British Museum blog

Discovering hidden Celtic creatures

Jane Findlay, Head of Schools and Young Audiences Education and Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager: Digital Content, British Museum

Our newly-opened special exhibition Celts: art and identity has been developed with visitors of all ages in mind, and we’ve enjoyed discovering the animals hidden in the designs of many of the objects. If you’ve visited the exhibition already, you’ll know that the more you look at Celtic art, the more strange and wonderful creatures seem to appear!

2,000 years ago, people across much of Europe shared an art style that today we call ‘Celtic art’. Their fascination with animals is one of the common artistic traits that links them together. For the Celts, animals were more than just subjects for art, they played a key role in these people’s lives: as pets, livestock, mythical creatures and symbols of power.

Take this boar. We don’t know exactly what this fierce little pig would have been used for, but it would have been proudly displayed; perhaps on top of a helmet. Perhaps people wanted to evoke the qualities associated with boars – strength and courage – to make them feel brave and look ferocious going into battle.

An Iron-Age boar figurine found in Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk (Photo: © Norwich Castle)

An Iron-Age boar figurine, 100 BC–AD 100. Found in Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk. Copper alloy. L. 8.7 cm (Photo: © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery)

We liked this boar so much we even used him as the mascot for our family labels. You’ll find these dotted throughout the exhibition, full of fun tips and ideas to help families unlock the stories behind the objects together.

Some animals are more obvious than others in the exhibition. For example, take a look at this image of the dazzling Gundestrup cauldron – how many different creatures can you spot? You might want to challenge others in your family too.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded. Gundestrup, Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (Photo: (c) The National Museum of Denmark)

How did you get on? Some animals look familiar, while others are strange and mysterious. Did you notice the man riding the fish? What about the horned man in the middle, holding a snake? We think he might be a god.

Other objects demand even closer inspection to unpick their secrets. Take the shield pictured below, from near Lincoln. Look closely at the patterns at the top and bottom – what do you see? Can you make out the long-faced bull or cow? Why do you think the artist might have chosen to include this on the shield? Perhaps it was meant to give protection to the shield’s owner, or maybe it was a symbol of their family or tribe, a bit like a coat of arms.

Witham shield. River Witham, Lincolnshire, England, Iron Age, around 300–200 BC. L. 110 cm. British Museum 1872,1213.1

Shield, with detail shown on the right. River Witham, Lincolnshire, England. Iron Age, around 300–200 BC. L. 110 cm. British Museum 1872,1213.1

Visit the Celts: art and identity exhibition with your family to decipher more secrets and find out what else you can discover when you look a little closer at the objects. Don’t forget – if you’re planning a trip in October half term you can also immerse yourself in a Celtic world with free family activities taking place in the Great Court. Add your own creatures to our cauldron art installation, try your hand at Celtic crafts (you can take yours home!) and listen to some Celtic music. You’ll find something to enjoy no matter how old you are!

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , ,

Who were the Celts?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As lead curator of the project, I am extremely excited that the exhibition Celts: art and identity at the British Museum is now open. Organised in partnership with National Museums Scotland, this is the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity – but who were the Celts?

Classical authors conjure up a fantastical picture of a strange people, unfamiliar to the civilised inhabitants of Greece and Rome. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, tells us that they were prone to arrogance and overindulgence – addicted to wine and frequently drinking so much that they fell into a stupor. The men grew their moustaches so long that when they were drinking, it was as if the liquid passed through ‘a kind of strainer’. They dressed ostentatiously in brightly coloured shirts and trousers, and striped or checked coats. They were hospitable hosts, welcoming strangers to their feasts, but they were fierce warriors, and quick to take offence at the smallest provocation. In battle, some charged into the fray naked, while others wore elaborate horned or animal-crested helmets, perhaps like the example below, dredged from the River Thames near Waterloo. Yet Diodorus also remarks that, for all their warlike swagger and boastfulness, these were not an uneducated people. He writes that they spoke in riddles, hinting darkly at their meaning and using one word to stand for another. Among their number were poets, and philosophers who could foretell the future and were so well respected that they could halt an army in full charge.

