The greatest collection of treasure ever discovered in London is now on show at Museum of London. The Cheapside Hoard was uncovered in 1912, when workmen broke through into a cellar on the eponymous street. The hoard, thought to have been buried in the mid-17th Century, contains more than 500 items, including gemstones, jewellery and cameos. Its allure is not just the beauty of a priceless collection, but also the mystery that still surrounds it. Who did it belong to? Why was it buried? And why was it never recovered?
After its discovery, the treasure was soon split between various museums, and this is the first exhibition to reunite the artefacts.
The hoard is priceless, reflected in the high security. Bags must be placed in lockers. Entry is gained through imposing turnstiles, which you suspect would lock into place if anyone attempted to break into a cabinet. Once past the barriers, however, opulence is everywhere. The walls are decorated in a sumptuous red and gold. A projected, shimmering display recreates the moment the treasure was discovered. Coming so close to the entrance, with eyes unadjusted to the dim light, this is a genuine 'wow' moment.
And then on into the exhibition proper. The opening galleries set the scene, with maps and artefacts explaining the international nature of the gem trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. These displays speculate how the mystery hoarder might have assembled and stored the collection. The introduction finishes with a recreation of a London jewellery workshop, and a brief history of Cheapside. Slightly frustratingly, we're given old plans and maps of the discovery location, but no indication of what the site looks like today. (We reckon it's pretty much where M&S Simply Food now stands in the ugly One New Change building.)
Now, the treasure. We'd half-assumed it would occupy a single grand cabinet at the end of the exhibition. But no. It fills a whole room. Necklaces, ear rings, brooches, tankers, cameos, scent bottles...the wealth on show is staggering in both quantity and quality, and it only reinforces the mystery of how it came to be abandoned.
In one of the few interactive features of the gallery, visitors can gain a whiff of the 18th century court. Perfumer Roja Dove created a Jacobean scent such as might have been contained in the treasure's perfume bottles. To our limited olfaction, it smelled a bit like a spicy version of Brut...which we perhaps stated a bit too loudly, given that Roja was standing nearby. Oops.
Individually, some sections might feel a bit samey if you're not really into the history of jewellery. But it's worth spending some time on each case, pondering whether the items were ever worn, and by whom. Some objects, such as the emerald pocket watch, would stand out among any collection in the V&A or British Museum.
The exhibition concludes with some theories on the hoard's provenance, but the question marks still dangle like pendants.
So go, and prepare to be dazzled by London's original 'hidden gems'.
The Cheapside Hoard at Museum of London, 11 October 2013 till 27 April 2014. Tickets £10/£8.