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Adults & Communities
17 January 2012

The mystery of the Hallaton Helmet: Was it a trophy, gift or prized possession?

Members of the public are being urged by Leicestershire County Council to write in and give their views on the mystery which surrounds the historic Hallaton Helmet.
The magnificent 2,000 year-old silver-gilt Roman helmet of outstanding quality and national importance was unveiled at the British Museum last week.
The helmet was buried around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, which began with the invasion of AD43.
Here are three theories about how the helmet came to be buried at Hallaton.
  1. It was taken as a prize by the local tribe following a conflict with invading Romans.
    The helmet would have been a spectacular war trophy and a suitable gift for the gods worshipped at the Hallaton shrine.
  2. Given to the Corieltavi people (local Iron Age tribe in Leics) as a diplomatic gift.
    Not all of the Iron Age tribes of Britain were hostile to the Roman invaders and a stunning gift like this might help to form an alliance.
  3. Prized possession of a returning Corieltavian soldier.
    The Roman army often recruited skilled horsemen from local tribes. Perhaps the helmet and spare parts were owned by a Corieltavian man who had served in the Roman army and fought alongside Romans in the invasion of Britain. Not all native British tribes were anti-Roman as they saw them as a way of subduing enemy British tribes.
David Sprason, Leicestershire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Adults and Communities, said: “There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Hallaton Helmet and how it came to be buried where it was found.
“Asking people to write in with which theory they agree with will help to engage members of the public in what is a truly remarkable find.”
To tell us which you think is your favourite theory and to give your thoughts, please email: harboroughmuseum@leics.gov.uk
It will be revealed which is the preferred theory among those who have written in during early February.

More about the Hallaton Helmet

The Hallaton Helmet is the only Roman helmet found in Britain with the majority of the silver-gilt plating surviving, and one of only a handful ever discovered. It is also one of Britain’s earliest Roman helmets.
Thanks to Heritage Lottery funding, the Hallaton Helmet was restored at the British Museum and has been unveiled.
When fragments of iron were taken back to the University of Leicester, during excavation in 2001, it was realised that they had the “ear” from a 2,000 year old Roman cavalry helmet. This distinctive iron object with silver plating was the ear guard of a once magnificent helmet.
The fragile helmet had to be lifted in a soil block for excavation and conservation in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum. Over the next few years the finds from Hallaton were declared Treasure and were acquired by Leicestershire County Council with the help of grants from The Heritage Lottery Fund, The Art Fund, the Museums and Art Galleries Improvements Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, The Headley Trust, Renaissance East Midlands and local contributions from the Friends of Leicester and Leicestershire Museums, the Leicestershire Museums Archaeological Fieldwork Group, as well as private individuals. The Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £650,600 enabled the finds, including the helmet, to be conserved and displayed to the public in the specially designed Hallaton Treasure Gallery at Harborough Museum in Market Harborough, Leicestershire.
The task of removing the helmet from its soil block fell to Marilyn Hockey, Head of Ceramics, Glass and Metals Conservation at the British Museum. This group, based within the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, has a strong focus on archaeological conservation, with experienced conservators working alongside science specialists.
The initial laboratory excavation, carried out as part of the BM’s duties under the Treasure Act, revealed a much more complex assemblage than had been expected, as the helmet had been buried with several hundred coins, the remains of a feast of suckling pig, and five extra cheekpieces (making seven in all). All of the metalwork was in a broken and fragile state, including the decorated silver surface, much of which had corroded away to powder; but under the microscope a very fine design and traces of gilding could be seen.
Once Leicestershire County Council had raised the funding, a three year collaboration with the BM began, during which Marilyn, later assisted by two colleagues, carried out a campaign of painstaking micro-excavation, stabilisation and reconstruction of the hundreds of fragments. This work is now complete and according to Marilyn and her colleagues, was one of the most challenging and rewarding projects they have worked on. This process, likened to a 3D jigsaw puzzle, has revealed the helmet to be constructed of sheet iron, once covered with beautifully crafted silver sheet decorated in places with gold leaf. It was probably made between AD 25-50 so is contemporary with the Roman invasion of Britain.
This was a top quality helmet and would have been specially commissioned by a high ranking officer. When new, it would have been a stunning sight, shining gold and silver and with images of Roman military victory proudly displayed on its surfaces. It is the only Roman helmet found in Britain with the majority of the silver-gilt plating surviving, and one of only a handful ever discovered.
The decoration is of the highest quality. The helmet’s bowl features a wreath, the symbol of a military victory and the scallop shaped browguard shows the striking bust of a woman flanked by lions and other animals. The cheekpieces depict a Roman emperor on horseback with the goddess Victory flying behind. Beneath his horse’s hooves is a cowering figure, possibly a native Briton.
What the native Britons who buried this helmet made of this image of Roman dominance we do not know. Did they identify with the defeated foe or the triumphant horseman? One persuasive theory is that it was actually owned by an important local man who had served in the Roman cavalry prior to or during the Roman conquest of Britain that began in AD 43. He may have chosen to bury his highly prized helmet at his local shrine as a gift to the gods on his return to the East Midlands. Alternatively, it is possible that the helmet was a diplomatic gift, perhaps suggesting that the local population were pro-Roman. Some believe that the helmet was not a gift but a spoil of war. It may have been taken during a raid on a Roman camp or even during a battle.
The Hallaton Helmet is one of the earliest Roman helmets found in Britain and is believed to have been buried in the years around the Roman Emperor Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 43. The circumstances of its burial are a mystery and how this extremely high status Roman object came into the possession of the local native British tribe is intriguing. The Hallaton Helmet has been baffling experts in Roman archaeology and history since it was discovered and may continue to do so for some time to come.

