Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hallaton Helmet



Plenty of coverage of this one … We'll begin by looking at that of the Harborough Mail:

THIS amazing 2,000-year-old Roman helmet unearthed in Hallaton ten years ago is coming home after an incredible restoration project at the British Museum.

When archaeologists unearthed it in 2001, at the spot where hundreds of Roman and Iron Age coins had been found the year before, they initially joked they had found a rusty bucket.

But the discovery turned out to be one of the most significant Roman finds ever made in this country.

Lifted out of the field in a mud block and pieced together from hundreds of fragments like the world's most expensive and delicate 3D jigsaw puzzle, the helmet was unveiled at the British Museum on Tuesday.

It is the only Roman helmet found in Britain with the majority of the silver-gilt plating surviving, and one of only a handful ever discovered.

It is also one of Britain's earliest Roman helmets.

It was unveiled along with two of the seven ornate cheek pieces found at the site.

Among those at the launch event were Cllr David Sprason from Leicestershire County Council, which secured the find for display, and representatives from The Heritage Lottery Fund – which supplied a £650,000 grant to help fund the project.

Staff from the British Museum, including conservator Marilyn Hockey, hosted.

Also at the event was Zara Matthews, curator of Harborough Museum, who told the Mail: "It's incredible. When I first saw it Marilyn said 'don't worry, it will look like a helmet as long as it doesn't disintegrate!'.

"One of the scariest things was to see it layed out in the conservation lab here at the British Museum. It covered the whole of the laboratory in lots of tiny boxes. I thought 'how on earth is that going to become a helmet?' but it has and it's just amazing."

Cllr Sprason said: "I was invited here last year and they had started restoring it. But in my wildest dreams I never thought it would turn out how it has.

"I think it's a fantastic find, not just for Harborough but for the whole of Leicestershire. We should be really proud."

A three-year labour of love

PIECING together the Hallaton Helmet was a three-year labour of love for conservators at the British Museum.

It was spotted following the discovery by the Hallaton Fieldwork Group of thousands of Roman and Iron Age coins in a field near the village in 2000.

Realising the significance of the find, the group stopped digging and called in the experts, including archaeologists from the British Museum and the University of Leicester.

A silver ear sticking out of the clay was the first sign of the treasured helmet which lay beneath.

Lifted out of the ground in a solid block, it was taken to Marilyn Hockey, head of ceramics, glass and metals conservation at the British Museum.

Initial excavations revealed the helmet had been buried with several hundred coins, the remains of a feast of a suckling pig and five extra cheek pieces.

The real work began once Leicestershire County Council had raised the cash to secure the hoard and fund the restoration.

Marilyn and two colleagues carried out the painstaking work of carefully removing individual fragments from the block.

Each fragile piece of the helmet was then catalogued before being carefully pieced back together.

The job, likened by the experts to a 3D jigsaw puzzle, revealed the helmet was made of sheet iron, with beautifully crafted silver sheet decorated in places with gold leaf.

Marilyn said: "Along the way we discovered an awful lot – it's a fascinating object. To get something out of the soil like this – it's like gold.

"One of the amazing things about it is the decoration on the front. In silver gilt it must have looked absolutely stunning originally.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing it on disply at Harborough Museum."

Experts were left baffled by discovery

THE INTRIGUING mystery of how the helmet came to be buried in a field near Hallaton is one which has baffled experts since its discovery.

Historians beileve the site on which it was found dates between 100BC and 50AD and may have been a hilltop shrine created by the Iron Age Corieltavi tribe, who lived in the area at the time of the Roman conquest in 43AD.

Thousands of coins, an amazing silver bowl, pig bones and the remains of a dog buried to 'guard' the treasure all point toward the hoard being part of an ancient ritual.

But how such a high-status Roman helmet came into the possession of a local tribe remains a mystery.

Helen Sharp, project manager of the Hallaton Treasure, said the find was evidence that people living in this area had some sort of relationship with the Romans, if you look at is a diplomatic gift.

But it could also have been a spoil of war, taken during a raid on a Roman camp or in battle, said Helen.

What is known is that the helmet was of the highest quality and would have been specially commissioned by a high- ranking officer.

The striking decoration on the front depicts a wreath – a symbol of military victory – as well as a bust of a woman flanked by lions and other animals.

Its cheekpieces depict a Roman emperor on horseback, trampling a barbarian.

"But there is still so much more we can learn about it," added Helen.

"It was made from iron and the silver sheet was then stuck on with a tar-like substance. Further analysis of that substance could tell us where it was made.

