Being an archaeologist sometimes comes attached with this idealised image of treasure hunting; we’re meant to find gold aren’t we? Well, the reality is that most of the time we’re just shifting soil and recording lines in the earth. However, not today! Because today is all about those rare instances when shiny stuff pops up and you get a little excited.
This was indeed the case in 1986, when archaeologists were digging the area of the East Smithfield in Tower Hamlets. When researching this blog, I took a look at the finds register in the records for this site. In scribbled handwriting were the typical finds that come up; unidentified copper, ceramic tile, glass bottle base. But then in big capital letters we get GOLD! Although at the time the object hadn’t really been identified. It wasn’t until the post excavation that this little artefact became one of only four noteworthy metal objects to be mentioned in the finds report for the area of the Abbey of St Mary Graces (which was discovered during the excavations) It’s pretty small, only 32mm in length, but what we’ve got here is a miniature golden sceptre, which in all likelihood would have been held in the hand of a wooden statue. One can only assume who the statue was of, with the two most likely options being either the virgin Mary or Edward III, the founder of the abbey. Sadly though, the archaeologist was wrong. For despite the joy of finding GOLD!, it’s actually gilded silver. Still, pretty nice.
In 1983, a watching brief took place near Billingsgate where an abundance of material was discovered, including many religious objects. Most were made of lead alloys, but one was made of… GOLD! Though due to corrosion this one was even more tricky to identify. Not featuring in the reports from the site, it almost got overlooked, but following a bit of conservation it turned out to be a reliquary. These would have been very special artefacts for pilgrims as they would have contained a relic from the pilgrimage site. It’s uncertain what would have been contained inside this one, but being gold, one can only assume it must have been something quite valuable indeed.
So finding gold is quite something, yet, all that glitters need not be gold for the archaeologist. Some of our most special artefacts at the Museum’s Archaeological Archive are actual gemstones dating back almost 2000 years. One of my particular favourites is this example which was discovered by one of London’s most important archaeologists, William Francis Grimes, when excavating the City wall in 1949. The object is an amethyst intaglio and it has been cut with the figure of Cupid. It’s a bit tricky to see but Cupid stands, albeit stooping, with a torch in his left hand and a butterfly in his right. This theme of the burning of a butterfly is fairly commonplace; the butterfly symbolising the soul and the overall theme being the anguish between the two parts of the human personality. The rough cutting may mean it wasn’t worn by the richest of people but that for me makes it all the more human and provides a connection to the everyday Londoner in Londinium.
So in terms of archaeology, all that glitters needn’t be gold (though it’s nice when it is). Discover more gems from our collection on our behind the scenes tour this Saturday, tickets available online.