Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
--T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot was wrong. You can find all that in the Thames and more--or so I learned one morning as I walked along the banks of the river with Mark Dion. It happened to be the day of the recent solar eclipse, so we were on the lookout for the right kind of colored glass for viewing the black sun. The foreshores in central London are archaeologically rich, and we discovered curious things among the anticipated tin cans and used syringes: a fragment of Elizabethan ceramic, an odd-looking shard of bone from a pig, a beautiful fragment of Dutch porcelain, depicting two human figures. I wouldn't have been able to identify any of this, but a summer of intense beachcombing has made Dion something of an expert in riverbed archaeology. Every six hours the tide provides him with a new layer of material, centuries-old treasures and yesterday's trash in an unpredictable mix. It's this complete lack of hierarchy that appeals to Dion. The Thames is a museum with a collection that reaches back to the Romans, its display strictly democratic and continuously in flux.
In July, Dion organized two week-long digs, at Millbank, across the river from the old Tate Gallery, and at Bankside, just below the future Tate Gallery of Modern Art, which opens in May. With the help of some twenty-odd volunteers--who were asked to collect and then identify anything that caught their attention--they systematically scoured the foreshores in the first phase of the Tate Thames Dig, an ambitious project culminating in the exhibition currently on view at the Tate's Art Now room. The complex process that led up to the show matters as much to Dion as the final display:
I think about this project as consisting of three stages: the
dig, the cleaning and preparation, and the exhibition in a
cabinet. For me they are all equally important. Then there
is a significant appendix, which is the lecture series. One
way to describe this project is to say that it visualizes the
entire process leading up to the final exhibition. It's a bit
like going to the cinema and being able to see not only the
film but also the production. The whole operation is made
public, and I'm not interested in distinguishing between
the parts that are art and the ones that aren't. Instead of
keeping everything to myself, it's all acted out in front of
an audience, the group of volunteers being the first circle
For a month this past summer, passersby could stop at the three archaeologist's tents set up on the lawn outside the Tate and observe the cleaning and sorting of the finds. When I visited in August, the team of volunteers was busy in two of the tents, one devoted to Millbank, the other to Bankside. They would carefully wash an object, try to identify it, and then put it in the appropriate box: ceramic, bone, glass, organic, shells, wood, leather, metal, plastic, electrical, textiles, concrete, and so on. Occasionally, some exceptional find would create a stir of excitement. Of course, the number of categories and subcategories increased constantly. In the third tent, a small display of objects had been identified and studied more closely: an assortment of rusty keys, the tiny sole of a baby shoe, a bullet shell, and a mysterious doll that brings voodoo rituals to mind.
Among the more intriguing finds are three bottles with messages inside, one of them representing a real enigma. The Arabic text at the beginning and the end of the message is a prayer. The rest is a secret numeric code as yet indecipherable. Who wrote this note, and for whom was it intended? We'll probably never know. …