Buried treasure: The Cheapside Hoard

The Cheapside Hoard is a collection of jewelry dating from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras that was discovered by a workman in 1912 while he was excavating a dark antique cellar on Cheapside Street in London. Inside a decayed wooden box a treasure was revealed consisting of more than 400 pieces of jewelry, including rings, brooches, chains, toadstones, cameos, scent bottles, fan holders, crystal tankards, and a salt cellar.

The location of the astonishing find was an old tenement house at 30-32 Cheapside in London, on the corner with Friday Street. A trio of adjoining houses there was scheduled for demolition.

While the hoard was found in 1912, the jewelry dates from the late 1500s to the early 1600s and the location where the hoard was found is thought to have been the premises of a Jacobean goldsmith. Cheapside was at the commercial heart of the City of London in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. There were shops selling all sorts of luxury goods and many goldsmiths worked in this area.

This image from the Gemological Institute of America shows the tenement where the Cheapside Hoard was found (the building shaded in red). The tenement building is no longer there but the essence of Cheapside remains the same, a busy commercial area!

What would you do if you found buried treasure?

When the Cheapside Hoard was found in 1912, it wasn't simply delivered to a museum -- box and contents intact. No, many of the excavating workers are thought to have initially pocketed pieces of the treasure.

 George Lawrence, known as Stoney Jack, evaluating an artifact. He was something a complicated, controversial figure.

George Lawrence, known as Stoney Jack, evaluating an artifact. He was something a complicated, controversial figure.

Luckily, an antiquities trader and pawnbroker named George Fabian Lawrence -- who became the inspector of excavations for the London Museum -- had established a relationship with demolition workers and would pay them in cash or pints of beer for interesting finds made in the course of their work.

So over the weeks following the amazing discovery -- but also many years later -- pieces of the collection trickled in, eventually comprising a collection of almost 500 specimens of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry.

A peep inside the Cheapside Hoard treasure chest

One of the most important items from the Cheapside Hoard is this large Columbian emerald pocket watch, circa 1600. Watches first appeared in England around 1540, and Columbian emeralds reached Europe by the late 1500s. Taking advantage of the crystal’s hexagonal shape, the maker removed a slice for the cover, cut out a central section for the movement, and used that gem material to embellish the metalwork. Green enamel decorates various parts of the watch. The artistry and meticulous engineering indicate this timepiece was intended for nobility.

A luscious, ornate scent bottle, or pomander, was another exquisite discovery. The bejeweled handle suggests that it was hung from a chain. This gold bottle with white enamel is set with milky chalcedony carvings of leaves, rubies, pink sapphires, spinels, and diamonds. The bottle would have contained musk oils combined with essential oils, ambergris, and other substances to prolong the perfume.

 From the Gemological Institute of America.

From the Gemological Institute of America.

The Hoard was not without its imitation pieces, like this quench-crackled and dyed quartz made to resemble spinel. A genuine spinel of this size would have sold for hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds in the 1600s.

The counterfeiter used an old recipe for quench-crackling inexpensive rock crystal quartz and infusing the surface-reaching fissures with a red dye—possibly cochineal, an insect-based dye—to produce a very realistic imitation of spinel. Three and a half centuries later, the dye has faded to a pale pinkish orange.

And these were the days of fan handles. A necessary accessory for the Edwardian and Jacobean lady to keep that glow under control and to send coy messages by way of "fan language." Here are some of the exquisite fan handles found in the hoard.

This enameled gold hat ornament in the form of a salamander is one of the Cheapside Hoard’s most iconic pieces. The enameling on the front shows an open mouth with tiny black flecks resembling teeth. The pin is decorated with cabochon emeralds from Colombia, and the tail contains table-cut diamonds.

 From the Gemological Institute of America.

From the Gemological Institute of America.

