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Secrets of the River Thames include Roman brothel tokens and monster-shark teeth

The river yields up weird and wonderful artefacts that tell us loads about our city’s history

Written by
Annette Richardson

Inventores custodes (or ‘finders keepers’ if you were not the Roman who lost their brothel tokens a few centuries ago). Human bones, animal teeth, credit at ancient knocking shops... these are just some of the items that have been recovered from London’s 30-million-year-old river, 

If you are keen to discover more about what lurks beneath the surface of the Thames then the team at Barratt London have just released a study into what marine life resides in the river, which is England's longest, as well as the strangest items that have been recovered over the years, plus our littering habits and it makes for an eyebrow-raising read.

Among the artefacts, a token for a Roman brothel was fished from the water near Putney Bridge back in 2011 and is now part of the Museum of London collection. Otherwise known as a spintria, the first-century-AD coin spares no blushes, depicting a naked couple going right at it. There’s some debate among experts about whether this particular artefact was actually intended to pay for sex, or might instead be a gambling token, but it is believed the only one of its kind from Roman Britain. It was very cold back then.

Other ancient oddities include a skull segment from a 30,000-year-old woolly rhinoceros and a tooth from a 28-metre-long megalodon shark discovered back in 2018. Some scary calculations based on this established that the prehistoric monster would have had a bite ten times stronger than Jaws’s – much bigger boat anyone? Last year, the river was still dishing up surprises: a sixteenth-century sword with its wooden hilt amazingly preserved by the river bed was discovered by a keen mudlark, and also handed over to the Museum of London.

In terms of our aquatic chums, while whales are the most newsworthy visitors to the Thames since 2006, there have also been sightings of starry smooth-hound, tope and spurdog sharks between 2019 and last year, plus a growing number of harbour and grey seals, and a harbour porpoise in 2018.  Scaling down, there are also crabs, seahorses and an upsetting number of eels in residence.

On a less pleasant note, wet wipes are reported to be the most littered item in the river and when mixed with mud they form horrible slimy layers. One of these icky mounds was the size of four tennis courts. Hammersmith Bridge landed the top spot for wet wipes, with Newcastle Draw Dock coming out on top for plastic bags and Small Profits Dock the top spot for floating waste. Just get a tote, a flannel and double cleanse, people!

Ed McCoy, sales and marketing director at Barratt West London, said: ‘Discovering that a number of whales have chosen to make Londoners their neighbours has been quite a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The study also brought to light the items that should not be calling the Thames home, that could have very easily been recycled instead. We hope this new knowledge of our underwater neighbours will make a lot of people think twice about dumping rubbish into the Thames.’

View the findings in more detail here.

Looking to the future: There are 600 new skyscrapers planned for London.

South of the river, Canada Water is getting the regeneration treatment.

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