Shackles found in River Thames hold ghoulish tale

Wed Aug 26, 2009 1:24pm EDT
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By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - An iron ball and chain found on the banks of London's River Thames is causing a stir amongst archaeologists who say the 300 year-old artifact used to restrain convicts on ships may have a gruesome story to tell.

The leg irons, believed to date from the 17th or 18th century, were pulled from the mud with the lock fastened, suggesting a convict could have drowned while trying to escape.

The prospect conjures up a tantalizing tale reminiscent of the work of 19th century Victorian author Charles Dickens, said Museum of London archaeologist Kate Sumnall who examined the find.

"Whether a real-life 'Magwitch' freed himself from the 'great iron on his leg', or perished in shackles, or whether this ball was simply discarded, we can never know," she said.

Abel Magwitch is a character in "Great Expectations" -- a violent convict who escapes from a prison-ship.

"Nothing like this has ever come across my desk before," Sumnall said, adding that to find a complete set of irons was very rare.

She said the fact that the device is made of high quality iron made it very valuable at the time suggesting that it was unlikely to have been discarded.

"And we also know from the lock design that it was not a slave ball and chain," she said.   Continued...

<p>Museum of London archaeologist Kate Sumnall with the the 300 year-old iron ball and chain found on the banks of the river Thames by mudlarks. REUTERS/Museum of London/Handout</p>