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

This is an immediate and engaging picture, but it leaves us with more questions than answers. These ancient descriptions might be very rich, but they are varied, and very few are based on first-hand evidence, so the real people behind these stereotypes continue to elude us. Sources vary on where and when these people lived. There are few objects to show us how the Celts represented themselves, although the extraordinary silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark (pictured below) shows people wearing and using Celtic objects, and coins made in the Celtic world reveal a complex and varied iconography. The Celts left no written records of their own to tell us about their society, or whether indeed they were a unified group. It is much more likely that their lives revolved around smaller tribal, ethnic or family units. Much of their world is lost to us, but archaeology is gradually filling in the details of how these peoples lived.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gudestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Celts: art and identity tells the story of the Celts through the incredible objects they made. Shortly after 500 BC, around the time the Parthenon was being erected in Athens, a very different art was taking shape north of the Alps. In contrast to the clean, naturalistic lines of Greek art, the peoples that Greek writers would come to call the Celts were inventing their own way of representing the world. Theirs was an abstract, shapeshifting art, which writhes and transforms in the eye of the beholder. From one angle a sinuous line might resemble leafy tendrils, from another perspective it resolves into a hidden beast or bird. On close inspection, the swirling plant-like decoration on the circular shield boss from Wandsworth (pictured below) becomes two waterbirds, rearing back with wings outstretched, each with a single webbed foot curling down in front of its hooked beak. Like the riddling speech alluded to by Diodorus, the simple lines and curving forms of this Celtic art hint at complex meanings which could only be decoded by those familiar with its mysteries, a knowledge now long forgotten.

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

By around 300 BC, versions of this art style had spread across Europe, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Although Britain and Ireland were never explicitly referred to as Celtic by the Greeks and Romans, they were part of this world of shared art, values and beliefs. Where the Greeks, and later the Romans, saw a single people, archaeology reveals a mosaic of communities, connected but also locally distinct.

The torc (a kind of metal neck-ring) is one example of how our understanding has changed. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, torcs were a universal symbol of Celtic identity, but in fact it was not an exclusively Celtic phenomenon. Men and women across Europe and beyond wore torcs to display their power and status. Even within the Celtic world, the shape, design and decoration of these neck-rings varied from region to region, and it is likely that they were used to express local identities, rather than a universal ‘Celtic’ one. A stunning example (pictured below), a silver torc from Trichtingen in Germany on loan from the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, weighs over 6 kg. The terminals are made in the shape of cow or bull heads, each wearing a tiny torc of its own.

Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

By around 50 BC, life across much of Europe was changing. From around 200 BC, Roman control had gradually expanded to create an empire that extended from Spain to Syria and across North Africa. After the conquest of Britain in AD 43, the lives of the local inhabitants were dramatically transformed, both within the Roman province of Britannia and beyond its frontiers. In the south, the Roman army led the construction of forts, towns and cities with new facilities like amphitheatres and bathhouses. Local people mixed with invaders and settlers from around the empire, creating a cosmopolitan world where Roman and indigenous ways of life combined to create a unique Romano-British culture. Ireland and northern Scotland were never conquered, but people were still affected by the impact of Rome. Communities here found themselves the neighbours of a powerful empire, and responded by creating objects that reflected their independent, non-Roman identities. One such example is the massive armlet (the technical archaeological name!) from Belhelvie, on loan from the National Museum of Scotland. It was made in Scotland while southern Britain lay under Roman rule, and is decorated with a distinctive local style of art that echoes earlier Iron Age motifs.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a distinctive form of Christianity emerged in Ireland, Scotland and western Britain, regions which were outside the old heartlands of Roman control. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art and learning. Although connected to wider Christian communities across Europe, they continued to develop their own local traditions, and their languages, art and religious practices set them apart.

The name ‘Celts’ had fallen out of use after the Roman period, but it was rediscovered during the Renaissance, when people became more interested in understanding their own local histories. From the 16th century, ‘Celts’ was used as shorthand for the pre-Roman peoples of western Europe. In the early 1700s, the languages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man were given the name ‘Celtic’ to reflect their pre-Roman origins. In the context of a continually shifting political and religious landscape, ‘Celtic’ acquired a new significance as the peoples of these Atlantic regions sought to affirm their difference and independence from their French and English neighbours, drawing on long histories of distinctive local identities. Over the following centuries, a Celtic revival movement led to the creation of a rich, reimagined and romanticised Celtic past, expressed in art and literature.

Although the Celts are not a single people, a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced through time, the idea of a Celtic identity still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, power and religion. The word Celtic continues to strike a chord, both nationally and globally. For most people, it has now come to stand for the distinctive local histories, traditions, music and languages of the modern Celtic nations: Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, and for people around the world who trace their ancestry back to these regions. ‘Celtic’ is still a word that creates a sense of difference, but what began as a label applied to outsiders by the ancient Greeks has now been proudly embraced to express a sense of shared heritage and belonging, reflecting a long history of regional difference and independence.

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , , ,

The die that struck Britain’s first coins?

Ian Leins and Emma Morris, curators, Department of Coins and Medals, British Museum

Iron age coin die

Iron Age coin die. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

Iron Age coin die, showing two sides and the face. 2014,4014.1

One of the most recent acquisitions made by the Department of Coins and Medals is a highly unusual object – an ancient punch or ‘die’ used to manufacture coins in the second century BC. The die was found in Bredgar, Kent by a metal detector user in 2013 and is being used to shed new light on when the first coins were made in Britain.

The earliest coins found in Iron Age Britain date from around the second century BC and, until recently, it was believed that they were produced in Gaul (a region roughly equivalent to modern day France and Belgium) and imported into south-east England. These coins, known as Gallo Belgic A, were based on the gold coinage (staters) issued by King Philip II, ruler of the Greek kingdom of Macedon from 359 – 336 BC and father of Alexander the Great.

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gold stater of Philip II, showing obverse (front) and reverse. 1911,0208.2

Gallo Belgic A stater_544

Philip’s coin shows a representation of the god Apollo on one side and a chariot drawn by two horses on the other. Iron Age coins derived from these staters carry abstract versions of these images. The hair and laurel wreath on the image of Apollo, for example, are much exaggerated. Similarly, the image of the horse on the reverse of the coin has been stylised and is reminiscent of the Prehistoric chalk horses found on the hillsides of Britain, such as the one at Uffington.

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Aerial view from a paramotor of the White Horse at Uffington. Photo by Dave Price and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Close examination of the coin die revealed that it was used in the production of the early Gallo-Belgic A coins. What this means is that, although it is the third Iron Age coin die to be found in the UK (the others are also in the British Museum), it is almost certainly the earliest. The most significant aspect of this discovery is the fact that it is a British find. This raises the intriguing possibility that the earliest known coins from Britain were actually made here and not just imports from the Continent.

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Gallo-Belgic B coin die. 2005,0418.1

Around 250 Gallo-Belgic A coins are known from Britain and France, but unfortunately the new die cannot be linked to any of them. This fact has been used to suggest that it may have been a forger’s die. In reality, however, we can read very little into the fact that we do not have an example of a coin struck using this die. Little is known about the mechanics of coin production in the Iron Age and, in particular, about the authorities that produced them. The distinction between an ‘official’ and a ‘forger’s’ die may not be have been relevant in Iron Age society. A programme of scientific analysis will tell us more about how the die was made and used, but its precise origins are likely to remain a mystery.
The die is on display in the Citi Money Gallery.


The Money Gallery is supported by Citi
To find out more about what to do if you find an ancient coin or other artefact with a metal detector or otherwise, visit the Portable Antiquities website, where we answer frequently asked questions about treasure and other finds.

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A vehicle of the soul?

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton CultureJody Joy, curator, British Museum

Today we are so used to seeing images of ourselves in mirrors and photographs it is difficult to imagine a world without reflections. But just try.

Imagine a world in which you don’t really know what you look like, where the only way to see your own reflection is in a pool of still water. Using a mirror like the one found in Pegsdon, Bedfordshire, and featured in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures, meant that for the first time Iron Age people, about 2,500 years ago, were no longer reliant on others to tell them how they looked.

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

Today the mirror is part of our everyday routine but cheap, mass-produced mirrors are a product of the past few centuries. Before that mirrors were rare and expensive social objects allowing people to monitor physical appearance and apply cosmetics. Their reflective surfaces were also perceived in different ways, taking on religious, medical and artistic functions. For example, a mirror allows you to see behind as well as in front, extending the realms of ‘normal’ human physical experience.

In the Greco-Roman world looking backwards was linked to looking into the future or the past and the reflection from a mirror was used in divination – attempts to predict events, or peoples fate. Mirrors were lowered into water and the reflections ‘read’. Alternatively mirrors were used to evoke light or the vehicle of the soul.

