Tower of London Hits Pay Dirt

Along with a mug and a piece of Royal Derby, tourists may take home some muck

Visitors to the historic Tower of London may soon be coming home with something more original than an imprinted coffee mug or paperweight: a bag of mud.

The "souvenir silt" comes from the structure's original moat, where archaeologists this summer have dug a series of holes in the formerly pristine landscaped grounds to access the possibility of reflooding it.

From medieval times until the 19th century, the moat both beautified the building's environs and helped keep potential invaders at bay. Curators want to bring it back as the relatively new lawn is much higher than the original surface of the water, thus making the Tower's stone walls appear truncated and squat.

A new moat, they reckon, would return the building to its original splendor by revealing the walls' magnificent proportions.

But they didn't count on the amount of dirt, silt, and clay they would have to dig out before they could put the water back in. So far, roughly 30 holes have been excavated, which have yielded some exciting discoveries - and a lot of mud.

"There is an enormous amount of soil to shift," says David Honour, head of design at the Curatorial Department of the Historic Royal Palaces Agency. "A pile of soil that comes out of a relatively small hole actually expands."

The Tower, one of the most famous historical sites in Britain, was first built in 1066 under the reign of William the Conqueror.

Originally a simple fort, it was transformed into a palace-fortress and subsequently enlarged by various kings.

Today it is a showcase for tourists, not only for its historical significance, but also because it houses the Crown Jewels.

One of the chief treasuries for medieval kings, the Tower has become a repository for Royal paraphernalia. Coronation robes, scepters, and crowns are all on display, including the Queen Mother's crown, which holds the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, and the Royal scepter that holds the Star of Africa, the largest cut diamond in the world, weighing in at 530.2 carats.

Until Victorian times, teams were hired to clean out the moat, which was renowned for helping to protect the treasures within. But 18th-century prints of the Tower show it had already become shallow and a bit swampy, with hundreds of bulrushes growing in it.

To add insult to injury, the Duke of Wellington, who filled in the moat in 1843 when he was Tower governor, dumped all sorts of rubble into it to level it off. It was briefly used as a parade ground before it was grassed over.

The most unusual find during the recent excavation has been a stone entrance or barbican to the Tower, a massive structure with a timber bridge built in the 13th century which apparently collapsed as it was being constructed.

"The barbican is very exciting. In its remains one can see attempts by medieval builders to keep it up, including piles of beechwood rammed into it," says Simon Thurley, curator for the Historic Royal Palaces. "These are all ripped apart, and today it looks as if a tremendous earthquake has hit the remains."

Other finds, one of which was discovered last year during a preliminary dig, have included an iron gate causeway, which formed the eastern entrance to the Tower, as well as ancient pottery and pipes, which archaeologists believe will be vital in correctly dating all the artifacts.

One future problem in the restoration process, however, is that the level of the Thames River, which runs adjacent to the Tower and from which the moat water originally flowed, has fluctuated greatly over past centuries.

"A lot will depend on how deep they decide to put the water in," says Mr. Honour. "It will be a real piece of detective work to come up with the correct level to flood it to give the right appearance to the Tower and surrounding buildings."

At present, the lawn near one entrance to the Tower, which enjoys 2.5 million visitors annually, is marred by a huge mound of mud thanks to the preliminary detective work, and similar messy mountains are expected to spring up all over the Tower grounds.

While the mud could be sold as landfill or dumped at sea, it is hoped there might be some added value in it.

One suggestion being bandied about is fashioning the dark clay into Tower earthenware pots, which could be sold with the official Tower symbol imprinted on it. The current small gift shop at the Tower does more than $2 million of business per year, selling primarily manufactured souvenirs such as tea towels and costume jewelry imitating Royal designs.

Another possibility could involve simply selling containers of pure, unadulterated mud in the gift shop, much as pieces of the Berlin Wall were sold after the collapse of communism. "The biggest problem," says Honour, "is the sheer quantity of it."

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