Conservators uncover 2,000-year-old secrets of ornate Hallaton Roman Helmet in Leicestershire

By Richard Moss | 04 December 2010
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a close up of a piece of excavated Roman helmet with a figure on horseback
© Leicestershire County Council
A silver and gold Roman cavalry helmet unearthed together with a hoard of 5,000 silver and gold coins in a field in Hallaton in 2002 is beginning to reveal secrets that have lain hidden for more than 2,000 years.

Painstaking work on the ornate but fragile parade helmet, which was lifted from its field in a protective plaster of Paris block, has been taking place at the British Museum.

For the past two years conservators Marilyn Hockey and Fleur Shearman have been excavating the remains and piecing them together. Another year of work will see the helmet stabilised and prepared for display in 2012 at Harborough Museum alongside the other finds.

So far conservation work has revealed that the helmet block contains the parts of at least one helmet comprising an iron core, covered with a very fine silver sheet with intricate designs hammered onto it using a technique called repoussé. 

The conservators have also established that the helmet consists of a bowl or casque which covers the head, a neck guard and two hinged cheek pieces to protect the side of the face. The best-preserved cheek piece bears the image of a triumphant Emperor on horseback trampling a barbarian beneath his horse’s hooves.

However, X-rays have now revealed four more cheek pieces including one featuring a further design showing a bearded man with a helmet and shield beneath his feet.

Experts are now theorising whether cavalry officers alternated cheek pieces depending on the occasion or whether the Hallaton helmet came from a helmet workshop and the cheek pieces are spares. 

As the conservators tackle the extremely delicate task of removing a layer of clay from the fine silver sheet coating, further discoveries are offering valuable insights into the helmet’s structure.

It is now known that it had a scalloped brow guard, which protruded above the bowl, which is decorated with animals. The brow guard itself is packed out with an as yet unidentified substance, which will inform archaeologists how Roman craftsmen created high quality armour. The neck guard of the helmet features a scrolling leaf pattern. 

The final stage of the conservation will be to piece together the surviving fragments of the helmet bowl, brow guard and neck guard for the display in the Hallaton Treasure Gallery at Harborough Museum. The cheek pieces will also be pieced back together and shown alongside the other parts of the helmet. 

A high quality replica of the helmet will give visitors an idea of its stunning quality and how it may have looked when worn by a high ranking Roman cavalry officer during the 1st century AD.

“This stunning find keeps on delivering more and more surprises,” says Leicestershire County Council Cabinet Member David Sprason who predicts the helmet will continue to attract international interest and "put Leicestershire on the archaeological map”.

“The fantastic work which the British Museum’s conservators are undertaking is incredible," he adds. "I’ve no doubt that further unique discoveries and information will come to light during 2011.”
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