It is impossible to determine the true significance of the Pegsdon mirror. The fact that it is so beautifully made and decorated and that it was carefully placed in someone’s grave indicates it was a valued and treasured object. The association between mirrors and cosmetic sets in other Iron Age graves links them to the main function of mirrors today, as a means to monitor appearance.

However, there is no reason why mirrors did not also have other kinds of significance in Iron Age society. For example, even today we still see breaking a mirror as bad luck.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

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A significant discovery…

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust LtdAndrew Richardson, Canterbury Archaeological Trust

One evening in October last year I’d just got home from work when I received a call from Trevor Rogers, a metal detectorist I knew from my time as Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Kent. Trevor said he had made a ‘significant discovery’.

In my line of work getting such a call is not that unusual. But Trevor went on to say that he had found what he believed to be a ‘Celtic bronze helmet’. That got my attention.

I knew of no such helmets from Kent; the ‘Deal warrior’ had a bronze head-dress, but that was not a helmet as such. Even for Britain as a whole, I knew such a find would be incredibly rare. But Trevor was very specific; he said it appeared to be a ‘Mannheim’ type helmet. I knew that Trevor was an experienced detectorist and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I arranged to visit him first thing next morning to have a look for myself.

As I drove to Trevor’s place the next day, I really didn’t know what to expect. There was either going to be disappointment for both of us, with me having to break it to Trevor that he was mistaken and had found something actually rather pedestrian; or, it was going to be one of those rare days that you know you’ll always remember. And then I was standing in Trevor’s kitchen as he produced a cardboard box and opened it up to reveal his finds.

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

I was astonished to see that he had indeed found a Late Iron Age helmet, made of copper alloy, along with a brooch in very good condition and a small spike made out of rolled copper alloy sheet. There was also a fragment of burnt bone which had been found together with the helmet and brooch; more bone had been observed but had not been removed. So it seemed probable the finds were derived from a cremation burial.

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

The helmet and brooch. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

We agreed that it would be best to carry out a small excavation of the find spot as soon as possible to learn as much as we could about the context of this find.

A year later, what more do we know about it? It’s reasonable to set it in the context of the turbulent middle decades of the first century BC when the Romans, under Julius Caesar, were at war in what is now France. But it is very tempting to want to go further than this and see it as much sought after evidence of Caesar’s expeditions to Britain, and the county of Kent, in around 54 BC. The helmet seems of the correct design and the find spot lies along the probable route taken by Caesar’s army of about 20,000 men.

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

Excavation of the helmet impression. © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd

But even if this was the helmet of one of Caesar’s soldiers, there are many ways by which it could have arrived at its final resting place. The person (or persons?) whose remains are buried in it need not be its original owner. Perhaps it was brought by a warrior of the Cantiaci (Iron Age tribe), returned from fighting in Gaul with a trophy? Maybe it was a Gallic refugee? Or was the helmet handed down and buried years later (although the brooch suggests burial is unlikely to date much later than 50 BC)?

The finds are now undergoing specialist study at the British Museum, as part of the Treasure process, and this analysis will yield further information, as will investigation of the wider landscape around the find spot. We will certainly learn more about this find, but we may also have to face up to never knowing one way or the other exactly how and why it ended up where it did.

But what is certain, is that Trevor was right when he described this as a ‘significant discovery’.

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Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

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A hoard from the dawn of Roman Britain

Coin from the hoardEleanor Ghey, curator, British Museum

Sometimes as curators we are lucky enough to be brought the most amazing new finds that through careful study can offer a tantalising glimpse into the ancient past. One such discovery that sheds light on the earliest years of Roman Britain is now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

Coins from the hoard on display.

Coins from the hoard on display.

In 2010 metal-detector user Jason Hemmings found – in a field in Dorset, southern England – what at first glance seemed to be just a handful of Roman and Iron Age coins. When he reported them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme it soon became apparent he had a hoard that can be closely linked to the years following the Roman conquest of AD 43.

It is a mixed sample of the different coins in use in Britain during these turbulent years. It contains worn silver Roman republican coins that had been in circulation in the Roman Empire for around 150 years and were also valued by local people as a source of silver. There were a few Iron Age staters, base silver coins issued by the native inhabitants of Dorset before the Roman conquest. Finally, and most significantly, there were copper alloy coins of the emperor Claudius issued between AD 41 and 50.

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Official issues of the emperor Claudius are rare in Britain, although they were later copied in large numbers, probably to meet a shortage of supply. Two of the coins from this hoard are stamped with an official mark of approval found only in Rome and Britain. It is thought that these coins were produced in Rome in order to supply the invading army with useful currency whilst on campaign in Britain and may have even arrived with them. So they are likely to be close in date to the conquest of Britain in AD 43.

If this hoard belonged to a soldier, we can assume he was of lower rank, probably a legionary. At this time a legionary would have received an annual salary of 225 denarii. The hoard represents 4.25 denarii. A hoard of 34 Roman gold coins buried at Bredgar in Kent during the Claudian invasion – a vast amount of money more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking officer – is on display in Room 49. It is easier to imagine these coins from Dorset as the sort of sum carried by an individual: one of the lowest value Roman coins in the hoard would have bought two small sausages in ancient Pompeii!

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

So how did these coins get into the ground in Dorset? It could be that we are seeing the contents of a purse lost by a Roman soldier as the famous Legio II Augusta advanced through the county in the years immediately following the conquest (under the command of the future emperor Vespasian). Alternatively, the coins could have found their way into local hands, which might explain the presence of local issues alongside Roman ones.

The question of how and why coin hoards were buried in the Roman period is currently being investigated in a new AHRC-funded research project by the British Museum and Leicester University. It will study the large number of hoards now known from Roman Britain (about 2,700) with a view to understanding the circumstances of their burial and what changing patterns of hoarding behaviour tell us about the economy and society of the time.

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

For now, we can only speculate as to why these coins ended up where they did; while being grateful, of course, that some 2,000 years later we have the opportunity to try and tell their story.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Peering into the Iron Age through the Portable Antiquities Scheme

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme

David Prudames, British Museum

This helmet is Iron Age (over 2,000 years old), and was found in Kent, in southern England, by a metal-detectorist in October 2012. It had been upturned and used to hold a human cremation – the first accompanied by a helmet to have been found in Britain. In fact only a handful of Iron Age helmets are known from Britain at all.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

On the north-western edge of Europe, the mid-first century BC was a time of war, travel, communication, connections and change. Caesar was at war in Gaul (modern France) and mercenaries from Britain had travelled to join the fighting, so it’s possible that the person who owned this helmet might have fought in Gaul – perhaps against the Romans, or even alongside them.

Before Gaul fell, Caesar would make his first expedition to Britain, landing on the shores of Kent not far from where this helmet was found. I find it quite appealing to imagine that the owner, or the people who placed it in the grave, may have lived through the beginning of the story of Roman Britain.

The 2011 Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure annual reports, launched on 3 December at the British Museum, make for a slightly mind-blowing round-up of finds made by members of the public last year. There were 97,509 unearthed in England and Wales last year, not to mention 970 cases of Treasure – that’s gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds over 300 years old, as well as prehistoric base metal objects.

Such numbers give a very real sense that the ground beneath our feet is teeming with chapters in the story of its human occupation. Many of these chapters are being found and told thanks to the PAS, whose website – www.finds.org.uk – now includes 820,000 finds with nearly 400,000 images.

Invariably the finds are made – often while metal-detecting – and reported by members of the public, and this growing project is an incredible contribution to the archaeological record, with the potential to transform what we know about the past in England and Wales.

Here are some more of the amazing things discovered recently:

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The Bedale Hoard

An iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques, four gold hoops (from the hilt of the sword), six small gold rivets (probably from the pommel or hilt), four silver collars and neck-rings, a silver arm-ring, a silver ring fragment, a silver penannular brooch, and 29 silver ingots.

Found in May 2012 on farmland in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire, some of the objects, which date to the late ninth to early tenth centuries, are decorated in late Anglo-Saxon style, or reflect Hiberno-Scandinavian forms and ornament.

Boar mount associated with  Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Boar mount associated with Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

A boar mount associated with Richard III

A copper-alloy mount in the form of a boar, found on the foreshore of the River Thames in London. Badges in the form of a boar were ordered for use at Richard III’s coronation (in July 1485) and also for the investiture of his son, Edward, as Prince of Wales (in September). It is not certain what the mount from London came from, maybe a piece of furniture or used to decorate an item of leather once owned by a supporter of Richard III, or possibly even the king himself.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The St Albans Hoard

Altogether, 159 gold, Roman solidi coins dating to the late fourth to early fifth century AD, the second largest such hoard found in the UK.

