Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Digging Up the Past

As we are on the topic of river, learning about its uses and features, it naturally follows that we ought to know a little about the history of the River Thames.  We also watched this documentary that takes a humourous look at some of the industries that flourished along the Thames from its source to its mouth in London.

The Thames, being the largest archaeological site in London, is of great interests to us in terms of its applicability to what we consider to be the 'practical' side of historical study, i.e. archaeology.  We watched the 10-part series of the Thames Discovery Programme to gear ourselves up for an actual exploration of the richness of the site:

Once we were ready, we went to the National Maritime Museum for an archaeological session on the Thames, just like a junior version of the Thames Discovery Programme.

The weather was quite good when we arrived so we spent some time outdoors surveying the site.

  • The tide was fairly high for our purpose of going on to the foreshore for digging (photo 1 above) so our workshop leader decided that the actual dig would take place in the afternoon when the tide would be further out.
  • The children were given copies of  old paintings of scenes along the Thames (photo 2) to make comparison about what they saw in the paintings with what they saw today, as well as to identify some of the landmarks that were depicted in the paintings.
  • One of the landmarks in the paintings was the palace courtyard that we were standing in (photo 3), which dated back the Tudor period.
  • The ground that we stood on has the remains of the foundations of the Tudor palace which was the birthplace of three Tudor monarchs: Henry VIII, Mary I, and Elizabeth I (photo 4).   We were told that parts of the Tudor palace foundations have been discovered recently on the foreshore by archaeologists so there is still more to be discovered later in the afternoon when we would dig on the foreshore.

While we waited for the tides to go out, the children were engaged in various activities indoors:
  • They were given the task of putting a pictorial puzzle together, in the sequence of the source of the Thames to its mouth (photo 1).  The puzzle wasn't too difficult, but Tiger was glad that our preparation at home enabled him to solve the puzzle very quickly.
  • The rest of the indoors time was spent on classifying artefacts found in the Thames from previous archaeological sessions in a number of ways:
    • by materials, e.g. metal, glass, wood, leather, etc (photo 2)
    • by usage: pipes, wall tiles, roof tiles, floor tiles (photo 3)
    • by time period: Roman, Medieval, Tudor & Stuart, Victorian & Industrial age (photo 4)
The tides were out in the afternoon so the children spent a good two hours combining a section of the foreshore.

There was indeed a lot to be found on the foreshore (photo 1 below).

  • After two hours, everyone gathered up their finds on to a sheet of tarpulin for identification (photo 2 above).  After the indoor session where we learnt how to classify different objects by their time periods, there was still much to learn about identification of actual finds, especially different types of tiles.
  • Most of the finds though, were animal bones (photo 3).  The presence of so many bones, as explained by our workshop leader, is due to the numerous pubs and butchers that operated along the river in the Victorian times.
  • Much of our find were from the Victorian period, which makes a lot of sense if you think that it was only about 100 years ago.  The Victorian dock on the foreshore (photo 4) is another evidence of the recent yet long history of activities along the river.
The day before the trip, Tiger was very concerned about whether he could keep the things he would find during the dig.  I wasn't sure what the rules are about keeping items found along the river so I told him to be prepared for the answer to be no.  He was most pleased when the workshop leader told the children that they could keep anything they found, as long as the item isn't rare or precious.  The Thames is so actively excavated that I would be surprised if anybody unearth anything that someone else hasn't already found!  Nonetheless, my boy was just excited to be able to take home his own archaeological finds.  Even if they are just a few broken tiles or some cattle bones thrown into the river by a Victorian butcher, Tiger's finds are precious to him.

When we got home, I put his finds into a tray, washed and disinfected the items several times with sterilising fluid before I felt they were safe enough to be handled.  The Thames is not the cleanest river in the world by any measure.

Once the items have been cleared of killer germs and any potential nasties, we got down to the business of sorting out Tiger's "treasures".

We tried to replicate the experience we had in the indoor classrom at the Martime Museum by first classifying the items by their materials:

Then we tried to identify them by their time periods.  The video here gives a very good overview. 

It was difficult to recall the exact information on how to use the different pottery patterns to tell whether they were from the Medieval period or from the Tudor/Stuart periods, so we looked up the information here and here.

Medieval pottery
Stuart pottery

Bones, pottery, glass, shells - all from the Victorian era

The Victorian era finds warrant a closer look, not only because they make the greatest number of our total finds but also because they belong to a time period that we can still find plenty of evidence around in England.

