Roman cavalry helmet found in Iron Age shrine may prove Britons fought with legions
Constructed of sheet iron, the helmet, once decorated with gold leaf, is the only one to have been found in Britain with its silver gilt plating intact.
The helmet features scenes of Roman military victory, including the bust of a woman flanked by lions, and a Roman Emperor on horseback with the goddess Victory flying behind and a cowering figure, possibly a native Briton, being trampled under his horse’s hooves.
The object is believed to have been buried in the years around Roman Emperor Claudius’s invasion of Britain in AD43.
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.
It is thought that the helmet may have been buried at what was a local shrine on the Briton’s return to the East Midlands, as a gift to the gods.
It was unearthed in Hallaton, Leicestershire, after a retired design and technology teacher detected coins with his second-hand metal detector, which he had bought for just £260.
After he called in experts, more than 5,000 coins, the remains of a feast of suckling pigs, ingots and the helmet’s ear guard were among
the treasures discovered.
Coins from both the British Iron Age and the Roman Empire were found together for the first time*.
The helmet and its cheek pieces were restored from 1,000 fragments by experts at the British Museum and bought by Leicestershire County Council to go on display at Harborough Museum, just nine miles from where it was buried 2,000 years ago.
Metals conservation expert Marilyn Hockey began unearthing the fragments ”out of a big lump of soil’‘ at the British Museum three years ago.
She said: ”Working our way down this enormous lump of clay, we discovered at the bottom some amazing finds … the Emperor cheek piece told us it was something really special.
”To get something straight out of the soil like this is like gold. You can find out so much from it.”
Jeremy Hill, head of research at the British Museum, said his ”mouth dropped” when he saw the object pieced back together.
He said that the helmet had helped ”change our understanding of what Britain was like just before the Roman conquest”.
He said: ”Every book on the Roman conquest of Britain is going to have a picture of that helmet in it now.”
”Just as we were starting to rethink the importance of East Midlands in the context of the Roman Empire, it says ‘bang, you’ve got to rethink it’, the same with the relationship between Romans and Britons.”
The helmet may also have been a diplomatic gift, to a pro-Roman population, or a spoil of war taken during a raid on a Roman camp or during battle.
Ken Wallace, 71, who first detected the treasure, and who was paid £300,000, divided with the landowner, said: ”When this ear (guard) came to the surface we knew it was going to be a Roman cavalry helmet … But what it would look like was anybody’s guess.
”It’s amazing, I never thought I would see it like that. I thought I’d get to see a computer-generated impression … I’ve been extremely lucky.”
2,000 year old dog returns to guard treasure!
*See Jonathan’s comment about the Lakenheath Hoard, which consisted of both Iron Age and Roman coins. The hoard was discovered on 23 November 1959 and bought through Treasure Trove from the landowner, Lady Grace Briscoe in 1960. Information and images of these and other coins, which are in the Fitzwilliam Museum Coins and Medals collection, are available on the OPAC Online Public Access Catalogue.
Iron Age coins
Roman coin of Tiberius
The entries refer to: Briscoe et al. (1960) ‘An Icenian Coin Hoard from Lakenheath, Suffolk’, British Numismatic Journal, Volume 29: 215-19.
See also, Sealey, P. R. 2004. The Boudican Revolt (Shire Publication): 45 – referring to coin hoards.