Another treasure from the Cheapside Hoard is the amethyst grapevine pendant. This pendant is created with amethyst and enameled gold. Seven amethysts, carved and polished to represent bunches of ‘black’ grapes, hang from tiered sprigs of recurving wire and a short length of chain.

Not into purple? Then perhaps green will do! An emerald grapevine pendant is also part of the Hoard.


Eaten by time -- and escapees

Not everything came out of the Cheapside Hoard unscathed. There was evidence of soil damage indicating that the original box had been in a state of decomposition. The other thing that is clear is that many - many - pearls were missing. One expert concluded that there were probably around 4000 pearls, maybe more, that simply rotted away.

 Pearl and wirework pendant from the Cheapside Hoard. Notice the nacre on the pearls has worn away.

Pearl and wirework pendant from the Cheapside Hoard. Notice the nacre on the pearls has worn away.

This sparkling gold and enameled opal hat pin from the Cheapside Hoard is particularly interesting. Opal is prone to damage by heat and yet the condition of the delicate stone in this piece demonstrates that the treasure was well protected. So well protected, in fact, that it survived being buried for 300 years and clearly withstood the Great Fire of London in 1666, which obliterated the wooden structure just above the cellar where the hoard was found.

 Toadstones from Jurassic sediments in Oxfordshire UK.

Toadstones from Jurassic sediments in Oxfordshire UK.

 A 1497 illustration by Johannes de Cuba, depicting the extraction and use of a toadstone.

A 1497 illustration by Johannes de Cuba, depicting the extraction and use of a toadstone.


Among the curious treasures found in the Cheapside Hoard were toadstones. I don't think we've ever had a toadstone at Grimball Jewelers -- and I don't think any of our customers have asked for one. Curious about the curious stone? Here's the scoop!

Toadstones are the fossilized teeth of a fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Instead of sharp teeth, they had a kind of pavement of teeth they used for grinding mollusk shells. In the Middle Ages they were believed to come from the bumps on toads backs. Because toads were believed to be poisonous, the stones were believed to guard against poisons and disease - even the Plague, Leprosy, and Epilepsy. They were frequently made into rings and other jewelry and worn as protection. The backs of these rings were open so the stone could be in contact with the skin of the wearer, to give them more potency. Queen Elizabeth I was known to wear one and Shakespeare wrote about them in As You Like It:

Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

Who buried the Hoard in the first place?

The Cheapside Hoard included a mixture of finished jewels of the latest fashion and design, alongside other pieces that may have already been in circulation for centuries. Some of the stones had been removed from their settings, possibly for a jeweler to repair or repurpose. Many researchers believe the collection was most likely owned by a jeweler or syndicate of jewelers, but the extent and diversity of its contents also suggest the possibility that a wealthy collector or even a fence for stolen property could have owned it.

The images below show the front and back of a rose-cut sapphire and diamond cross pendant that would have been worn with enameled chains during the Elizabethan era. The back of the pendant (right) showcases highly skilled enameling and delicate metalsmithing.

 From the Gemological Institute of America.

From the Gemological Institute of America.

Where is the Cheapside Hoard today?

Most of the collection now resides permanently at the Museum of London. Its pieces continue to draw acclaim for their diversity, their enormous chronological range, and their relatively pristine condition. “This collection is unique in the world,” explained Hazel Forsyth, the museum’s senior curator of medieval and post-medieval collections. “It is the largest hoard of its kind, dating from the very late 16th to the early 17th century. Part of the reason why it’s so important is that jewelry tends to be broken up, refashioned, reworked, and so therefore doesn’t survive. Because this was buried and lay undisturbed for the better part of 300 years, it survived in the condition that it has.”

Unfortunately, the Hoard is not on permanent display. However, a couple of year back the London Museum put on an exhibition celebrating the 100th year anniversary of its discovery. You can learn and see a little more on this short YouTube video.



Gemological Institute of America: The Museum of London’s Extraordinary Cheapside Hoard

Museum of London: The Cheapside Hoard

The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewelers by Hazel Forsyth