Did you see our curator Meriel Jeater make a special appearance on the Royal Institution 2012 Christmas Lectures? She tells us all about her experience here…
Well, actually more like two minutes of fame but anyway, here’s how it happened. Recently I had the great pleasure and excitement of taking a Roman gold necklace, strung with emerald beads, to be filmed as part of a Royal Institution of Great Britain Christmas lecture. The necklace is from the Museum of London collection and is normally on display in our Roman gallery. The RI wanted an example of an ancient gold object that would demonstrate the amazing properties of gold – that it doesn’t tarnish or rust and can come out of the ground after thousands of years looking as fresh as the day it was buried. We offered them a selection of gold items from our collection and they chose this beautiful necklace fragment.
Where was it found?
This necklace was found by archaeologists excavating on the site of 48-50 Cannon Street in the City of London in 1975. It probably dates to between 100 AD and 300AD.
Why is it an interesting piece?
Fine jewellery like this is very rare in Britain. This was the first necklace of its kind to be found on an excavation in Britain so it is an incredibly important piece. Delicate, flexible gold necklaces with emeralds like this were fashionable across the Roman Empire and several examples have been found in places like Pompeii in Italy. This necklace shows that people in Britain were following fashions current across the empire, even though they were living right on the edge of the Roman world.
Where did the necklace come from?
It’s made from gold, which could have come from a number of places in the Roman Empire. The main source of gold in Britain was Wales but there were also sources in Scotland and Cornwall. The only known Roman gold mine in Britain was in Carmarthenshire in Wales. It isn’t possible to tell where the gold is from but from analysis we know that it is very pure – it contains around 95% gold and up to 5% copper. Roman gold jewellery is commonly much purer than ours is today (a modern 9 carat gold ring can contain as little as 37.5% gold).
Analysis has shown that the emeralds are from Egypt. Emeralds were highly prized in the Roman world for their colour. Colour was very important in Roman jewellery. Today we are more concerned with our gems being clear and sparkly, whereas in Roman times people didn’t mind that gems were cloudy, they just wanted them to have a vivid colour. We don’t know if the necklace was made here with the emeralds shipped in from Egypt or whether it arrived already made.
It’s important to remember that this object is the result of many people’s back-breaking labour. Roman mines for gems and metals like gold were manned by slaves and condemned criminals. The conditions were appalling and very dangerous. The workers were often chained and kept down in the mine under constant guard and beaten regularly to keep them working. People may have died so that this necklace could be made and worn. If the gold came from Britain it could have been mined by native British people pressed into service in the mines. Just like with many of our modern products, the poorest and most deprived people in Roman society would have worked to produce something worn by the most privileged.
Who might have owned this necklace?
We can’t be sure who owned this necklace and how they came to lose it. It has almost certainly been lost otherwise it would have been melted down and turned into something else and we would never have found it. We don’t know whether it was lost by a jeweller working in Londinium or whether it belonged to a rich Roman lady. In 1994 a nearby archaeological site uncovered evidence of gold working in this area with the discovery of three crucibles containing traces of gold. This shows that gold melting and refining was happening here.
If it did belong to a lady, she would have been wealthy, possibly the wife or daughter of a rich landowner or merchant. We know from excavations around Cannon Street that there were high status houses here with mosaic floors, central heating and beautifully painted walls. Perhaps the lady owner lived close by and was walking through the streets of London on the way to visit the baths one morning or to see friends and her necklace broke. From burial evidence in London we know that some women were able to afford silk clothing with gold embroidery – she may have been one of these elite ladies able to afford the finer things in life. Whoever the owner was (we could let our imaginations run for days coming up with ideas around this) they must have been very upset to lose such a lovely object. I’m certainly very glad that we have it in our collection and that I was able to take it to the Royal Institution for an amazing day of science.
Find out more: Metal working in Roman London