Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Cheapside Hoard: An Anthropological Triumph?

by Isabel Stark

For many, when any form of anthropology is mentioned the mind wonders across oceans and into far away countries with the romantic images of ethnographical masks, spears and primitive mud huts; however, this collection (the Cheapside Hoard) doesn’t makes us cross a space but, instead, the fourth dimension: Time.

Within the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean era, there was a flourish and an overwhelming hive of productivity within the crafts, especially jewellery. With ships and adventurers able to bravely bring back hoards of these sparklingly new and richly coloured jewels, there was a creativity which allowed the jewellers of the 16th century to experiment to the greatest capacity, creating items that would be modern for today.

At probably the most unassuming and quiet museum tucked away on part of London’s arty and somewhat forgotten Barbican Estate, The Museum of London holds only one redeeming quality. Its grimy 1970s architecture seems to leave nothing to be desired and the air of inspiration which surrounds most of the best museums is missing; at first glance, the outlook is bleak. How can anything of value lie inside this run-down building? The entrance isn’t much better. Yes, it’s modern, but full of those red-faced children screaming, all desperate to be somewhere else during their precious one week of holiday, all the time slipping from their fingers like sand in an hourglass draining away. 
After putting my bag within a locker (compulsory for security) then proceeding down to the lower floor, I am greeted by what looks like a bank --- a bank in a film set: large metal gates, men with guns. I walk through, being looked at all the time after handing my ticket over. Wow. This exhibition greets you with, at first, the historical guide to what was going on in the Elizabethan era, how jewellery was designed then made, and an explanation of the vital gem trade. There is a mock-up of a goldsmith’s workshop and through the window you can make out a faint sparkle; after turning the corner, you are greeted with the most wonderful historical find and collection, yet one with an air of mystery so great: the Cheapside Hoard.

The Cheapside Hoard is a 500-piece collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery that ranges from cameos, necklaces and fan pins to rings and watches that were found in one wooden box in 1912 at 32 Cheapside, London by a worker with a pick axe. Why was it buried there? When was it buried there? And who buried it? Just a few of the unsolved and vital questions that have been asked over and over again to help piece together the mystery behind this marvellous collection.
Despite not knowing the full background after viewing such objects, we become aware of the decadence and luxury the upper class lived in.  Picking a favourite item within such a vast array of beauty is like picking a favourite child; however, there were earrings which had such sweetness to them. These earrings were bunches of grapes. Each earring had six or seven bunches of either sapphire or amethyst grapes. Grapes were available only from Europe; to consume them, at the time, would be a great symbol of prestige and wealth so having earrings based upon them we can learn that this was of great importance. The loop at the top of the earring indicates that it was hung from the ear by some piece of fabric instead of being a metal that is integral to the earring, threaded through the loop then tied into place. Uncomfortable as it may seem it was incredibly practical. This allowed the earring to have other functions such a hair ornament and pendant. Many items had these multiple functions due to their extreme value and therefore there was a need to display every item you owned and in turn display your wealth, which would determine your social status. This we know is true from portraiture of the time. At the exhibition there are several portraits; one is of Margaret Cotton, the wife of a wealthy merchant, who is not only wearing rings but also, within her ruff, has a ring sewn on. The ingenuity of the Elizabethans can only be applauded. The indulgence in draping oneself in precious jewels was not just restricted to the women; in fact, men displayed more vanity than their female counterparts. Clasps, buttons, hats were all encrusted with diamonds, opals and topaz; however, unlike female jewellery, these could not be re-used, so, instead, required a larger quantity.

Despite having only a fraction of the jigsaw, we can piece together, from working closely with portraiture, just how important and how vital this jewellery was to the upper class, aristocracy and royalty and how the design still transcends to today. The Museum of London, being a social history museum, is actually the perfect residence for this collection as well as only being five minutes away from its burial location. The Cheapside Hoard is an anthropological and archaeological triumph. The use for the long chains, some up to four metres, we can now realise: they would’ve been placed round the woman’s neck then sewn onto the dress’ bodice. These chains were made with hair-thin spires of gold whose fragility would’ve meant the chains were likely to break under the exhaustion of sewing and re-sewing, yet the detail and expense of materials seem hardly worth it. Yet again, the social status and respect one would gain in court overpowers any monetary cost. Gold, amethyst and white enamel, these are the 3 predominant colours and materials used for these long and elegant chains.

The white enamel which surrounds any other materials used on these chains is unbelievably current; this season’s colour not only within jewellery but also within fashion is white. The clean, minimalist and pure jewellery designs which are all shown within The Cheapside are having a real resurgence within modern designers repertoires. One needn’t look further than Pippa Small, whose ring designs from her MADE collection are identical to the Elizabethan rings which represented the English rose, plied and bashed gold which encases large rough-cut polished block coloured jewels such as opal, sugalite or diamond. Small’s mixed five moonstone large bracelet also resembles those from the Jacobean era  the polished, sliced and flat pearl pendants which hang from the same yellow gold chains. Or Kiki Macdonald and her eternal Peridot and Amethyst rings. There are many comparisons.

Not only are there precious jewels within the hoard but also counterfeits. The presence of these counterfeits is very important in showing us the type and scale of fraud that was being committed within this field. A large red spinel that was found can be seen with drilling damage, which would have made it unsellable; a solution to such an error would be replacing the spinel with a counterfeit. These counterfeits, from The Cheapside Hoard we now know, were made from rock crystal, which was heated, then placed within water containing the right colour dye. These counterfeit spinels would fetch anywhere up to £7,000. 

The Cheapside Hoard is an awe –inspiring exhibition. The excitement of playing adventurer and uncovering such a precious and mysterious collection which was hidden from the world’s eyes for so long is magical. The objects tantalisingly close, we gain so much knowledge from this collection, but there will always be unanswered and unsolved questions: were they ever worn? If so, by who? Who buried them? Why? And who was this incredible goldsmith? However, this, for me, is the excitement. Yes, the craftsmanship, the rarity and the value; but also the mystery which allows our mind to roam freely is a gem.

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