A historical mystery has gone on display at the Museum of London as the greatest collection of Elizabethan and and Stuart period jewellery has been laid out for the first time in a hundred years.
Known as the Cheapside Hoard, you may have seen cryptic adverts showing a zombie hand reaching down for jewels in the mud — in a stylised recreation of how the jewels were discovered back in 1912, in the basement of a building in the City of London.
Sadly due to the way they were discovered, very little is known about the state they were in at the time, or the box that may have once contained them. Equally mysterious is who buried them, and why, having buried a King’s Ransom in jewels, they never returned to claim them.
Discovered by builders, then fortuitously sold to a dealer who was sensible enough to recognise their significance, after a bit of squabbling, they ended up in the Museum of London, and apart from a partial display in 1914, have not been seen on any scale since.
So this is a collection that very few people have seen before, and never has the entire known horde been put on display before.
I knew it was a large collection from a preview earlier this year, but can a box of jewels really fill the vast exhibition space in the bowels of the Museum? That they have indeed managed to fill the exhibition space may give you an idea of just how sizable this collection really is.
Entry is through a security gate and leads you around a corner into a dimly lit room filled with glass boxes and walls lined with portraits of likely buyers of such jewels, and even a replica workshop of a goldsmith.
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Thanks to the lack of historical context to the hoard, the display is laid out in collections based on the types of jewels rather than in any historical aspect. So clusters of rings, stones, necklaces, fill the displays, although a few cabinets are given over the significant finds such as the emerald pocket watch.
It’s a display that combines the allure of the jewels themselves with the historical mystery of their construction, their concealment, and their eventual discovery.
Wandering around the dim room, there are magnifying glasses in some of the display cases so you can get visually closer to the tiny objects which would be a marvel of craftsmanship if made today, let alone 400 years ago.
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A pervading odour in part of the room is a fragrance that has been made based on the remains found inside a perfume bottle and you can open a small window to waft a bit more out and get a sniff of Jacobean London.
You can wander around and ponder the mystery or admire the jewels. Worth pondering as well is how coloured stones were not just decorative, but were often considered to be medical. People would wear a specific stone to ward off an illness, much as people wear copper bracelets to ward off arthritis. And with about as much effect.
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The jewels are not just historically important, but commercially valuable so entry is via the metal turnstile — in fact the sort I often use to get onto building sites — and bags have to be left in lockers outside (£1 fee).
The museum has also produced a book, which looked to be rather good at a brief look — and some replica jewels which could make for a fine Christmas Tree if you can buy enough of them.
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It’s rare to say something is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but this could be such a moment, as the collection hasn’t been seen for 100 years, and it could well be another 100 years before it is seen again.
Some more photos: