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.

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

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