The dating of the coins suggests their burial could have been associated with the turbulent separation of Britain from the Roman Empire in about AD 410. Gold solidi were extremely valuable coins and under Roman law couldn’t be spent in everyday marketplace situations. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land, or goods by the shipload, and were an especially handy source of portable wealth for travellers (in much the same way as gold sovereigns were to Britons abroad prior to traveller’s cheques or internationally accessible bank accounts). Therefore it is likely that the ancient owners of these coins were very rich, typically Roman elite, merchants or soldiers receiving bulk pay.

The Bedale Hoard (Room 2) and the St Albans Hoard (Room 68) are on display at the British Museum from 4 December 2012.

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A unique form of decoration


Jamie Hood, British Museum

As work on the Chiseldon Iron Age cauldrons progresses we are constantly making discoveries. Possibly the most exciting feature we have found so far is a decorated handle.

The decorated handle and section of rim came from a cauldron that had broken into several pieces during burial due to the weight of the overlying soil. Although we had used X-radiography to examine the handle fragment in its soil block before we began conservation, it was difficult to make out the surface due to the dense soil and corroded condition of the metal. This meant that when I was removing the soil I had to progress extremely slowly. However, it made discovering the decoration below especially exciting.

X-radiograph of the handle before conservation

X-radiograph of the handle before conservation

The decoration consists of three curved plates that have been riveted below the rim on either side of and directly beneath the handle. The additional plates were carefully made and are likely not only to have been decorative, but also served to strengthen the point where the handle is attached.

Decorated handle after conservation.

Decorated handle after conservation.

While the plates could represent abstract decoration they strongly resemble a cow’s head, with the side-plates representing ears, the central plate a muzzle and the handle taking the form of boldly curved horns. Stylised decoration inspired by the shape of animals was not uncommon in the Iron Age and its association with feasting in this context is particularly relevant. However, decoration on cauldrons is extremely rare and this is a significant and exciting discovery.

Three-dimensional image of the handle

Three-dimensional image of the handle

To help with the interpretation Stephen Crummy, an illustrator from the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, has been scanning the decorated handle with a laser to make a three-dimensional image which will show its shape far more accurately and aid in creating a virtual reconstruction of the vessel.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, ,

Manufacture, wear and repair of the Chiseldon Iron Age cauldrons


Jamie Hood and Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

With the Iron Age Chiseldon cauldrons excavated and cleaned to expose the metal surface we are beginning to see interesting technological features and evidence of manufacture revealing them to be sophisticated and high status objects.

Tool marks on the surface from the original manufacture

Tool marks on the surface from the original manufacture

Although they’re over 2,000 years old, different tool marks from shaping and thinning the copper alloy are preserved on the surface of the metal. These suggest the careful and deliberate use of specific tools for different jobs, indicating that the objects were made by a craft specialist skilled at working sheet metal.

Faint incised lines marking-out the position of rivets

Faint incised lines marking-out the position of rivets

Other features likely to relate to construction are the lines, faintly incised into the surface of the sheet copper-alloy and only visible in raking light. These appear to mark the overlap of plates making up the sections of the cauldron, and the regular distribution and position of rivets indicating that the cauldrons were carefully designed and made.

Examination is also showing that, while the 12 cauldrons are broadly similar in their design, there are variations in their size, shape and construction. We have already identified three different types of rim construction. These differences are extremely intriguing and suggest that the cauldrons were made by different makers and/or at different times.

Multiple repair patches on the cauldron base

Multiple repair patches on the cauldron base

Another intriguing feature we are encountering is a high number of patched repairs. Some repairs appear to have been applied at the time of construction and placed over fatigue cracks caused by raising the metal. Others quite clearly cover areas of damage caused during the useful lifetime of the cauldrons, indicating that they were used and repaired over a period of time and were already old and well-loved items at the time of their burial.

Preserved details like this mean that while the cauldrons are in relatively poor condition there are minute pieces of evidence that allow us to build up a wider picture of how the cauldrons were designed and made, and really bring the objects to life by allowing us to see the craftsman’s thought process and the practical application of their art.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation,

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

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

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