Spooning in the Mud

Seventeenth-century pewter is hard to find (see my post “Pewter Meltdown”) but spoons are the exception: they’re comparatively plentiful.

Left to right: Puritan spoon, c.1660; Pair of Dognose spoons, c. 1700; Trefid spoon, c. 1685

Pewter was not a durable metal and it wore out quickly, so these spoons cannot have had much use. Why not? The answer is “mud,” particularly Thames mud. Almost all the early spoons on the market today are English or Dutch, both, significantly, maritime nations, and both with plenty of river mud.

Starting with London, we need only two facts to understand why so many spoons have survived.

Fact #1: London was founded by the Romans 2,000+ years ago, and the Thames was the reason. For all that time, the river has seethed with shipping, and millions of objects have been dropped overboard into its welcoming mud (2,000 years = 730,000 days: two dropped objects per day =  about 1,500,000 objects – a conservative estimate.)

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Late trefid spoon, c. 1700

Fact #2: People were expected to carry their eating utensils with them: taverns did not provide them, and private hosts never gave each diner a personal set of cutlery. So almost everyone carried a multi-purpose knife and a single purpose spoon. Seventeenth-century clothes did not have pockets: knives were typically carried in a sheath on the belt, and spoons may have been tucked into the belt or into a hat band. They fell out easily, and luckily for us, many fell into the Thames mud which proved to be a wonderful preservative.

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It’s going too far to suggest that any early pewter spoon that shows no signs of having been buried in mud should be viewed with suspicion….but it’s still not a bad of a rule of thumb to bear in mind.

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Horse hoof spoon, spiral stem, Dutch, c. 1675

The Netherlands had even more mud than England: They had major ports (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp) on the Amstel and Schelde rivers as well as all those canals! Plenty of mud, plenty of spoons recovered from it.

 

Mudlarks

Today, “Mudlarks” forage the Thames mud at low tide and wherever dredging or excavations occur. The Port of London Authority issues two levels of permit for “mudlarking.” The standard permit allows digging to a depth of 7.5 centimeters (just under 3 inches,) but the real Mudlark permit, issued only to members of the Thames Mudlark Society, allows the digger to go as deep as 1.2 meters (nearly 4 feet.) How on earth do they police those limits?? Of course, metal detectors have enabled mudlarks to come up with far more treasures. Finds of real archeological significance have to be reported to the Museum of London for assessment.

The River Thames: Plenty of mud, plenty of spoons, happy collectors.

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Lambert Doomer, An Interior with Peasants Dancing and Eating, 1681, showing a spoon and a clay pipe carried in men’s hats.

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