A Roman imperial jigsaw puzzle

The discovery of fragmentary remains of several Roman helmets at Hallaton, Leicestershire, set conservators quite a challenge. Now, over a decade later their work is complete. Helen Sharp and Simon James reveal what has been learnt.

It is 11 years since a mass of corroded iron was found in a pit at Hallaton. Discovered on the site of a Late Iron Age shrine, this cracked and rusted metal could well seem unremarkable alongside such rich pickings as 5296 Iron Age and Roman coins, a unique silver bowl, a bronze tankard handle, ingots, and thousands of pig bones (see CA 236). Yet the presence of a telltale silver-plated ‘ear’ identified the metal mass as a Roman cavalry helmet. And an especially fine one at that.

Too delicate to excavate on site, the helmet was lifted as a soil block and taken to the British Museum for a painstaking programme of micro-excavation and conservation work. Finally concluded in December 2011, this revealed that parts of at least four helmets were buried in the cache. Now, as the newly restored Hallaton helmet goes on public display for the first time and a monograph discussing the site is published, we investigate what this surprising find reveals about conquest-period Britain.

Shrine find

Initially discovered by members of the Hallaton Fieldwork Group in 2000, the shrine was excavated alongside archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). This revealed a stretch of ditch with a central, east-facing entrance, and carefully ordered pockets of activity. Coins were concentrated in 14 separate hoards inside and to the north of the entranceway, while pig carcasses — possibly the detritus of ritual feasting — were dumped on the opposite side of the ditch. Silver objects such as the bowl were placed in the southern length of ditch. This ‘structured deposition’ of high-value objects, possibly as religious or ceremonial offerings, suggests a native British shrine was active at Hallaton in the mid 1st century AD.

The helmet pieces lay in a pit sunk in the southern stretch of ditch. Digging it disturbed an earlier pit stuffed with animal bones, mostly from pigs. Vicki Score, Site Director for ULAS, believes that this may have been deliberate, and that memory of the earlier animal bone offering was a determining factor in where the helmet was buried. Approximately 1100 Iron Age and Roman coins were buried with, or immediately alongside, the helmet, forming a single deposit. These allowed Ian Leins, Curator of Iron Age and Roman Coins at the British Museum, to date its burial to the immediate post-conquest period, c. AD 43-50.

Investigation and conservation

Once lifted, the fragile helmet remains were entrusted to theBritishMuseum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. Since 2002 conservators Marilyn Hockey, Fleur Shearman and Duygu Çamurcuoglu have meticulously excavated and recorded them. This work was initially carried out as part of the Treasure valuation process, but was later funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant obtained by Leicestershire County Council after they acquired the finds for display at Harborough Museum, Market Harborough.

Conservation work revealed the remains of a helmet bowl — the part that protects the top of the head — with an attached browguard and neckguard, as well as a beautifully preserved cheekpiece (Cheekpiece 1). Five further  cheekpieces were stacked on top of it. A sixth was found wedged inside the helmet bowl, while the presence of a seventh was proven by scattered fragments of corroded metal. Such cheekpieces would be fixed to a helmet bowl with a metal hinge, and were worn by soldiers to protect the sides of their faces.

The question of whether any of the cheekpieces were originally attached to the helmet bowl was finally answered in November 2011. A fragile sliver of metal on the cheekpiece found within the bowl joins with its edge. This left-sided cheekpiece features a similar, if less well preserved, equestrian figure to Cheekpiece 1. The right cheekpiece has yet to be conclusively identified.

Triumphant iconography

The Hallaton cheekpieces portray a wealth of Roman imperial propaganda. Several depict a male figure — probably a victorious emperor — on horseback, spurred on by a winged Victory. Cowering beneath the horse is a subdued barbarian, sometimes with a helmet and shield to symbolise the spoils of war. Each cheekpiece included an ear protector, indicating they were intended for horsemen–cavalry troopers or mounted officers–to whom such triumphant equestrian scenes must have been especially appealing. In total five cheekpieces display horsemen motifs. Cheekpiece 4 is more baffling and seems to show a man in profile wearing  a banded headdress, hat or helmet (see CA 252).
The handful of cheekpieces from elsewhere in Britain with similar decorative styles include a bronze example found at Bath Lane, Leicester — on display in the Jewry Wall Museum— and another from Brough, Nottinghamshire, in the collection of Newark and Sherwood Museum Service. This latter is of very high quality and features a Dioscurus figure — one of the Castor and Pollux twins — with a horse. Yet while the decoration of the Hallaton helmet fits with others from England dating to AD 1-50, its execution is unusually fine. Indeed, according to Simon James of the  University of Leicester the helmet is ‘as splendid an example as we have ever found anywhere in the Roman Empire’.

