A silver-gilt Roman cavalry helmet of international importance has been pieced together at the British Museum, from thousands of fragments of corroded metal lifted in a block of mud from a Leicestershire hillside more than 10 years ago.
The work has occupied a team of conservators for years. The arguments about the mystery of such a high status object – possibly buried in the year of the Roman invasion of Britain, together with a mass of Roman and British coins and guarded by three dead dogs – will last much longer.
Even after thousands of hours of work by conservator Marilyn Hockey and her team, the metal is too badly corroded to recover its original glitter. Although it is a unique find in Britain because most of the thin silver-gilt plating survives, and an exceptionally early example from anywhere in the Roman empire, the Hallaton helmet will never be as seductively beautiful as the Crosby Garrett helmet, excavated in Cumbria and controversially auctioned for £2m at Christies in 2010.
However, although valued at £300,000, it is far more valuable to archaeologists, with every scrap of context evidence scrupulously recovered and recorded.
"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.
It was when Ken Wallace, a retired teacher and member of a local field archaeology group, saw a lifesize silver human ear in the mud in 2001, that he knew an already astonishing hoard had yielded up something extraordinary.
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