IN the 1980s, a scuba diver made an extremely unusual find off Nobbys, near the mouth of the Hunter River.
It was a small swivel cannon of the type once attached to wooden rails of old-fashioned sailing ships and used to repel boarders in hand-to-hand fighting. It's the sort of object you'd see as a background prop in buccaneer movies such as Captain Blood or Pirates of the Caribbean.
Such short-range guns, carrying grapeshot, fell out of favour as wooden ship warfare declined. After that, they became mere curiosity pieces, often useful only when carried as ballast.
Strangely enough, a little earlier during the mammoth Newcastle Harbour deepening project decades ago, another such cannon was found, possibly when the Stockton Foreshore at Pirate Point was being dredged and spoil dumped at sea.
This second cannon was painted white, so it was said, and then used as a trophy among dredge crews for the winner who cleared the most flood silt in the port navigation channels that year.
Chances are that the average punter will never see one of these small, antique guns outside of a museum. However, one did appear in Newcastle Harbour in mid 2013. That's when a 58-tonne wooden ship called Notorious, a modern replica of a 15th century Portuguese caravel, made a surprise stopover in port with a small, new swivel cannon on its railing (pictured).
How the other two genuine ancient cannons ended up in the local mud though remains a mystery.
Speaking of mud, many large unexploded enemy bombs from World War II are still turning up with alarming regularity in the Thames in London. Often discovered buried in ooze near wharves, they're a dangerous reminder of The Blitz that devastated London 80 years ago. Usually they are found by amateur mudlarks, or people scavenging for anything interesting or of value in mud debris.
The closest Aussies have probably ever got to such dangerous, if rare, finds are when floating sea mines from both world wars wash ashore. It's happened once on Newcastle Bight beach after WWI and then again down Melbourne way when some of the 40 mines laid by the German raider Pinguin in sea lanes off Cape Otway in 1940 washed ashore and had to be inspected and rendered harmless (pictured).
Mucking around in the mud is in the news again with the release in London this week of the paperback version of the quirky best-seller Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem. Sub-titled Lost and Found on the River Thames, exploring a city's rich cultural history through objects seems at first an unlikely subject to capture the public's imagination.
But the book is a fascinating and informative odyssey down the banks of the serpentine River Thames, from the river's tidal origins to the west of London city to where it meets the sea in the east. It's what author Maiklem calls "the longest archaeological site in the world", where anything and everything might be found and where the difference between high and low water can sometimes be 22ft (6.7m). Maiklem has scoured down to the river's low tide mark for more than 15 years.
While any Novocastrians searching in the Hunter River muck these days might only find shopping trollies, damaged bicycles, or 19th century bottles (like up at Hinton), mudlarking besides the Thames is totally different.
While the modern mudlark needs a permit from the London Port Authority, and would be extremely lucky to find any real treasure, it's amazing what still can be found.
With busy river traffic constantly churning up the bottom eroding the compacted mud, a modern forager might find an object dating back to 43 AD when London was an outpost of the Roman Empire, or just as easily stumble across Neolithic flints (once used to make weapons), medieval shoe buckles, Tudor-era buttons, Georgian clay pipes, Victorian toys and pottery shards from Roman days to the 18th century.
Street urchins and the elderly on the edge of society were the original mudlarks in Queen Victoria's London of the 1860s. Carrying baskets, they wandered barefoot, making a living picking up lumps of coal, or iron, or even fat thrown off a boat by the ship's cook, to sell.
Rich collectors soon began buying some more unusual river-found objects from mudlarks, watermen, fishermen and dredge workers, initially often for little more than a bottle of beer.
One obsessive collector stacked his house with boxes of rare treasures that spilled into his garden to fill 30 sheds.
The recluse's prize buys were hidden and unrecorded. After he died in 1911, box after box was opened. His hoard included 28 Middle Bronze rapiers, 33 Late Bronze Age swords and 34 spearheads.
"Water is a wonderful preserver," author Lara Maiklem says. "As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tell the greatest stories."
Maiklem says that when the non-tidal Amstel River in Amsterdam was drained to make way for a train line, archaeologists recorded almost 700,000 objects, just like in the Thames; buttons that had burst off waistcoats long ago, rings that slipped from fingers, leather shoe soles, handcuffs, counterfeit coins and human skulls.
Maiklem herself has found three pieces of metal type from 500,000 once hurled into the river by a disgruntled bookbinder. Her book is set throughout in this lost font. She reports that almost 11,00 people were once involved in plundering goods from West India ships being unloaded in the 1790s.
Security was lax and these river pirates would also steal ship anchors.
One of Maiklem's oddest finds are tiny 'pixie heads', or sea urchin fossils. Otherwise known as 'fairy loaves', the strange skull-like objects were collected from the detritus of the Thames to protect home owners from witchcraft and predict the weather. They were said to sweat before a storm.
It's also a surprise to discover that at this great river's end, merciless tides and currents of the Thames Estuary probably conceal more than 1000 shipwrecks and several aircraft.
Mudlarking is replete with such colourful stories so you can almost smell and feel the past through the damp river air.
It's a wonderfully engrossing book.
- Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury Publishing $32.99 hardcover
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
- Serving Catholic priest in tears over 1971 letter revealed during landmark compensation case
- Under The Southern Stars rock festival called off due to global health pandemic
- Coronavirus: How you can help stop the spread of COVID-19
- Port of Newcastle withdraws cruise ship volunteers for rest of 2019/20 season
- Toohey's News, The Podcast Episode 01: Michael Hagan
- Newcastle courts: Predator Brett Hill appeal date set for July, 2020, as lawyers argue for maximum sentence