The last six weeks or so since my most recent blog have been incredibly busy – birthdays, anniversaries, and a variety of Thames-related activities. I was chuffed to be invited to join a group of Thames mudlarks asked to appear on Channel 5’s ‘Digging For Treasure Today’, with archaeologist Raksha Dave and presenters Michaela Strachan and Dan Walker, which was great fun.
September’s mudlarking exhibitions for the annual Totally Thames Festival have also now come to an end. Unfortunately, the mudlarking exhibition where I was scheduled to exhibit (St Paul’s Cathedral) had to be cancelled due to the official mourning period for the late Queen Elizabeth II. I was sad not to be able to take part in this but it couldn’t be helped; sometimes world events overtake everything else. And there will always be next year. Although the mudlarking exhibitions at St Paul’s had to be cancelled, there were well attended mudlarking exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Waterman’s Hall and the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London, once the site of the Roman amphitheatre in Londinium.
After all the September excitement, I needed a break away so we booked a welcome holiday to Amsterdam, one of my favourites cities in Europe. If you’ve never been here, Eurostar now does a direct link from St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal Station, via Brussels and Rotterdam.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a great place to visit. We were last here in 2014 and there have been a lot of changes. It’s particularly good for those of us who mudlark as we can see complete examples of the pottery and glass we usually find in broken sherds and fragments on the Thames Foreshore.
Amsterdam originated as a fishing village around the 12th century and developed quickly after the building of a dam on the River Amstel. It was granted city rights in the 1300s.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Amsterdam underwent further rapid development which laid the foundation for its famous Golden Age, 1585-1672. During this period, it became one of the most prosperous trading centres in the world and its characteristic cityscape began to develop. This included buildings such as the Town Hall in Dam Square, the Westerkerk (the church is located at Prinsengracht 281 and is where Rembrandt is buried), as well as a large number of the ubiquitous, gabled townhouses overlooking canals, so firmly associated with ‘the look’ of Amsterdam today.
Amsterdam’s Golden Age came to an end in 1672 when both the French and English attacked, though the city managed to cling on to its prosperity and business reputation as the financial centre of Europe. An even greater number of canal townhouses were built during this period, reflecting the wealth of many of its citizens. It was considered a stable, safe and tolerant place to live. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Amsterdam was a city where immigrants formed the majority of the population. Most of these new arrivals were either Lutheran Protestant Germans, French Huguenots, Portuguese/Spanish Jews and Flemish refugees who no longer felt safe in Antwerp.
Amsterdam entered a period of recession and decline during 1795-1813 when the French temporarily occupied the country, followed by further periods of economic recovery and recession. In the 20th century, it suffered during two world wars and economic depression that had far-reaching affects on many countries around the globe.
The influence of the Golden Age of Amsterdam is reflected in its culture and extensive trade networks. The large number of artefacts that mudlarks retrieve from the Thames are evidence of the reach of Dutch impact.
The Rijksmuseum has a number of spectacular examples of Westerwald, a type of salt-glazed stoneware, a common sight in the townhouses of wealthy Dutch citizens. Originally produced in German towns such as Grenzau and Grenzhausen, in the area known as Westerwald, it originates from the 15th century to the present day. It is moulded, stamped with dyes and sometimes incised.
Westerwald pottery comes predominantly in shades of white and bluish grey, also decorated in contrasting black, dark purple and dark blue. High status Dutch homes would have owned many pieces of this colourful stoneware, the jugs used as containers for beer and wine.
By sheer coincidence, I spotted two lovely pieces of Westerwald on my first mudlarking session after returning home from Amsterdam. The rim of a jug in grey and dark blue stripes, and a moulded decorative circular design in dark blue on grey. It was a joy to see complete items of this type of stoneware in the museum and compare them with my broken fragments. An intact example of Westerwald would be a rare Thames find indeed.
I’ve blogged about Thames pottery before but it’s worth repeating that, for mudlarks, Bartmann pottery sherds hold a particular place in our hearts. Bartmann faces are particularly highly prized and almost certainly in the top ten of ‘things we would quite like to find’, thank you very much.
Bartmann jugs were commonly made in the Rhineland region of Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, the name taken from the German word ‘Bartmann’, meaning ‘bearded man.’ You can see some fine examples of cheerful and sometimes rather grumpy bearded men in the glorious examples held in the Rijksmuseum collections as seen in the photos below.
Also a type of salt-glazed stoneware, these jugs have round, squat bodies with shortish necks and loop handles and are covered in a brown, sometimes reddish brown glaze. The bearded man is on the front of the neck while beneath is a cartouche showing the crest of a city, eg Amsterdam, or one belonging to a wealthy family. (Some of the smaller Bartmann jugs don’t have the cartouche.)
The image of the bearded man is believed to originate with the myth of the wild man, a figure popular in medieval art and literature of Northern Europe. They were used predominantly for storing food and drink and for decanting wine. They were also used as ‘witch bottles’, and some have been found containing pins, iron nails, fingernail clippings, hair and even human urine – all thought to be an indication of their use as a charm against witchcraft.
I’ve found some very nice pieces of Bartmann stoneware during my years mudlarking, including the highly prized complete grumpy face ( see photo below.) Though it can be quite unnerving when you spot a partial fragment showing a dismembered grimace or part of a snarling bearded mouth with big teeth, poking out of the Thames mud.
But the best artefacts from our visit to the Rijksmuseum had to be the displays of ancient glass which shimmered and shone in the display cabinets. Berkemayer shaped goblets, stems with pointed prunts extending into a funnel-shaped bowl, the perfect example of the 16th century glassmakers’ skill. Some of these beautiful objects looked as fresh as if they’d been made yesterday.
I am proud to say I have two green glass raspberry prunts in my collection, so it was a particular treat to see examples of Roemer glass circa 1650-1660. The Roemer, like the Berkemayer, also became fashionable during the 16th century, though its overall look was slightly different. It had an ovoid bowl more reminiscent of our current wine glasses, the stem decorated with raspberry prunts (prunt is SUCH a gorgeous word) to help fat, greasy fingers cling on to the vessel when drinking.
Most green glass was initially imported from Germany but a few centres producing glass of this colour began to emerge in the Netherlands towards the end of the 16th century.
One of my favourite still life paintings hangs in the Rijksmuseum. By William Claesz, painted in 1635, it features the perfect tableau of drinking vessels, including a Roemer, pictured in front of a rather ostentatious gilt cup. I’ve placed my own two glass prunts, which closely resemble boiled sweets, on a postcard of this still life, bought in the museum gift shop.
It would be too much to hope to find a complete Roemer in the Thames and I don’t think anyone will ever find one. We have to be grateful for the broken fragments of this beautiful glass that still occasionally turn up on the foreshore at low tide.
My last Rijksmuseum treat was to see complete versions of examples of medieval pottery. These (see photo below) are known as Siegburg jugs, a type of early, crude attempt at stoneware from the 14th and 15th century.
Also known as Jacoba jugs because in the 17th century they were found in the moat of the hunting lodge of Teylingen, once the home of the 15th century Countess of Holland, Jacoba van Beieren. It was said that she made these jugs herself because she was often bored. And why not.
Although thought to have originated in the Netherlands, their real place of origin was Siegburg in Germany, hence the name.
I recently had a bit of a clear out of ‘stuff’ from our loft and came across an old box of pottery finds from my early days of mudlarking when I would often bring things home and not have a clue what they were. Thanks to the visit to Amsterdam, the trip to the Rijksmuseum must have triggered an ancient memory regarding Siegburg jugs. Opening up the the old box of finds, I was thrilled to find the base of a Siegburg, sad and forgotten, in all its pie-crust splendour. Here it is pictured with the complete version for comparison. I’m so pleased my ‘bottom’ is now seeing the light of day again.
If you’re new to mudlarking, I hope this brief run-through of a few examples of Thames-found pottery and their complete versions in the Rijksmuseum, has given you inspiration to keep searching. And, if you’ve never been, I recommend a visit to the glorious city of Amsterdam and all it offers.
Walking round its museums, streets and canals, I felt a strong connection between this vibrant and ever-changing city and the fragments of glass and pottery I’ve found in the Thames over the years. A deep sense of the interweaving of European history through its artefacts and shared culture that still bind us together today.