Background notes

For further details about the Treasure Project and Harborough Museum, see the following background details.
Harborough Museum is operated in partnership by Leicestershire County Council, Harborough District Council and the Market Harborough Historical Society.
The Southeast Leicestershire Treasure is the archive of material produced by several stages of archaeological work undertaken by local community archaeologists and University of Leicester Archaeological Services. The site proved to be an internationally important ritual site dating mostly to the generations before and after the Roman Conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD.
The purpose of the project is to purchase, conserve, interpret and promote the Southeast Leicestershire Treasure. The cost of the project is £933,872 which includes purchasing the finds, conserving the finds, displays at Harborough Museum and at Hallaton Museum, two touring exhibitions, web based resources, workshops for schools and community groups, and events for the public.
The project is supported by grants from The Heritage Lottery Fund of £650,600, £100,000 from The Art Fund, the UK’s leading independent art charity, £35,000 from the Museums and Art Galleries Improvements Fund, £35,000 from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, The Headley Trust, Renaissance East Midlands (http://www.mla.gov.uk/what/programmes/renaissance/regions/east_midlands) and local contributions from the Friends of Leicester and Leicestershire Museums, the Leicestershire Museums Archaeological Fieldwork Group and the County Council, as well as private individuals. The support of Harborough District Council is also gratefully acknowledged.
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) enables communities to celebrate, look after and learn more about our diverse heritage. From our great museums and historic buildings to local parks and beauty spots or recording and celebrating traditions, customs and history, HLF grants open up our nation’s heritage for everyone to enjoy. Since its conception, HLF has supported 26,000 projects allocating over £4 billion across the UK.
The Art Fund is the national charity for art, helping UK museums and galleries to buy, show and share art. Over the past 5 years, the Art Fund has given £24 million to buy art and supported a range of projects and programmes aimed at helping more people enjoy art. It is independently funded by 89,000 supporters who purchase a National Art Pass, costing from just £37.50, which gives free entry to over 200 museums, galleries and historic houses across the country as well as 50% off major exhibitions.
Find out more about the Art Fund and how to buy a National Art Pass at www.artfund.org . Media contact 020 7225 4888, media@artfund.org
The V&A Purchase Grant Fund is a government fund, established at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in 1881 as part of its nationwide work. The annual grants budget, currently £600,000. The Fund supports the acquisition of objects relating to the arts, literature, and history by regional museums, record offices and specialist libraries in England and Wales. Each year it considers some 250 applications and awards grants to around100 organisations, enabling acquisitions of over £4million to go ahead.
The Headley Museums Archaeological Acquisition Fund has been established by the Headley Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts. Its trustees realise the great difficulties many regional and local museums find in raising the money to buy archaeological artefacts. They are also aware of the proliferation of finds as a consequence of the success of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The Headley initiative is intended to help museums secure and display notable finds. The Headley Scheme runs alongside and in collaboration with the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. Visit the website at www.headley-archaeology.org.uk
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a voluntary scheme (managed by the British Museum) to record archaeological objects (not necessarily Treasure) found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of objects are discovered, many of these by metal-detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work. Such discoveries offer an important source for understanding our past. More information can be found on www.finds.org.uk
All finders of gold and silver objects, groups of coins from the same find, over 300 years old, have a legal obligation to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996. Prehistoric base-metal assemblages found after 1 January 2003 also qualify as Treasure. Potential Treasure finds must be reported by law to the local coroner, which is normally done through the finders’ local PAS Finds Liaison Officer. If declared Treasure, they may be acquired by a museum at their full market value (normally split 50/50 between finder and landowner), valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee, which is an independent committee of expert. The Treasure Process is administered by the British Museum. More information is available on www.culture.gov.uk or www.finds.org.uk
For more information about Harborough Museum and the Southeast Leicestershire Treasure Project, please contact pressoffice@leics.gov.uk

Find out more about Harborough Museum:
Address: Council Offices, Adam & Eve Street, Market Harborough LE16 7AG
Phone: 01858 821085
Email: HarboroughMuseum@leics.gov.uk
Website: www.leics.gov.uk/HarboroughMuseum
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