The decoration on the brow of the helmet bowl is particularly splendid. Sadly much damaged, at its centre the silver was worked into a detailed and prominent female bust of a goddess or perhaps empress. Flanked by lions,the identity of this female is not yet certain. Simon James has suggested she  might represent the goddess Cybele.

Often represented with lions, this Magna Mater or ‘great mother’ was widely used during the Augustan period (27 BC — AD 14) to promote the values of that age. Yet Cybele is usually depicted with a mural crown, of which no trace remains. Simon James has also noted that the helmet lions appear to be resting a paw on their prey, a rendering that has more in common with funerary art than the cult of Cybele. There is still plenty of mileage left in the debate about the full meaning of the Hallaton iconography.

A helmet from Xanten Wardt in Germany has the strongest affinities with the Hallaton example. Made of silver-coated iron, it has a wreath on the crown, a central figure on the browguard and a floral swag on the neckguard.Strong parallels for the Hallaton helmet can be found in the Low Countries, a region renowned for its horsemen during the Roman period. An example from Nijmegen was recently loaned to Tullie House Museum,  Carlisle by the Museum Het Valkof. This helmet features a haunting human face mask, as well as a browguard with five projecting busts, including a central female. Intriguingly a spare pair of cheekpieces, which would not have fitted the helmet, was found beside it.the identity of this female is not yet certain. Simon James has suggested she might represent the goddess Cybele. Often represented with lions, this Magna Mater or ‘great mother’ was widely used during the Augustan period (27 BC — AD 14) to promote the values of that age. Yet Cybele is usually depicted with a mural crown, of which no trace remains. Simon James has also noted that the helmet lions appear to be resting a paw on their prey, a rendering that has more in common with funerary art than the cult of Cybele. There is still plenty of mileage left in the debate about the full meaning of the Hallaton iconography.

Such helmets highlight the martial culture of the Roman Empire’s frontier districts. Here, soldiers spent their cash on helmets and kit rather than villas. This armour reflects and celebrates a victorious military force, while promoting the wearer’s allegiance to the Roman state. For many non-Romans living in the Empire, military service was a path to citizenship. For professional soldiers from the provinces, such imperialistic images would be a mark of their journey to become Roman.

Why Hallaton?

So how did a beautiful, silver-gilt decorated Roman helmet find its way to the native shrine at Hallaton during the 1st century AD? Parts of helmets were sometimes lost during military action as Roman forces swept northwards in the years after the AD 43 invasion. It is, though, extremely unusual to find a highly decorated Roman helmet on a site associated with the ceremonial activities of the native population. Yet as a highly regarded and prized object, it is perhaps not surprising that such a helmet may have been regarded a suitable offering for the gods or ancestors.

Although certainty is impossible, a convincing argument can be made for the Hallaton helmet pieces being a diplomatic gift, rather than war booty. A formal gift of this nature may have been given to notable British aristocrats around the time of the conquest by Romans based in Gaul, with whom they had developed both military and cultural relations. Indeed, some aristocratic Britons had even lived as Romans and may well have served in their army.

What the local native population made of the overtly Roman propaganda depicted on the helmet pieces is an intriguing question. They may have been equally bemused by the need for such protective headgear. Britons during this period did not have a strong tradition of wearing helmets — preferring to intimidate their foes with limewashed spiky hair if Roman accounts are to be believed — and were more inclined towards swords and shields as status symbols. The silver content of the helmets would, though, have made them worthy offerings. Indeed, it is entirely possible that it was the value of their metal, rather than their status as beautiful and exotic objects, which resulted in their selection as an offering. This could help to explain the fragmentation of the helmet parts and their apparent dismantling before burial.

Whatever the true explanation, the Hallaton helmet finds give us a tantalising glimpse of the earliest contact between the Iron Age peoples of the region and the looming power of imperial Rome.

 

More information: The Hallaton Helmet is displayed at Harborough Museum, Market Harborough.   It was acquired and conserved by Leicestershire County Council through the Heritage Lottery Funded Southeast Leicestershire Treasure Project.   www.leics.gov.uk/harboroughmuseum.

The Universityof Leicester’s monograph, Hoard, Hounds and Helmets: A conquest-period Ritual Site at Hallaton, Leicestershire, has recently been published.   Contact ULAS@le.ac.uk for further information.

 

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