We found a portion of a Victorian wooden nit comb (photo above), which has to be kept in water to prevent the dried wood from disintegration from exposure to air.  How do we know it's Victorian?  Because:
  1. It's made of wood so it couldn't have been from a later period.  By the Industrial Age, people have started using metal combs.
  2. Being found in the river, it couldn't have been earlier than the Victorian period otherwise all of the wood would have rotted away by now.  The nit combs portions from the Roman period (that we have seen in museums) are either made out of bones or if they were made out of wood, have been found in fields, not in rivers.

  • photo 1: leather.  This looks like part of the sole of a shoe.  In Victorian times most people tried to recycle leather as much as they could before throwing it away.  As such, a piece of leather would have gone through several uses from being part of an item of clothing (most probably a belt) to being the the shoe soes.
  • photo 2: oyster shells.  The presence of a large number of discarded oyster shells in the Thames tells us quite a bit about the Victorians' love for oysters, as they were readily available from the pubs that operated along the river back then.  The precise square and circle cut-outs from the shells were made to use them as mother-of-peral buttons on Victorian clothing.
  • photo 3: cattle bones.  From the sizes and shapes of these bones, they are likely to have come from a big animal like a cow.  The possible explanation of them being in the Thames is that they were discarded by the butchers and pub kitchens that operated alongside the river in Victorian times.  We watched this clip to learn a bit more about identifying bones from an archaeological dig.
  • photo 4: Victorian glass bottle.  The thickness, opaqueness, and dark green colour of the glass are clues to it being made before the Industrial Age.  The curvature of the bottom of the glass is what reveals itself to be from the Victorian era.  In Victorian times, wine bottles were made with a concave bottom to hold wine sediments.
  • photo 5: various tiles.  The pigmentation and colours of the tiles are important to identification.
  • photo 6: clay smoking pipes.  These are part of the smoking pipes that were used in the Victorian times, when tobacco was first brought into England from America.  Because of the way they were made, the clay pipes found are usually broken into at least two pieces.  The picture below shows what a clay pipe would have looked like in its unbroken form:

This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 9/17/13
  2. Look What We Did
  3. History and Geography Meme #91
  4. Collage Friday - The Simple Gifts are the Biggest Blessings
  5. Entertaining and Educational - Sept 19
  6. Homeschool Review and Resource
  7. Field Trip Friday
  8. Weekly Wrap-up: The One with Birthdays, Flowers, and a Little OCD
  9. The Homeschool Mother's Journal {September 21, 2013}


  1. This sounds fascinating. There are so many historical resources in and around London but this must have been a memorable day. My younger two would love this in a year or so.

  2. The digging part was the most engaging part of the day for the children. Everyone loves a treasure hunt. :-)

  3. I can't believe all the interesting items you were able to bring home. It's fascinating that you found bones and pottery pieces and were able to identify them. What an awesome experience.

  4. It was indeed an exciting field trip, Julie. :-)

  5. I agree with Julie - you found some wonderful stuff! And what really strikes me is the depth you went into. Many people wouldn't have followed up on what they did on the field trip, and discarded their finds. You have really opened my eyes to the history almost on our doorsteps!

  6. I am not allowed to throw away any of Tiger's finds. :-)

  7. That looks like so much fun! I would love to have you come and link up with Field Trip Friday!

  8. Wow, that is the ultimate field trip. How cool.

  9. Oh wow, I'm just thinking about the depth of history there is in a place that's been continuously lived in for a 1000 years, maybe longer, I"m trying to remember time frames......

  10. This is amazing home schooling Hwee. Really, really fascinating! I've been on holiday, so I'm catching up, but I definitely remembering this for future studies!

  11. Thank you all for visiting and leaving your kind comments, ladies! :-) Letting children, especially boys, dig for archaeological finds is a sure way to get them interested in history and archaeology. I hope you and your children will be able to have a go at similiar activities that take everyone outdoors and have a hands-on experience with history.

  12. This was so thorough and quite fascinating!

    Thank you so much for sharing your findings and ALL about your trip!

    Found you, too, linked at SYCYAHSer and clicked over.

    Be well and have a lovely weekend!

  13. Wow! So amazing! What an incredible hands-on learning experience for your kids! I am really impressed. Thanks so much for linking up with Field Trip Friday. I hope you will be able to join us again this week.


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