As It Happens

British 'mudlarker' unearths a Neolithic skull on the banks of the River Thames

Mudlarker Martin Bushell found a piece of a human skull from the Neolithic era on the shore of the Thames. It's now on display at the Museum of London.

Martin Bushell spotted the 5,600-year-old skull fragment digging in the muddy banks of the Thames

Martin Bushell found a piece of human skull from the Neolithic era on the banks of the River Thames. (Submitted by Martin Bushell)
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A human skull from the Neolithic era has been put on display at the Museum of London.

But the incredibly rare specimen wasn't found in some elaborate archaeological dig. The skull was unearthed by a sharp-eyed mudlarker strolling the banks of the River Thames.

"When I first saw it, I thought it was a pot that might have been upside down — like a ceramic pot," Martin Bushell told As It Happens host Carol Off. "It looked more like a crab shell."

Mudlarkers are amateur archeologists who scour the banks of the Thames at low tide for treasure and historic artifacts. The tradition dates back to the Victorian era. 

Bushell says when he first spotted the skull he thought it was a ceramic pot or crab shell. (Submitted by Martin Bushell)

Bushell says he realized he had something special as soon as he held the skull in his hands.

"I put it in the correct position and then you can see the barrel of the eyes," Bushell said. "It dawned on me that it is a skull." 

Bushell says finding animal bones is common. Meat factories used to discard carcasses into the river. But according to his mudlarking license, any bones that look human must be reported to the authorities to rule out any foul play.

After handing the skull over to the police, Bushell waited, somewhat apprehensively, to find out what he had found.

"Your mind does work overtime," Bushell said.

Eventually, Bushell was relieved to learn that, after analyzing and carbon-dating the skull, the police's pathology department determined it was 5,600 years old.

"I did wipe my brow when they told me how old it was," Bushell admitted.

"When you see on the films, in TV series these days, normally the first person to find body parts or a body is normally the prime suspect."

A mudlark uses a metal detector to search for items of value on the banks of the River Thames. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Bushell has since learned that the skull fragment is likely the forehead of an approximately 18-year-old male.

"It just astounded me to be honest," Bushell said. "This is one of the good things about mudlarking is that it entices you to investigate the items that you've been finding or discovering."

According to Bushell, the Neolithic man would have lived in the area at a time when it had a population of only a few dozen people. 

"London, as it exists today, did not exist in any way, shape, or form back then," Bushell said. 

"This would have just been open fields, a meandering river. They would have had their mud or wooden built huts. They would have been like a hunter-gather type person."

Bushell is thrilled the skull is now on display at the Museum of London where it can be enjoyed by the public and school groups.

Bushell had only been mudlarking for about a week before he made the remarkable discovery. But it seems like more than just beginner's luck. 

He had another incredible find a few days ago, while he was mudlarking for an interview with a TV crew about the skull.

"I actually found a piece of fossil," Bushell said. "Which dates back to — now get this — 65 to 199 million years ago, to the Jurassic Cretaceous period. And it's just lying on the Thames. It's just laying there. It's so fascinating."

Written by John McGill and Alison Broverman. Interview produced by Alison Broverman.

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