Treasure Hunting in an Ancient City

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It’s raining in London. Intermittent gusts of wind threaten defiant umbrellas. A passing cyclist is contemplating suicide. The Thames ambles steadily past the footings of a bridge, and the wake of a passing ferry laps on the shore.

The tide is out and the muddy shore is littered with the refuse of an ancient city: Terracotta. Porcelain. Smoothed glass. Brown, powdery bones. There are modern additions, too: Plastic. Coke cans. Contraceptives. A quick search of the tidal flat rewards my curiosity with a few chips of Dutch porcelain and a clay smoking pipe, not unlike the kind one commonly sees in a museum.

The following day, I meet two men with metal detectors. They are registered treasure hunters (a requirement for metal detectors) and are looking for Roman coins. Or gold. Mostly gold. I show one of the men the clay pipe I found earlier. They are common. Mine is about three hundred years old, he explains, noting the size of the pipes bowl. He examines it for makers marks. There are none. His best find to date was a crown (a silver coin) which he sold to the London Museum.

As I continue along the shore, another treasure hunter advises me to turn around shortly. Men with guns will appear and shoot me, he says casually. He doesn’t feel like carrying my body back up the embankment (as if this sort of thing inconveniences him frequently). I see the Houses of Parliament ahead and nod understandingly. The man points at a row of very unimportant looking yellow buoys just off shore, which mark an invisible boundary. Other travelers: be warned!

IMG_5043Smoking Pipe


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