British Museum experts show off 2,000-year-old silver Roman Hallaton Helmet

By Culture24 Reporter | 10 January 2012
An image of an ancient helmet
The Hallaton Helmet was discovered in 2001© Leicestershire County Council
Conservation experts have spoken of their joy after a 2,000-year-old silver Roman helmet, believed to be the first of its kind ever to be found in Britain, went on display at the British Museum.

The Hallaton Helmet was originally considered a "rusty bucket" when it was discovered ten years ago at Leicestershire's famous Hallaton archaeology site. It will now go on permanent public display at the nearby Harborough Museum.

An image of a drawing of an intricate Roman battle helmet
An artist's impression of the original look of the helmet illustrates the intricacy of the design© Leicestershire County Council
Part of an Iron Age shrine which produced the largest number of coins from the era ever excavated in Britain, the helmet's momentous significance was only fully established during a three-year investigation at the British Museum, including micro-excavation and reconstruction of hundreds of fragments from the soil-caked relic.

"This has been one of the most challenging and rewarding projects of my career," said Marilyn Hockey, the venue's Head of Ceramics, Glass and Metals Conservation, who compared the immensely complex £934,000 project to a 3D jigsaw.

"It has been a long job, and I have come to know this object intimately. But I have felt enormously privileged to have had the chance to work on such a unique and fascinating piece of our history.

"It's wonderful to be able to coax something like this out of the soil and to allow it to show itself off again."

An image of part of a Roman helmet buried under soil
Archaeologists were aided by scientists during three years of investigations at the British Museum© Leicestershire County Council
Archaeologists at the University of Leicester, who were part of the original excavation team alongside members of the Hallaton Fieldwork Group, realised the importance of the helmet when they spotted a distinctive ear guard on the "once-magnificent" headpiece.

The breakthrough proved merely the start of a series of revelations. The fragile helmet was lifted in a soil block for further research by specialist scientists and experienced conservators in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the museum, while further finds from Hallaton – including some of the oldest coins in history – were declared Treasure.

A lengthy fundraising campaign ensued, and a Heritage Lottery Fund award of more than £650,000 was instrumental in allowing the helmet and other finds to be displayed in a special gallery at the Harborough Museum in Market Harborough.

The granting of Treasure status also left the museum the task of a major laboratory excavation, revealing the intricate make-up of the helmet, buried alongside several hundred coins, the feast of a suckling pig and five cheekpieces in addition to two already established.

Hockey and her team's efforts on the corroded gilding concluded that it was constructed of sheet iron with "beautifully crafted" places in gold leaf. Believed to have been held in a religious centre, it is thought to have been made between AD 25-50 and ultimately secured by a British tribe in the aftermath of the Roman invasion of Britain.

Unsurprisingly, the helmet has provoked plenty of debate along the way. The identity, allegiances and motives of the burier are all uncertain elements in the story of a gem which could have been a gift to the Gods or a remnant of bloody war.
David Sprason, of Leicestershire County Council, said the official presentation of the "thrilling discovery" was a "tremendously exciting" occasion.

"That we have reached this stage is thanks to the successful partnership between the County Council, world class experts at the British Museum, the dedicated archaeologists involved and our generous funding organisations," he added.

The helmet will be shown in Harborough from January 28 2012, joined by other finds from Hallaton.

The cost of the project will also pay for a display at Hallaton Museum, two touring exhibitions, online resources, workshops for community groups and a series of public events.
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