The day buried treasure was found in Cheapside

The true story of the Cheapside Hoard is the stuff of fairy tales. But there are reasons why this unique collection of 16th- and 17th-century jewellery has never before been displayed in its entirety.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels
Museum of London, EC2

It’s the stuff of fairy tales. Pickaxes fall on the cellar floor of an old house. A workman freezes as he sees something glinting in the dirt. Then pandemonium as he and his fellows scrabble among the broken-up bricks and clay, heaving out clumps of gold, emeralds and pearls. There is more and more: long chains, earrings, bags of loose gems. They cannot believe their luck. They’ve found buried treasure.

But this was real life – Cheapside, London, 1912. And so, before living happily ever after, the navvies, who had been employed to demolish a set of shops, had to find someone prepared to buy goods of dubious provenance. It wasn’t as if they were going to go to the buildings’ owners and sacrifice the prospect of making a bit of decent money for themselves. They knew exactly the man to call on: Stony Jack, the pawnbroker and antiquary. He toured the pubs around the City and paid for bits of pottery, glass or coins that turned up during excavations, which he would sell on to collectors and institutions. Working with the newly established London Museum to save the Cheapside Hoard for the nation was to be his crowning achievement.

But the shady nature of the deals Stony Jack made is one reason why this unique collection of 16th- and 17th-century jewellery has never before been displayed in its entirety. The British Museum, used to getting first dibs on “treasure trove”, had to be placated with several bits of jewellery. Another piece ended up at the V&A.

Now, at last, everything is in one place. The curator Hazel Forsyth has assembled a dazzling exhibition that carefully grounds the hoard in its social and economic context. The displays guide visitors along the journey these jewels once took, by ship to the metropolis, into strongboxes, and finally to a workshop on Cheapside. For that is what the treasure represents – the stock-in-trade of a working goldsmith. As well as many finished pieces, it comprises gems waiting to be set and rough stones waiting to be sorted. The academics’ best guess is that it was buried for safekeeping during the upheaval of the civil war, and never reclaimed.

With the introduction over, we turn a corner into the main room. There is almost too much to take in: rings, necklaces and pendants are suspended everywhere. It is easy to miss some of the smaller objects – a tiny emerald parrot, representing erotic love (parrots were believed to be promiscuous), a red squirrel carved from cornelian, an exquisite strawberry leaf in bloodstone. All are heavy with symbolism. The strawberry leaf has three points for the Holy Trinity. A sinuous, enamelled, emerald-set salamander reminds the wearer of resurrection, as this animal is believed to be able to walk through fire. Most of the jewellery has a rough-hewn quality. The gems glow, rather than sparkle, the gold settings are chunky and irregular. This is no Bond Street jet-set sparkle, no oligarch’s bling.

Yet to look at the early-modern London of the Cheapside Hoard is to observe an elite just as decadent and wasteful as our own. It is only age that makes it seem nobler. In fact, the continuity is startling: One New Change, a luxury shopping mall complete with designer jewellers, stands today where the collection was dug up. And around it loom the financial institutions that have their origin in the “goldsmith bankers” of the 16th and 17th centuries; they were the first merchants in England to change and lend money, and to offer a secure place to store valuables.

So London runs on riches now as it did then. But the hoard teaches another lesson. Wealth is transient. It can disappear. Much of the collection may have belonged to the Stafford family, forced into exile in 1641 and stripped of its assets. Then the treasure fell out of the hands of a goldsmith and into the hands of navvies. It has come to rest in a public museum, where it sits in all its priceless glory, to all intents and purposes worth nothing.

The Cheapside Hoard is on display until 27 April 2014. Details: museumoflondon.org.uk David Shariatmadari is a deputy comment editor at the Guardian

Unique hexagonal watch and "Medusa" emerald. Image courtesy of the Museum of London

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses