Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Cheapside Hoard

A portion of the Cheapside Hoard, via Coutts

Almost a century ago, workmen were demolishing an old building in London’s Cheapside neighbourhood when they made an extraordinary discovery in the cellars.  Buried there for almost 400 years was a case of some 500 gems and jewellery items.

“The Hoard is the finest collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery in the world,” says Forsyth [senior curator at the Museum of London]. And emphasising its importance, she says, “It’s probably the most remarkable find ever recovered from British soil.”

There are garnets from India, emeralds from Columbia, turquoise from Iran - the most astonishing array of precious and semi-precious stones from around the world. A beautiful deep red cut almandine garnet was, I’m told, tied to the forehead and used as a cure for melancholy. A small mottled brown, grey stone looks like a polished acorn cup. This is one of 14 toadstones and is from a fossilised fish tooth and approximately 150 million years old. At the time people thought they came from toads and would kill them to extract the stone, which was believed to be an antidote to poison.

In all, there is a dizzying range of precious items in the collection.  But this wasn’t the collection of a monarch or aristocrat, it appears to be a working jeweller’s stock: Cheapside was, amongst other trades, the centre for London’s gold-smithing - indeed there is a street in the area called Goldsmith Row (along with Bread and Poultry streets) – and the hoard has many pieces that appear to still be in progress.  Just how much stock did jewellers in Tudor London keep if they could manage to just misplace such a large cache?  And what were they all doing to keep their stores secure?

The other surprise is that although almost all of the hoard is in the Museum of London, it isn’t on display.  Instead it sits in storage within the museum’s strong room, “in small foam-packed clear plastic boxes”.  And so, like the Cheapside gold smiths, one wonders how many frighteningly valuable treasures Europe’s museums are in possession of that they can afford to keep treasures like this in storage.

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