"The female on the front has her hair in two plaits. Just like today, Romans had hairstyles which came and went, so that might tell us who she was. It's still very early in terms of what we can learn from this helmet."

Exhibit set to go on display this month

THE HELMET is coming back to Harborough Museum on permanent display later this month.

The new exhibition will open on Saturday, January 28, when there will be Roman re-enactors on horseback in the town.

The helmet will be housed in a display case alongside an illustration by artist Bob Whale of what the complete helmet might have looked like originally.

In addition to the permanent helmet display, a temporary exhibition telling the story of how it was discovered and the project to restore and conserve it will also go on show.

Museum curator Zara Matthews said: "It's amazing because it's an internationally significant find. There aren't many Roman helmets found in Britain so to have this spectacular one – albeit corroded after 2,000 years in the ground – is exceptional.

"The fact it's coming back on display in Harborough is fantastic."

The Mail's coverage includes a nice little video featuring Marilyn Hockey talking about the painstaking restoration work …

The Telegraph coverage concentrates primarily on the implications of the find, inter alia:

[…] The ornate helmet was awarded to high-ranking cavalry officers and was found at the burial site of a British tribal leader. According to experts, it transforms our understanding of the Roman Conquest.

"How did it get there? The simple answer is that it was worn on the head of a Briton," said Dr J D Hill, head of research at the British Museum.

"The old view is 'Romans bad, Britons good'. This discovery muddies the waters. You can't overestimate the shock and surprise when it was first found.

"This is a major discovery that says we have to rethink the relationship between the Britons and the Romans. It is an iconic object and every book on Roman history from now on will have this in it." […]

The Guardian offers some more commentary from J.D. Hill along with some speculation about its original owner:

"The Crosby Garrett is just a pretty toy compared to this; this is the real treasure," J D Hill, an Iron Age expert at the British Museum, said.

The original owner would have shone in the sun like a god when he appeared on horseback wearing the helmet, of elaborately decorated silver over an iron core. Such objects were costly pieces of swagger never intended for practical use, but often given as rewards for exceptional service – in this case a gift of imperial quality.

The intriguing possibility is that the owner may have been a member of the local tribe, the Corieltauvi, who left to fight in the imperial armies on the continent – and since the helmet was buried around AD 43, he may have returned as part of the Roman invasion of Britain, eventually coming home to make a stupendous offering to his native gods.

If that is true, his own people must have taken a dim view of the decoration, which includes a Roman emperor trampling a cowering barbarian under his horse's hoofs.

Other experts believe the helmet was traded, given as a reward for Corieltauvi submission to the invaders – or, as the finder believes, looted from the original owner, who is unlikely to have readily surrendered his most precious possession.

The Independent takes the speculation a little further (in addition to having a nice little slide show of all the photos that seem to be scattered amongst the press coverage):

But who did the helmet originally belong to? Its style shows that it was originally the property of a Roman cavalryman. He would have been a member of a cavalry unit – associated with a legion, potentially based at nearby Leicester.

Some scholars have suggested that shortly after the Roman invasion, Leicester may have become an operational base for all or part of the 14 legion (known as Gemina and originally formed a century earlier by Julius Caesar).

Some of the Roman army cavalrymen associated with that particular legion came from what is now the Netherlands – and were particularly crack troops recruited from a Germanic tribe, known as the Batavi (literally 'the Superior Men') – the tribal people who originally supplied the core element of the emperor's personal mounted guards. It's conceivable therefore that the original owner of the helmet was a Batavian, stationed in the East Midlands, but originally hailing from the Nijmegen area of the Lower Rhine.

The native British ritual site where the helmet was buried, was a large oval, possibly palisaded, complex on the summit of a hill at Hallaton, Leicestershire, overlooking the probable Iron Age 'international' boundary between the Corialtauvi and their southern neighbours the Catuvellauni ('the Land of the Great Warriors').

The earliest votive offerings – a group of gold coins of the southern British Atrebate tribe – were placed in the ground there in the late first century BC. Then, in around the 20s AD, groups of local silver coins were buried together with a small Iron Age British silver bowl, a 1.2 kilo silver ingot (made at least partly from melted-down British coins) and two continental-originating Roman glass eyes, potentially from a cult statue of some sort.

Also interred on the site was a ten pint Iron Age communal drinking vessel, the remains of a series of ritual feasts (at which around 400 suckling pigs were consumed!) – and a series of Roman brooches and a gold bracelet, buried much later in the Roman period.

The BBC offers some varied coverage … this first appears to be a radio broadcast chatting with metal detectorist Ken Wallace who found it and the aforementioned Marilyn Hockey:

There's also a video report featuring the same pair: