Finds from the River Thames: The Thames Water Collection

Jill Greenaway spoke to the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group on 6 November about this collection which she curates at Reading Museum. Around 500 items were discovered from the non-tidal part of the Thames, from its source in Gloucestershire up to Teddington Lock, in a period which covered from 1911 to 1980.

An historic agreement with the Thames Conservancy Board (TCB) is allowed for all archaeological items found in this upper section of the river during dredging to be deposited with the Museum on indefinite loan.

Then, in 1996, Thames Water, successor to the TCB, donated the collection to Reading Museum.

Additionally, the collection of river based finds by George W. Smith has bolstered the collection. The speaker told how, after the extensive floods of 1947, a programme of deep dredging was launched which added to the yield.

However, it is likely that many more items were missed. The dredger crews only recovered what they recognised as being of interest and so much may have passed unnoticed. Another problem was identifying the locality as no careful recording was done as the dredger made its passage along the river.  ‘Above or below’ a bridge, lock or riverside pub was as close as they normally got. Thus, no evidence could be deduced from the finds with any accuracy, such as crossing points on the river.

Finders were rewarded with ten shillings for items handed in but this was a sum that was not increased from when it was instituted in 1932!  We were reminded that, in the days before municipally-organised rubbish disposal, rivers were often used as dumps which helps to explain the eclectic nature of the items ranging from Mesolithic flints to Victorian ginger beer bottles.

The most important part of the collection is the large quantity of beautiful Bronze Age and Iron Age metalwork weaponry. Similar discoveries, from the London section of the Thames and other English rivers flowing into the North Sea suggest a prehistoric cult of ritual offerings made to river gods.

However, the speaker was sceptical of the claim that the 23 skulls in the Collection necessarily related to burial rites pointing out that accidental river fatalities – and criminality – over the last 10,000 years may have been equally responsible.

by Jeff Griffiths

2 thoughts on “Finds from the River Thames: The Thames Water Collection”

    1. The author Jeff Griffiths does not know and thinks it unlikely that any relevant records exist – but you could try asking Jill Greenaway at Reading Museum.

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