British Museum blog

Finishing a 3D, 2,000 year-old Roman jigsaw puzzle: the Hallaton helmet unveiled


JD Hill, British Museum

This morning a rare and extraordinary Roman helmet was shown in public for the first time since it was buried 2,000 years ago. A decade after its discovery in Leicestershire, the painstaking process of reconstruction, and conservation is complete and it is ready to go on display at Harborough Museum.

The helmet after conservation

The helmet after conservation

Still in the soil block in which it was found, the fragile helmet was brought to the British Museum where initial study in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research revealed a much more complex assemblage than had been expected.

The block that the helmet pieces have been extracted from

The block that the helmet pieces have been extracted from

British Museum conservator Marilyn Hockey, and colleagues Fleur Shearman and Duygu Camurcuoglu undertook the micro-excavation, stabilisation and reconstruction of the hundreds of fragments – a task described as being like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Thanks to this process we know the helmet was probably made between AD 25 and AD 50 and that it was crafted from sheet iron, covered with silver sheet and decorated in places with gold leaf.

A reconstruction drawing of how the helmet might have originally looked. Illustration by Bob Whale

A reconstruction drawing of how the helmet might have originally looked. Illustration by Bob Whale

This decoration features a wreath, the symbol of a military victory, and a scallop-shaped browguard, which shows the bust of a woman flanked by animals. The cheekpieces depict a Roman emperor on horseback with the goddess Victory flying behind and, beneath his horse’s hooves, a cowering figure (possibly a native Briton).

Clearly, such an object would not have been cheap to produce, so we can say with some certainty that it was the property of someone very important, perhaps a high-ranking Roman officer.

 


 

It was found by members of the Hallaton Fieldwork Group and professional archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and caused quite a stir at the time. The original finders joked that they’d discovered a “rusty bucket”, but in fact they’d got one of the earliest Roman helmets found in Britain, believed to have been buried in the years around the Roman Emperor Claudius’ invasion of AD 43.

But that wasn’t all they’d found. Some 5,296 Iron Age and Roman coins were also unearthed, most of them locally-made and dating to about AD 20/30-50. That’s almost 10 percent of all known surviving British Iron Age coins – and the largest number of Iron Age coins ever excavated in Britain – found at this one site.

Most of the hoards included Iron Age silver coins, as well as a small number of Iron Age gold and Roman silver coins

Most of the hoards included Iron Age silver coins, as well as a small number of Iron Age gold and Roman silver coins

Add to that, evidence suggestive of ritual feasting dating back to the first century AD and the significance of this discovery really begins to emerge.

Collectively these finds became known as the Hallaton Treasure and were acquired by Leicestershire County Council with help from a large number of funding bodies, organisations and institutions.

But why was it buried in east Leicestershire (very likely by the hands of native Britons)? The answer is; we just don’t know. But there are a number of theories.

Perhaps it was actually owned by an important local man who served in the Roman cavalry before or during the Roman conquest. He might have chosen to bury his highly-prized helmet at his local shrine as a gift to the gods on his return home.

Or, perhaps it was a diplomatic gift to a supportive local population. It has also been suggested that it was spoil of war, or captured during a battle or a raid.

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

We may never know for sure why this amazing collection of objects ended up buried in the east Midlands, but it certainly speaks of a fascinating moment in the history of this part of the world and, in its current state, the skill and dedication of conservators, scientists, archaeologists and curators here at the British Museum and in Leicestershire.

As for the helmet, if you ask me it will become a new iconic object of the Roman conquest. Future books and TV programmes about this momentous event will have to feature it. That’s the sort of key find this is.

The Hallaton Helmet will be displayed permanently at Harborough Museum, Market Harborough, Leicestershire from Saturday 28 January alongside the other finds from the Hallaton Treasure. The helmet will not be on display at the British Museum.

Find out more about the Hallaton Treasure

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Conservation, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, Research, , , ,

9 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Doug Jackson says:

    I just wondered why the British Museum should be encouraging papers like the Daily Telegraph to perpetuate this rubbish about the helmet changing our perspective of the relationship between British and Romans.

    ‘Jeremy Hill, head of research at the British Museum, said: You’ve got to rethink it, the same with the relationship between Romans and Britons.’

    and

    The [findings raise the] ”distinct possibility” that it belonged to a Briton serving in the Roman cavalry before the conquest of Britain raises questions about the relationship between Romans and Britons.

    Where is there any evidence for this? Even if the helmet could be accurately dated to 43AD, which I doubt, there is ample evidence that these parade helmets (see the report on the Trimontium helmets) were passed down through generations of Roman or auxiliary soldiers. The helmet could have been placed in the ‘shrine’ at any point over a hundred years. Surely the much more likely scenario is that it was plunder from some kind of localised victory during either the fighting after the invasion, or probably more likely, during the Boudiccan rebellion? It could also have been some sort of gift to buy off a tribal king. Neither of these scenarios requires the rewriting of history.

    I write Roman-set historical fiction for a living and I wouldn’t get away with such an outrageous leap of faith. Historians shouldn’t be rewriting history for the sake of headlines.

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  2. @ Doug Jackson

    When a find like this comes along, one of the most exciting things it offers to archaeologists is a challenge to reconsider what we previously thought about the period it represents, and this find really is one of those.

    Ever since it came out of the ground, the question of how a Roman helmet reached the east Midlands and was deliberately buried on a hilltop near Hallaton has been considered in detail by archaeologists, and different scenarios have been proposed and considered. Among them is that the helmet was captured from Roman forces by local Britons, or that it was a gift. However, another of the scenarios – based on evidence and clear reasoning – is the possibility that this helmet belonged to a Briton who served in the Roman army.

    There is little doubt that the helmet was buried within a few years of the Roman Conquest of southern England in AD 43. The helmet and associated coins, along with the other coin hoards were buried in the AD 40s. There is no evidence to support these deposits being buried as late as the time of the Boudican revolt in the early AD 60s. If the helmet were captured from the Romans, it is unlikely that this would have been taken from a Roman soldier wearing this in battle. But this is a ceremonial or parade helmet, not a battle helmet.

    While it could have been in the possession of Britons for some time, this would mean some time before the time of Roman Conquest. While the possibility remains this was a gift to a Briton, this is a very specific type of object whose meanings and associations would have been clear to the Roman givers, and probably the receiver. It’s an object made to be worn by an officer in a Roman auxiliary cavalry regiment. Here it is important to know how Roman auxiliary cavalry regiments were recruited at this time: most were recruited from native troops, not Italians.

    In this sense, the discovery of an object like this does raise important questions about the relationships between Britons and Romans at the time of the conquest. It is an object that, fascinatingly, crystalises current debate and discussion in Iron Age and Roman archaeology about this crucial period in British history.

    In the last 10-15 years many archaeologists have re-examined the archaeological and historical evidence to suggest there were close and complex relationships between British leaders and Roman elites in the 100 years before the Roman Conquest, and between people living either side of the English Channel. John Creighton, amongst others, has argued for close diplomatic contacts with Rome and for Britons living as hostages in Rome, and there is other evidence for gifts and the movement of goods.

    A question this object raises is whether Britons might have served in the Roman army before the conquest or – just as interestingly – at the time of the conquest. The complex relationships between Britons and Romans may well be accepted by academic professionals, but are rarely expressed in more general pictures of the Roman Conquest. This is why this high profile new discovery is so important in helping raise informed new perspectives of this period of the past.

    JD Hill, British Museum

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    • Doug Jackson says:

      Thank you for your reply, I can see how such a fabulous object would cause excitement and speculation. My concern was the slant of the original Telegraph article which highlighted what I felt was the most unlikely (though admittedly the most newsworthy) scenario. The BBC Newsround website is now reporting this as a fact – ‘Roman helmet shows Britons fighting for Romans’, which possibly makes my point. I agree that the helmet was unlikely to be captured in battle, because there’s no evidence they were ever worn in battle, but the fact that three decorated parade helmets were found discarded at Trimontium would seem to indicate that they were a feature of many, if not most, auxiliary cavalry formations. If that’s the case, it might be that such an object would be amongst the plunder if even a relatively modest cavalry outpost was over-run. I’m also aware and happen to agree with the theory that there was much wider inter-action between Romans and Britons than we once believed, but the other fact I think can’t be ignored is that the tribe who inhabited the Hallaton area (the Corieltauvi?), being well inland, were one of the less likely to have had contact with the Romans pre-43AD. None of this takes away from the fascination with such a wonderful find. I have nothing but admiration for the way people like yourself work so diligently to discover their true nature and I fully understand the need to consider different scenarios. Thanks again,

      Doug Jackson

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  3. Andrew Gill says:

    We should not carp about a little speculation but in respecting Doug Jackson’s view remember the outstanding skill, technical knowledge and infinite patience of Marilyn Hockey and her colleagues.

    The work undertaken in the Museum labs is beyond the imagination of most of us who marvel at the end results

    Another example of note is the Water Newton cup restored from pieces found flattened as if run over

    Congratulations to all concerned
    Andrew Gill

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  4. Brian Klinger says:

    Looking at the remains of the helmet I’m not sure that I would have spent 10 years piecing it back together. As supporting evidence for the drawing and what might have been I do see a connection there. It’s good to have found it and recognized it for what it is. Comparing it to the artist drawing, are there other pieces of this particular helmet yet to be attached or is it complete as found?

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    • @ Brian Klinger

      The first phase of work on this find (excavation of the soil block in which it came to the British Museum) was undertaken as part of the Museum’s duties under the Treasure Act between 2001 and 2003. The work of retrieving, cleaning, studying and making associations between fragments, and finally reconstructing the helmet, began in 2009. This three year study has given up a huge amount of information of the sort that will be used by archaeologists and historians for years to come and the study itself will continue.

      The artist’s impression, produced by local artist Bob Whale for Market Harborough Museum, where the helmet will be displayed, is a good indication of the type. The restoration will however now allow accurate archaeological illustration. Two cheek-pieces were attached to the helmet at burial, the most complete one has been restored and although the connection is too fragile to attach it safely, it will be displayed alongside the helmet. The other cheek-piece that belongs to the helmet is more fragmentary and still undergoing treatment. Six other cheek-pieces were buried in the pit with the helmet, five of which are fragmentary at present. The most complete one of this group, showing a probable Emperor figure on horseback, is one of the most well-preserved objects from the deposit and will be displayed at Market Harborough.

      Marilyn Hockey, British Museum

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  5. Seems to have originally been a beautiful helmet. I don’t think I’d stop to look at it in a museum if you didn’t show the reconstruction by its side. Thanks.

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  6. Ken Bennnett says:

    I understand that it is now thought that the Boudiccan rebellion did reach the midlands. (Maybe in attempt to get the Brigantes involved?) I along with everyone else can only speculate, but this helmet would tie in very nicely as booty taken from a surprised cavalry outpost as the Iceni and their allies made their way to Colchester and then taken to the midlands in an attempt raise more allies?
    Too many likely scenarios I suppose, but I certainly cannot see it being given to a local British dignitary as a gift.

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  7. Rex fletcher says:

    Things like this can only inspire..this is a stunning object..its full context will undoubtably come to light…..I would go back to the dig site and look for more…I seem to recall that there were additional cheek pieces

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