Iron Age Roman helmet used as container for cremation burial goes on display in Kent

By Ben Miller | 03 October 2014

Experts say a helmet which is about to go on display in Canterbury would have belonged to a Roman soldier before being used in a cremation burial

A photo of an ancient helmet with a crack in it mottled green and brown by soil
© Canterbury Archaeological Trust
A shadowy ancient object used by curators in Canterbury to tantalise the public this week has been revealed as a 2,000-year-old Iron Age helmet used by a British or Gallic warrior or Roman soldier during the rule of Caesar.

The City's Roman Museum will officially unveil the "extremely rare" 1st century BC headpiece, found in a cremation burial alongside bones on farmland just outside of Kent two years ago, in a public ceremony tomorrow (October 4 2014).

Canterbury Museums and Galleries bought the helmet – one of only five Iron Age helmets ever found in the UK – after securing support from the V&A Purchase Fund, the Headley Trust, the museum’s Friends group and the city council.

The helmet is thought to be of a type used by Caesar’s troops or their indigenous allies and enemies. Archaeologists believe it could have belonged to a British or Gallic warrior who fought either against or for the Romans, bringing the helmet back to Britain with him.

Speaking at the time of its discovery by a metal detectorist in 2012, the British Museum's Iron Age Curator, Julia Farley, explained how it was "not unusual to bury the cremated remains of the dead in a bag fastened with one or more brooches", but said that no other cremation had ever been found accompanied by a helmet. 

"The first century BC was a time of war, but it was also a time of travel, communication, and change," she added. "The owner of this helmet, or the people who placed it in the grave, may have lived through the very beginning of the story of Roman Britain.”

Joanna Jones, the Director of the Museums and Galleries, said the helmet was “very exciting” and a “fantastic new exhibit”, adding that learning activities would enhance the display.

The Canterbury Helmet

  • Dates roughly from the time of Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 and 54BC and is the finest of its type ever found in Britain.
  • Could have belonged to a Roman soldier fighting in his army, or a British or Gallic warrior. It represents the first direct piece of archaeological evidence from Caesar’s invasions of Britain.
  • Discovered in autumn 2012 by local metal detectorist Trevor Rogers, buried in a shallow pit in a field near Bridge, just outside Canterbury.
  • Identified by the British Museum as a Coolus type helmet, made on the Continent, probably in Gaul (modern day France).
  • Helmets like this were designed to protect the head from attack by swords, spears, axes and arrows, as well as the less critical threats of sunstroke and sunburn.
  • Beaten out of a single sheet of metal, its surface is smooth apart from two parallel lines of incised, cable decoration around the rim. Holes around the rim were fastening points for a leather chin strap which has long since rotted away.
  • The helmet was re-used as a special container for a late Iron Age cremation burial which experts say is “almost certainly” of a woman – the only burial of this kind known in Britain.
  • A copper-alloy, bow-shaped brooch was found in the helmet and is similar to two beautiful silver brooches found in an Iron Age mirror burial at Chilham Castle in 1998, also on display at Canterbury Roman Museum.
  • Could have been a prized and exotic family item, possibly belonging to the woman’s husband and worn in battle.

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

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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