Saturday, February 11, 2012

1,000-piece puzzle may unlock secrets to the Roman conquest of Britain

Historians and archaeologists are trying to solve an ancient mystery that is already shedding remarkable new light on the Roman conquest of Britain.

After years of painstaking conservation work, experts at the British Museum have succeeded in reconstructing the finest Roman battle helmet ever found in the UK.

Originally discovered by a metal detectorist, as literally hundreds of corroded fragments buried in a field in the East Midlands, the helmet has gradually been revealing its secrets to British Museum conservators who have been re-assembling it like a 3D jigsaw.

In a laboratory excavation of the block of earth containing the helmet, they discovered that the front of the iron and gilt silver artefact bore a sculpture of a Roman goddess – probably Victory - and that the cheek pieces sported images of a Roman emperor and of the great classical demi-god, Hercules.

But now they are faced with solving an even more challenging mystery – who the helmet originally belonged to and the exact circumstances surrounding its burial.

Archaeologists believe that the helmet was put in the ground by native Iron Age British tribesmen as a votive offering to the gods in the months or years immediately following the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD.

Studies of other material found at the site show that it was a major native British religious complex, used for the ritual interment of votive offerings for several hundred years – in the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods.

The investigation has so far revealed that, at around the time of the Roman conquest at least 14 other votive deposits (mostly Iron Age silver coins) were interred at the site. The helmet was also buried with native currency. In total, the original mid-first century AD value of these offerings (excluding the helmet itself) would have been the modern day equivalent of around £80,000.

But now historians are trying to place the votive offerings in the wider context of the Roman conquest itself. They are trying to unravel whether the offerings were being made to gain the gods' support in defeating the Roman invaders – or, alternatively, to thank the gods for the arrival of the legions.

The interpretive dilemma facing historians stems from the complex nature of mid-first century AD native British politics. Historians have long known that some British tribes or sub-tribes were extremely pro-Roman at the time of the conquest – and that some others were not. However, the political position of many of the tribal kingdoms and confederacies is not yet known, including that of a people called the Corieltauvi  (literally 'the Army of the Earth Goddess') who appear to have dominated much of the East Midlands  at the time the helmet was buried.

Linked with this question of political allegiance, is the mystery of how the helmet was acquired by the native British people who buried it.

More to read at: 1,000-piece puzzle may unlock secrets to the Roman conquest of Britain - Archaeology - Science - The Independent