to find old relics such as coins, ceramics, artefacts or everyday items from across centuries.

They wait for the low tide and then scour specific areas of exposed shores.

“If you’re in a field you could be out all day long, with the river you’re restricted to about two or three hours,” mudlark Nick Stevens said. “Unlike fishing where there’s one of 10 fish that you’re likely to catch, with mudlarking there is an infinite amount of variety in terms of what you could find.”

While many just use the naked eye for their searches, others rely on metal detectors for which a permit from the Port of London Authority is needed. Digging also requires consent.

The select Society of Thames Mudlarks counts just a few dozen members, who have the necessary licences and can access restricted areas along the river.

Collaborating with the Museum of London, the mudlarks record their finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Any item over 300 years old must be recorded.

“It’s quite exciting to go down to a part of London that is only accessible for a very short amount of time,” Sandy said.

“Thousands of years of London’s history is still waiting to be discovered there on the Thames foreshore.”


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Also tagged , |

Those Healthy Yankees: Graham and Alcott

April, 2016

Sylvester Graham and William Andrus Alcott were men of their disease-ridden times, amongst the first American promoters of “health food,” “phys-ed” and temperate living for health in both the here and now — and the afterlife.

In 1832, the Great Cholera Epidemic hit the United States. It was another of the epidemics and plagues that had affected the world since at least late Roman times. No one understood how these instances of mass illness and death occurred, but the pattern of transmission along trade routes suggested some kind of agent in the illness. In the case of cholera, the disease came out of Bengal in India in the wake of the British conquest there during the Napoleonic Wars. It travelled from Calcutta to London and then, in 1832, to New York. Cholera then spread upriver and along the Erie Canal, killing thousands. Diagnosis was superficial, prevention was guessed at; cures were ineffectual; attempts at relief were often as deadly as the disease, and recovery was left to the patient.

Americans suffered then from other diseases as well, sometimes affecting more people, such as tuberculosis (TB), yellow fever and malaria. TB was a common complaint and generally killed a quarter of those affected, being a slow-moving disease. Malaria and yellow fever differed in their effects, with malaria seeming to be slow-moving like TB and yellow fever striking seasonally and killing quickly. Smallpox’s effect resembled other epidemics, but by the 1800s, the effectiveness of a crude vaccination meant that, while its causes were poorly understood, the disease could be controlled.

The result of the loss of life from these and other illnesses led people at the time to try and figure out what caused them to spread. Two kinds of answers were proposed; the first was an environmental one that disease came from unhealthy ‘miasmatic’ conditions, such as bad air, fetid swamps, uncleanliness and exposure to poor living conditions. The second was that disease arose from poor nutrition, alcoholism and general bad behavior, or physical weakness on the part of the victims.

Neither answer was satisfactory, but they were based upon medical treatises that dated in some cases back to Roman times. Attempts by medical people to treat them were as bad as the diseases, consisting of ‘bleeding’ the patient or giving doses of calomel (mercury chloride).

By and large, the training and reputation of medical personnel was low, especially on the frontier, where almost all educational standards were low. Outside the cities, people were left largely to their own devices in preventing and dealing with disease.

Some Americans began to fix on the notion that disease could be prevented, if only people were to live proper lives, consume food in a moderate fashion, drink only pure water and keep their physiques in proper order.

This package came wrapped in a popular religious attitude called Arminianism, which posited that God made the world good, and that it was the duty of everyone to pursue salvation in both a moral and physical sense. It was not a coincidence that moral and physical virtues were seen as being tied together.

The earliest prominent proponent of this conjunction was a Connecticut man, Sylvester Graham, who had suffered from ill health as he grew up. Graham attended, but did not graduate from, Amherst College. At 34, he became a Presbyterian minister to a rural congregation in New Jersey. His ministerial career did not last long: two years later, in 1830, he was lecturing to the Philadelphia Temperance Society. Soon after, he was lecturing on the wider need for temperance in the eating of food, in much the fashion as early temperance lecturers approached alcohol — don’t drink, but if you must, keep it temperate.

Graham looked for validation for his idea that food must be consumed in a spirit of tempered abstinence.

He borrowed ideas from France about the body as a ‘chemical machine,’ and came up with the notion that stimulation of the digestive system was at the root of many human health problems. The theory was these could be prevented by a calm lifestyle, which included only eating foods that were not “stimulating” and assisted digestion. He went on to apply his temperance argument to sexual relations and emotional control as well.

Graham was fixed on the idea that Christian theology was congruent with the laws of nature. By the time the cholera epidemic hit New York City, he lectured there that symptoms of gastrointestinal irritation pointed to people eating wrongly and general misbehaving.

But, as was discovered a couple of decades later, one of the prime causes for the spread of cholera was well water infected with the cholera bacillus. Graham’s advocacy of drinking water rather than alcohol — which would have killed the germs — was unfortunate.

Today, his name lives on in the ‘graham cracker’, a kids’ staple for many generations (and still a favorite of mine). Graham was less interested in the graham cracker than returning to a rough type of bread that had been replaced in the cities by white bread. ‘Well-made bread’…must contain…’all the natural properties of wheat,’ he said, and published a recipe for ‘graham bread’ in the 1829 New Hydropathic Cookbook.

He felt that other foods should not be altered much from their natural condition either, which led to a prohibition on meat consumption.

In 1835, Graham moved to Boston, where the temperance movement and the antislavery movement were joined with a growing food-health movement, spurred by by William Andrus Alcott, brother of Bronson Alcott,  a transcendentalist leader and the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. There was some rivalry between Graham and Alcott, and both endured opposition to their ideas from local grocers and butchers in the city.

Graham was reputed to be vain, obtuse and obsessive, so attacks were likely not a surprise to him, but a butchers’ riot was too much.

Shaken, he moved from Boston to Northampton, Maine, and died there in 1851 at the age of 57. His relatively young age at death shocked many of his followers and caused some to stray from Grahamism.

The most interesting part of Alcott’s approach to preventive health was that he was more willing to play down the doctrinaire religious force within Grahamism in order to point out the social benefits of a good lifestyle in food and drink. Alcott had attended Yale and taken a medical degree, with a thesis on TB, of special relevance to him as he suspected he himself was a sufferer. After graduation, he tried medicines to relieve his symptoms, but then found a temperate lifestyle to be more useful.

Alcott taught for a couple of years before attending Yale, and his experience led to the idea that children should be taught basic nutrition and physiology as part of the school curriculum; he was the originator of ‘phys-ed’ classes.

Alcott promoted health reform as a Christian redemption project, to help all live a good life — and good afterlife; promoted information about nutrition, and  helped form the American Physiological Society in 1837.

In an address to the society Alcott bluntly focused on prevention rather than cure as the best health care and waxed, enthusiastically: ‘In the present blaze of physiological light, we can, in ways and processes almost innumerable, manufacture human health to an extent not formerly dreamed of.’ As president of the society, he helped establish what may be America’s first “health food” store, which stocked, of course, “Graham” bread, fresh fruits and vegetables.


 Copyright Jim McNiven 2016

This column is part of Jim McNiven’s project The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America. www.theyankeeroad.com


Thanks for reading Facts and Opinions. Our journal is employee-owned and survives on the honour system: try a story at no charge;, if you value our work, please chip in at least .27 per piece or make a sustaining donation. Details here. 


Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. Real journalism has value. Thank you for your support. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

Posted in Also tagged , , , , |

Mass grave reveals organised violence among Europe’s first farmers

By Rick Schulting, University of Oxford 
August, 2015

Skull with axe injury. Christian Meyer, PNAS

Skull with axe injury. Christian Meyer, PNAS

The discovery of 26 bodies with lethal injuries in a 7,000 year old mass grave in Germany provides more evidence of organised large-scale violence in Neolithic Europe. The findings, reported in the journal PNAS, also help us understand the sudden and perhaps brutal ending of central Europe’s first farming culture.

The Linear Pottery (Linienbandkeramik, or LBK) culture which dominated central Europe between 5600 and 4900 BC was once depicted as peaceful and pioneering – farmers who cleared land and carved new communities out of the heavily-forested “wilderness”.

This view began to crumble with the discovery in the late 1980s of a mass grave at Talheim in southern Germany, containing the remains of 34 men, women and children, many of whom showed evidence of lethal injuries caused by stone axes.

This was followed not long after by the findings from an enclosure (a precursor to fortified Roman army camps) at Asparn/Schletz in Austria. Here, the remains of 67 people were found lying in haphazard positions in the bottom of just one section of the enclosure ditch, the implication being that many more individuals are represented across the site as a whole. It is clear that they too died violently, with many skulls showing signs of multiple blows.

That fact both of these massacres – no other word can be applied – fell near the end of the Linear Pottery culture, around 5000 BC, raised the possibility that things ended less than peacefully.

In the latest paper, a German team led by Christian Meyer present the recently discovered third instalment in this story. A long trench at the site of Schöneck-Kilianstädten, central Germany, held the remains of at least 26 individuals, found commingled in a mass grave, again with evidence of multiple injuries showing no signs of healing. Most were caused by stone axes, but there were also arrowhead wounds. This was almost certainly a single event, again dating to around 5000 BC.

Chrisian Meyer

A section of the mass grave. Chrisian Meyer, PNAS


Intriguingly, as at Asparn/Schletz, the graves contained no children aged 9-16 or young women. This suggests the capture of children and young women may have been one of the motivations for conflict, as it has been in more recently recorded societies around the world.

These events were devastating not only to those involved, but to the entire society. While we have only the vaguest idea of the total population of Neolithic Europe at any particular point, we do have some sense of the size of local villages – usually around 50 to 100 inhabitants. Thus, the deaths of even 26 or 34 people represents an event that, scaled up for an appropriate comparison with modern population levels, would entail killing on a scale seen today only in the most war-torn countries.

Archaeology deals with fragments of the past, and there is always the possibility of bias in what survives and what does not, as well as in what is found and what remains hidden. Add to this the fact that radio-carbon estimates provide a date range rather than a specific year and the discovery of one massacre falling at approximately the same time as the disappearance of Linear Pottery may be no more than a coincidence.

The finding of a second example begins to suggest a pattern, however tentatively. The discovery of a third case looks very suspicious indeed. The question that naturally arises is why this particular point in time should see such a widespread outbreak of conflict, involving the killing of what could easily be the entire populations of small hamlets.

While there is certainly evidence of conflict both before (including among the hunter-gatherers that preceded the Neolithic) and after 5000 BC, this usually takes the form of isolated incidents involving relatively few individuals. These mass graves were the result of something larger and more organised.

One theory blames the environment. A period of climatic instability led to increased competition for resources and eventually to conflict – including the extermination of some entire communities. This interpretation very much divides the room. Many researchers take exception to what they see as an overly simplistic, environmentally deterministic explanation, and favour internal causes for conflict. Other strategies could have been employed to cope with shortages, emphasising greater cooperation rather than competition.

There is also the problem of precisely correlating climatic records and archaeological events. While there is some evidence of a climatic downturn at the end of the 6th millennium BC, there is still considerable leeway in the dating of both this downturn, and in the massacres discussed here, making it very difficult to link them in a causal way.

The findings at Schöneck-Kilianstädten will no doubt fuel this debate, and rightly so, since it is an important one that is not without implications for our own future. Some studies have suggested that global warming is likely to lead to a massive increase in levels of conflict worldwide. If such a link does turn out to have been the case in Neolithic Europe, it would be depressing if we have not learned anything in the intervening millennia that would enable us to avoid a similar fate.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

Rick Schulting is Lecturer in Scientific and Prehistoric Archaeology at University of OxfordThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Posted in Also tagged , , , |

Newfoundland fishery 20 years after cod moratorium

Gerald Cooper of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland bring home the only thing he caught, a lone mackerel, on his last day of fishing before retiring. Photo by Greg Locke © 1999.

Twenty years after the Canadian government shut down the 500 year old Newfoundland cod fishery there are few signs of recovery of the near-extinct legendary fish stocks on the Grand Banks and north west Atlantic ocean. The fishery has changed but it is still possible for an ecologically viable and sustainable fishing activity … if the assorted governments, unions and fish companies would look for a better way and take responsibility for their actions. Check out  Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery. for my look back on 20 years since the moratorium.


Posted in All, Canadian Journalist, Current Affairs Also tagged , , , , , , , , , |