The really ol’ ball and chain

A rare complete set of prison shackles were found by official Thames mudlarks (yes, there are official mudlarks, 50 or so people licensed to dig for artifacts in the mud on the Thames shores) on a warf in southeast London. It’s the only known full set of irons to have been found via excavation.

At first mudlarks Steve Brooker and Rick Jones thought they’d find a cannon ball. They almost discarded it because they see so many cannon balls they’re hardly worth digging up anymore. Our heroes followed up, however, and found instead something unique.

The padlock is skillfully made with the screw-thread carved after the padlock had been cast. English padlocks of this time were not made in this way suggesting it was made somewhere in continental Europe, possibly Germany.

The long spike on the padlock would have pointed toward the other leg when it was fitted around the ankle, Sumnall said.

The shackles are about 300 years old, and since they were found locked without a key, may have ended up in the Thames with someone poor soul actually attached to them. There were no human remains, but they could easily have been scattered by the currents.

The 17.64 lb fetters were well-preserved by the thick anaerobic Thames mud so they’re in excellent condition. They’re on display right now for a limited time at the Museum of London Docklands.