TikTok Convinced Me to Start “Mudlarking” in my Backyard. Here’s What It’s All About

published Aug 16, 2022
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Mudlarking in my backyard
Credit: Photo: Getty images, Courtesy of Caroline Eubanks; Design: Apartment Therapy

In late 2019, my house was under construction in a neighborhood where my family members had lived since the 1950s. The land had been vacant for many years before, so some curious items came to light during the excavation process, including a “Star Wars” figurine and a glass medicine bottle. But that wasn’t the end of the treasure hunt. 

Over the next two years, I’d discover all sorts of things, like rusty metal pipes, pieces of tile from the many homes built nearby, and fragments of glass beer bottles. One day I sifted through a shopping bag filled with what was presumably donations, including glassware, a tablecloth, and a bag of jewelry. 

A day didn’t pass without me seeing a shiny piece of glass in the dirt, and all I had to do was pick it up and study it. As I became more deeply invested in backyard archaeology, I was just as surprised to find out that I wasn’t the only one. There’s a whole community of like-minded individuals called “mudlarkers” who do the same. The term comes from a 1785 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was used to describe the young men that prowled the river banks around ships in search for valuables. 

The mudlarking hobby has the biggest presence in the United Kingdom, where people in rubber boots wade into the banks of rivers, like the Thames, or dig in historic landfills in search of all manner of items. Common treasures include Roman coins, clay pipes, and Victorian medicine bottles. You never know what you might find in historic cities dating back thousands of years! There are even group excursions and Meetups you can join.

In fact, there’s an entire global community of mudlarking where people share their favorite spots on TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook — like the 2,000 member strong Mudlarking World. I personally love accounts like “Hunting Old Junk” and “Old Father Thames Mudlark,” and in my own social network, I found friends that hunt for pieces of stunning pottery and animal bones. 

If you’re looking to start mudlarking, it’s important to find a place to go. The best starting point is your own backyard. If you’re a renter, make sure you have permission first, of course. If you live near a creek, you can sift through the banks. My house runs alongside one and I’ve seen all sorts of broken pottery. It’s an especially interesting hobby for those that live on old properties and farms

You can also visit public places like beaches, rivers, and landfills, as long as they are open to the public. It’s illegal to use metal detectors in national parks, so keep this in mind. In the UK, you’ll need a permit and you can’t do any digging, just pick up what’s on the surface. Read up on local rules in your area before going.

The best time to look is after it rains or as the tide falls, when the mud shifts away from the items and brings them to the surface. Bright days can make it easier to see shiny objects like glass and metal, too.

Once you’re ready to go, it’s important to bring the essentials. Mosquito repellant, sunscreen, and a hat are important during the warmer months, along with a bottle of water. If you plan on wading into the water, rubber boots are a must-have. Be sure to wear gloves for protection from sharp objects, and you’ll also need a bag or bucket for your finds — I nabbed one at the Dollar Store. A scraper tool or trowel is also good to have, including one with holes in it to wash off debris. And if you’re looking to level up your treasure hunting game, you can try your hand at metal detecting and magnet fishing! 

I’m glad to have stumbled upon this hobby, and I’m looking forward to what I uncover next. Who knows, it may just be something truly amazing.