The discovery of a mysterious magical figure from 19th-century Africa by a mudlarker on the Thames banks shocked the skeptic who was amazed to discover it might be worth thousands of dollars.

Experts believe that the unusual-looking and well-preserved 12-inch figure of a wood dog with its torso protruding nails made from metal came from the Congo in late 1800s.

The natives used it to act as a “mediator” between the spirit realm and the dead. This allowed supernatural forces into human affairs.

Nicola White, a professional mudlarker, found it. She trawled the river bed in search of treasure. It was found in the mud of Greenwich in south-east London.

The mystery surrounding how this item got there remains. The possibility is that the item was taken from Africa by Christian missionaries as proof of sorcery, and then brought to Britain.

Some believe it may have been thrown into the sea by an ill-fated sailor.

The figure, believed to be a late 19th century Nkisi Nkondi from the Congo, which was discovered by 'mudlarker' Nicola White

The figure, believed to be a late 19th century Nkisi Nkondi from the Congo, which was discovered by 'mudlarker' Nicola White

Nicola White (pictured), a’mudlarker, discovered a rare magic figure from 19th-century Africa on the banks the River Thames. She was shocked to discover it could have a value of thousands of pounds 

Nicola (pictured) found the artefact in the mud of the River Thames near Greenwich and was at first afraid to touch it as she believed it looked like a Voodoo doll so did not want to disturb it

Nicola (pictured), found the artifact in the mud from the River Thames close to Greenwich. She was initially afraid to touch the object because she thought it looked like a Voodoo doll and didn’t want to disturb.

What does mudlarking mean? 

19th century mudlark from Henry Mayhew's book, London Labour & London Poor, 1861

19th century mudlark from Henry Mayhew’s book, London Labour & London Poor, 1861

 Mudlarking as a profession started in the late 18th and then into the 19th century, and was the name given to people scavenging for things on the riverbank and selling them.

The original mudlarks were children who sold items like nails, rope, and coal that they had found in low-water mud.

They are described as ‘pretty much the poorest level of society, scrabbling around on the foreshore trying desperately to make a living’ by Meriel Jeater, curator in the Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive at the Museum of London. 

Mudlarks had a very low income and were known for their filthy clothes and horrible stench. Mudlarks were a recognized occupation up until the beginning of the 20th Century. 

The British Museum’s Deputy Head for Portable Antiquities and Treasure, Dr Michael Lewis says that the finds of mudlarks can alter our understanding of the past. 

Numerous toys were discovered by the mudlarks, including miniature plates and urns. The history of the Medieval period has been changed by miniature plates, urns and knights on horseback.

The Museum of London acquired more than 90,000. Currently, only a handful of these objects are displayed.

While a person may still be able to claim “mudlark” as their occupation in 1904 it appears that this is not an accepted or legal pursuit.

In 1936, the term is used to describe London’s swimsuit-clad schoolchildren, who were begging people to toss coins in the Thames water to make pocket money for their summer vacations. This was to entertain the passersby.

More recently, metal-detectorists and other individuals searching the foreshore for historic artefacts have described themselves as ‘mudlarks’. 

In London, a license is required from the Port of London authority for this activity and it is illegal to search for or remove artefacts of any kind from the foreshore without one.

It was able to be found there and preserved for over 100 years in the Thames’ oxygen-free mud.

Now, Ms. White works with experts to verify the object’s origin and suggests that the object could be returned to Democratic Republic of Congo.

A mother-of-2 said that the tide had come out and it was about half way up the bank. It was also quite high with plastics, wood and other rubbish.

It looked like a Voodoo doll to me, so I wasn’t sure if I should take it.

“But then, a professor that I know looked at the photos and said it was an important piece art. He believes it to be a Nkisi Nkondi late 19th-century from Congo.

It’s a treasure that I am grateful for, as it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the sea.

“It was only when I took the item home and picked it up that I realized how special it was.

“It is a carving dog that sits upright and has a hole on its back, where some sort of spiritual medicine could be stored.

These objects are believed to contain spiritual power.

According to the missionaries who seized many of these objects in Africa during the 19th century, they found them unchristian and frowned on.

“I believe it is right to return it its home if someone wants it back.”

The Nkisi Nkondi (meaning spirit) was an object believed to have supernatural powers from the realm of the dead that could intervene in human affairs.

His power could have included the ability to treat illness and offer protection from evil as well as punishing people who break social contracts.

Because European missionaries often took such objects and destroyed them, modern examples of these items are rare.

However, some of them were retained as fascinating objects that eventually found their way into Western collections.

Will Hobbs is an expert in African art at Woolley and Wallis auctioneers of Salisbury. Wilts said similar items have sold for thousands of pounds previously in good condition.

He stated that although these figures could be humanoid, the animal form of these figures is called Nkisi Nkondi Koso. These figures were often seen as intermediaries between the realms of the dead and the living, solving problems when needed.

“The nails were used to address any issue that arose, in the hope of assisting the spirits.

It is possible that the figure was brought from Africa by a visitor sailor who discarded it.

“Given the superstitious nature that sailors have, it’s possible that there was bad luck. This fetish was then thrown in the river and figuratively drowned.

Theo Weiss is an assistant curator at Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts and an expert on post-colonial arts. He said: “These objects had strong economic and social functions.

Their power can be positive or negative, and could cause damage in the same way as Voodoo. Or offer protection.

The figure is believed to be a Nkisi Nkondi from the Congo - mediators between the worlds of the living and the dead - often acting as problem solvers. The nails were hammered in each time an issue or problem arose in the belief that the figure would help the spirits intervene

This figure is believed be Nkisi Nkondi of Congo, who are mediators between the realms of the living & the dead. Each time an issue or problem occurred, nails were used to fix it in the belief that this figure would intervene. 

Pictured: Nicola White, a 'mudlarker' who trawls the river looking for treasure, discovered the striking object sticking out of the bank in Greenwich, south east London when the tide was low

Pictured by Nicola White. She was a mudlarker who scoured the river for treasure and found the remarkable object that protruded from the Greenwich bank, in south east London, when the tide was at its lowest.

They were made by a spiritual or diviner known as Nganga who was an adjudicator and referee within society.

“The figures were intentionally menacing and striking, which is why missionaries became so attached to them.

“We have to understand the details of why this person left Congo, in order to identify who could want it back.

“The dog’s shape is what makes it so unique. The most common dog shapes are two-headed with four eyes. They reflect their ability to view into the spirit world.

There are two ways to repatriate a body. It can either be given directly to Kinshasa National Museum or donated to another museum in this country that will carry out the process.

“The DRC wasn’t a British colony. It belonged to Belgium. This could trigger an exchange between European countries about restitution. But that conversation isn’t taking place right now. There isn’t enough collaboration.

Pictured: 'Mudlarker' Nicola White on the banks of the River Thames with a clay pipe

Pictured: 'Mudlarker' Nicola White's other finds include 18th century cannon balls

Pictured: Nicola White, near the Thames, with a claypipe and an 18th Century cannon ball

This figure, found in the Thames, is just one of many eclectic treasures that Ms White has hung in her Greenwich home.

This 48-year old quit finance to become an entrepreneur. She documents the process on her Youtube channel.

She found everything from old canon balls dating back to 18 century to antique smoking pipes. A flagon that was 200 years old belonged in part to Griffith Todd. Charles Todd is the man who built Australia’s first ever telegraph line.