Thousand-piece puzzle may unlock secrets to the Roman conquest of
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
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
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
Linked with this question of political allegiance, is the mystery of
how the helmet was acquired by the native British people who buried it.
There are two main options. If those people were hostile to Rome, then
it's likely that the helmet was a war trophy, captured by Britons and
buried to ensure continuing British success against the invaders.
Perhaps significantly, there were parts of several other helmets buried
alongside it - a fact that would be consistent with the war trophy
option. Alternatively, though less likely, the helmet could have been a
diplomatic gift from a senior Roman officer to a local British chieftain
- or a Roman offering at a native shrine.
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
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 conservation and detailed analysis of the helmet, 5000 coins and
other finds has taken British Museum and other experts a decade to
complete since the material was originally excavated by Leicester
University and a local archaeological society, the Hallaton Fieldwork
Group, in 2001.
The laboratory excavation and re-assembly of the helmet at the
British Museum was led by one of the museum's leading conservators,
Marilyn Hockey. The helmet will join other treasures from the site on
show at Harborough Museum, in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, as from
January 28. It is the culmination of a long archaeological investigation
and conservation operation funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other
bodies through Leicestershire County Council which now owns the helmet
and other finds from the site.
Leicester University, which helped carry out the original excavation,
will next month publish a book about the site - Hoards, Hounds and
Helmets: A Conquest Period Ritual Site at Hallaton, Leicestershire by
the excavation's director Vicki Score.
- The Independent