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London fish tank reveals everyday life of Tudors

BY DALYA ALBERGE, ARTS CORRESPONDENT
© HERITAGE MATTERS MAGAZINE

 

THE discovery of a huge Tudor rubbish dump is giving historians their best insights yet into the lives of the Londoners of the day.

Archaeologists from the Museum of London have unearthed thousands of objects dating from the 1480s to the early 1600s at a two-acre site around Tooley Street, on the south side of Tower Bridge.

Shoes and spoons, toys and tools offer rare glimpses into the lifestyles of all strata of society. Objects considered too insignificant to have been recorded in documents or paintings now reveal what Tudor Londoners ate, what they threw away, how they dressed and how they played. Until the site was found, relatively little archaeological evidence had been discovered. "What we've found has proved we didn't know half as much as we thought," said Simon Thurley, the museum's director.

Among more than 400 leather shoes are some that are perfectly preserved and as modern in design as anything for sale today in Knightsbridge. A pair of stylish black suede shoes with leather laces and an elegant buckle might have been made yesterday.

To judge from some of the styles, Tudor Londoners were prepared to suffer for fashion: one pair of shoes stuffed with moss to stiffen the curled point would have been less than comfortable.

Dr Thurley said that never before had so many Tudor objects been found together in such closely dateable deposits and in such a fine state of preservation.

The dump was discovered during excavations for a new hotel complex two months ago. Its contents were preserved in the waterlogged remains of a Tudor fish farm in an area that was, from medieval times, home to the wealthy and influential. The objects were thrown into the disused fish tanks about 1560, when the property, known then as the Pike Garden, was sold. Others were thrown into a nearby sewer that was closed in 1610.

Dave Saxby, an archaeologist with the museum who is supervising the search for artefacts, said: "If you excavate any site in London, you're lucky to get one shoe or one knife. The majority have broken bits of pottery and animal bone. Here they are in mint condition, like the day they were thrown in."

The finds portray all levels of society on London's South Bank, from the wealthy with their padded armour to the poor with their worn pewter spoons.

Pottery tankards and a bottle in a wicker basket point to the taverns for which Southwark was famous. Many of the pots were imported and a piece of Chinese porcelain is the earliest example found in London.

Also extracted from the detritus was a delicate comb, which has a circular indentation that may have held a mirror.

Vessels such as a huge copper cauldron in which people would have cooked are almost intact. Other discoveries include rare armour; perfectly preserved tools, including a sickle, spade and shovel; and a musical instrument thought to be a bagpipe.

There is also a dagger; part of a saddle; an intricate leather fringe that may be from a belt; children's toys, including a whistle; a wooden bowls ball; part of a window shutter; and, of course, the banana.

Taryn Nixon, the head of the museum's archaeolgical services department, said that the objects conjure up "thriving industries of Tudor Southwark . . . people going in and out of the ale-houses, the leather workers taking orders from the finely turned out gentleman with his metal outer corset, and perhaps even someone turning up their nose at the thought that this curious soft, yellow food - well, no, probably quite black and rotten - was to be eaten."

Dr Thurley said that the museum was keen to put the finds on show as soon as possible.