In his own Words: Andrew Richardson on finding a Roman helmet in a Kent field

By Andrew Richardson | 04 December 2012
A photo of an ancient helmet with a crack in it mottled green and brown by soil
Experts from the British Museum described the helmet as a symbol of cross-Channel connections during Roman times© Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Andrew Richardson, the Finds Manager for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, on a prehistoric helmet dating to the first century BC found on farmland outside the Kent city…

“Arriving home from work one October evening, I received a telephone call from a local metal detectorist who I know from my time as Kent Finds Liaison Officer. This chap had also in the past worked as a volunteer for the Trust and so, having made what he described as a ‘significant discovery’, he decided to contact me.

“He said that he had found what he believed to be a ‘Celtic bronze helmet’. I knew of no such helmets from Kent; the famous ‘Deal warrior’, excavated by Keith Parfitt at Mill Hill, had a bronze head-dress, but that was not a helmet as such.

“Even for Britain as a whole, I knew such a find would be incredibly rare. But the finder seemed very confident and I knew he was an experienced detectorist, so I arranged to visit him first thing the next morning to have a look.

“At his house he produced a box and opened it up to reveal a late Iron Age brooch in very good condition along with what was, indeed, a bronze helmet of the same period.

“There was also a fragment of burnt bone which he said he had found with the helmet and brooch, and he remarked that more bone had been present at the find spot.

A photo of a woman with red hair, a black jumper and turquoise gloves on holding a helmet
© Canterbury Archaeological Trust
“It therefore seemed probable that the finds were derived from a cremation burial. We agreed that, if possible, it would be best to carry out a small excavation of the find spot to learn as much as we could about the context of it.

“The finding of two prehistoric base metal objects together in the same place made the finds potential Treasure. So on my return to the Trust I reported the discovery to the Coroner, Finds Liaison Officer for Kent and the Treasure Registrar.

“Discussions with colleagues and with the landowner, tenant, Finds Liaison Officer, British Museum and others then followed. It was agreed that a speedy excavation of the immediate find spot was the best course of action.

“Our finder had very sensibly reburied a bag of lead fishing weights in the backfilled hole, which made locating the precise find spot much easier than might otherwise have been the case.

“On a cold (and occasionally wet) Saturday in late October, a team drawn from the Trust and Dover Archaeological Group carried out the excavation, opening a two-metre square trench centred on the find spot.

A photo of a female archaeologist on her knees on muddy ground digging the soil
© Canterbury Archaeological Trust
“This revealed no elaborate chiefly burial, but rather a small oval pit, cut into the natural chalk, which had just been missed by deep plough furrows to either side.

“Cutting into this, the detectorist’s original recovery pit could be readily identified as a roughly circular hole about 0.35m in diameter.

“Careful removal of its filling yielded a moderate quantity of cremated bone and a few small fragments of copper alloy sheet, presumably derived from the helmet.

“At the base of the detectorist’s excavation, the lower half of the helmet’s oval outline was preserved as a near perfect cast in the surrounding undisturbed soil.

“In places, this outline was stained green from the copper alloy composition of the helmet, and a few small fragments of actual copper alloy sheeting remained on the base.

“From the account provided by the finder and the evidence recovered from the subsequent archaeological investigation, the overall form of the burial can be reconstructed with some confidence.

“A shallow circular pit had initially been cut into the natural chalk. The inverted helmet had been placed into this.

“Either just before or just after the helmet had been put into the ground, a quantity of cremated human bone had been placed within it.

“The brooch was contained within the upper part of the bone deposit. It is likely that the cremated bone had originally been held within some sort of cloth or leather bag or container which had been closed at the top by the brooch.

“In this case, the inverted helmet served as an ‘urn’.  The pit was backfilled with relatively clean soil and chalk, with no surviving evidence to suggest that the spot had been permanently marked in any way.

“It would seem that the helmet burial was either an isolated one or formed part of a somewhat dispersed cemetery with widely spaced burials.

“The pit was cut on its west side by one of the plough furrows.  The rim of the helmet exhibits damage, probably caused by contact with a plough.

“Had the helmet not been found when it was, there can be little doubt that it would have suffered further plough damage in future, ultimately leading to its fragmentation and dispersion.

“No comparable Iron Age cremation burial using a helmet in this way is known from Britain, and the helmet itself is unlikely to be of British origin.

“It is tempting to place the helmet in the context of Caesar’s Gallic War, or indeed his expeditions to Kent in 55 and 54 BC.

“The helmet is of a type which could have been used by Caesar’s troops, or their indigenous allies and enemies.

“There are many ways such a helmet could have come into the possession of a member of the local Cantiaci tribe, rather than representing a Roman military burial in the field.

“Mercenaries from Britain had travelled to join the fighting in Gaul, and it is possible that this helmet could have belonged to a British or Gallic warrior who fought in Gaul, against the Romans or perhaps even alongside them, eventually bringing the helmet back to Britain with him.

“The finder wishes to remain anonymous. But he is to be commended on the way he dealt with this discovery.

“He attempted to photograph the helmet in situ, but was unable to do so due to problems with his camera.

“He removed the helmet with very little disturbance to its immediate context and marked the spot, enabling it to be easily relocated.

“Thanks are due to the landowners and to the tenant farmer for giving permission for excavation of the find spot to take place.

“The excavation was led by Keith Parfitt and Paul Bennett, accompanied by the author and Jake Weekes and Annie Partridge of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, along with Tina Parfitt, David Holman and Richard Hoskins of Dover Archaeological Group. Crispin Jarman, of the Trust, surveyed the site.”


More pictures:

A photo of two archaeologists crouched over a muddy pit having a dig at the soil
© Canterbury Archaeological Trust
A photo of a brown archaeological pit trench with a red and white depth ruler inside it
© Canterbury Archaeological Trust
A photo of a deep brown soil and chalk archaeological pit with a meter rule inside of it
© Canterbury Archaeological Trust
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