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Cover of British Archaeology 116

Issue 116

Jan / Feb 2011



All the latest archaeology news from around the country


Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet

The fullest report yet on its discovery, appearance and modern fate, plus its restoration

THE BIG DIG: Flixbrough

20 years of study at the Lincolnshire DMV

Fieldwalking in Bingham

The community story of a Nottinghamshire parish

Silbury Hill

What is it and how was it made?

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' fourth exploration of music and archaeology, we look at Music and Place

on the web

Military sites of all periods and online teaching of GIS

CBA Correspondent

Our Casework team reviews another year of listed building saves


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet

Found in the spring, seen by a few specialists, restored, and sold in the autumn: the stunning bronze helmet from Cumbria is now in a private collection. Sally Worrell, Ralph Jackson, Andrew Mackay, Roger Bland and Mike Pitts present the fullest report yet on its discovery, appearance and modern fate, while Darren Bradbury describes his restoration.

The helmet and mask visor were found in May by a former student in his 20s from Peterlee, Co Durham. He had been detecting with his father for some years in Crosby Garrett parish on land farmed by Eric Robinson. The field and one adjacent, both under rough grass, had previously yielded only small artefacts (including a few Roman coins), but the two men enjoyed being out in the landscape.

The finder's first thought was that the object was a Victorian ornament, and only after searching the internet and consulting dealers and auction catalogues did he realise it was Roman. Sally Worrell was told about the find soon after Christie's, and first saw it on 4 June, the day it was delivered to the London auction house in a clear plastic box lined with cotton wool.

The site was visited by Stuart Noon and Dot Boughton for the Portable Antiquities Scheme with the finder, when the refilled hole was still visible. It is close to a Roman road with views across the fells, and amongst otherwise unrecorded earthworks suggesting ancient settlement. The visor lay more or less complete and face down, with the helmet in pieces (Worrell counted at least 68 in photos taken at Christie's), some 25cm below the surface. The finder believed visor and helmet to have been on their own. The appearance of the fragments suggests strongly that the helmet had been broken up and folded before burial.

Christie's commissioned Darren Bradbury to restore the visor and helmet for sale. Worrell asked that restoration await a full scientific examination, as this could have answered important questions as to what had happened to the helmet before it was placed in the ground, but this request was not responded to. Ralph Jackson was able to visit Christie's to inspect the find during the restoration, and Worrell twice more, on one occasion with a research student.

Ruth Fillery-Travis, a student at UCL Institute of Archaeology, analysed the metal with a portable X-Ray fluorescence spectrometer. Three areas each of visor and helmet showed averages of 82% copper, 10% zinc and 8% tin; this probably represents a low zinc brass to which tin had been added to ensure good casting. The griffin revealed a quite different alloy with 68% copper, 4% zinc and 18% tin, and an exceptional 10% lead. It is likely that it was cast from scrap metal; the composition is almost unique for Romano-British copper alloy (these measurements are all from the surface, and may partially reflect leaching of elements such as zinc during burial). When new, the face would have looked silver and the head piece a coppery yellow colour.

Exceptional importance

Even in its excavated state the Crosby Garrett helmet was an outstandingly important find, of the greatest international significance for its intrinsic interest, and for the light it could be expected to shed on the manufacture and supply of Roman prestige military equipment. The combination of near-complete helmet and visor is exceptional. In addition, the restoration emphasises the object's beauty and craftsmanship, and the finely wrought and chillingly striking face undoubtedly raised the interest of both public and collectors.

Sports helmets of this type were worn by Roman auxiliaries at flamboyant military displays performed in front of commanders and emperors by elite cavalry units. The helmets were the most lavish of the decorations that graced both horse and rider, and unlike combat gear, which the men had to return when their service ended, cavalry sports equipment is likely to have been privately commissioned and bought. Helmets, especially the visor masks, are widely found, not just in and around forts but often in graves and other non-military contexts.

The Crosby Garrett visor is of a recognised type, categorised by H Russell Robinson as cavalry sports type C and by Maria Kohlert as type V, dating from the end of the first to the mid third centuries AD. These visors, mostly bronze but some of iron, feature idealised "Greek" style youthful male faces, typically clean-shaven with luxuriant curly and wavy hair. They are found from Algeria to Romania and Syria to Britain, and especially in the Netherlands and Germany, where a sensational discovery of seven masks was made at the fort of Straubing in 1950. The type C iron helmet from Newstead, Roxburghshire (one of three sports helmets excavated at the Roman fort by James Curle in 1906–07), like the Crosby Garret example, is unusual for preserving both parts.

Hinged at the centre of the brow, the Crosby Garret helmet would have been fastened at the neck by a leather strap secured to an iron stud beneath each ear, where iron corrosion products can now be seen. The survival of the head piece is exceptional, emphasised by its unusual form, the so-called "Phrygian cap". The griffin, with a foot raised onto an amphora and unquestionably originally attached to the top, was the companion of Nemesis, goddess of vengeance and fate, an appropriate association for an elite cavalryman.

Suggestions as to who the face and cap might represent have already ranged widely, and include the Greek god Attis and hero Perseus, and Roman gods Mithras and Jupiter Dolichenus. Equally the cap may have been intended to indicate not an individual, so much as a general eastern Mediterranean appearance, perhaps – as suggested by Simon James – even a Trojan identity for a sports enactment of the Greek- Trojan war.

There are other examples of the legendary eagle-headed winged lion from Romano-British military contexts, but the Crosby Garrett griffin raises the possibility of a new interpretation of another celebrated find, the Ribchester helmet. This is the UK's most famous complete cavalry sports helmet, found on the site of the Roman fort at Ribchester, Lancashire in 1796. Charles Townley, the local antiquary, secured the helmet and the rest of the hoard. But he never obtained "a sphinx of bronze", described in 1815, which, "from the remains of solder... and also from its curvature, appeared to have been attached to some convex surface, probably to the top of the helmet". Perhaps this too was a griffin, comparable to the otherwise unique Crosby Garrett crest.

Bowled over

News of the discovery became public in mid September when Christie's announced their London antiquities sale for 7 October. The helmet featured on the catalogue cover, and across six pages inside, with an estimated price of £200–300,000. Interest was immediately strong.

It was clearly the public expectation that such an object should legally be classed as treasure, and protected from the raw market. However, no single finds of non-precious metal, and only prehistoric groups of such finds, are so defined. The way was open for the finder and landowner to sell the helmet as they pleased. The work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in confirming its precise Cumbrian provenance also made it acceptable for museums to bid for it (Christie's quoted the PAS reference). This was going to be a particularly unusual sale.

The Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, immediately launched an appeal, arguing that the helmet should remain in Cumbria and would make the perfect centrepiece to a new £1.5m Roman frontier gallery due to be opened in 2011. Local representatives talked up the potential economic benefits of the helmet, the local MPs Rory Stewart and John Stevenson joined the campaign and local media urged a willing public to contribute to the museum fund.

The museum had in fact known about the helmet since early June, had read Ralph Jackson's preliminary report and had seen photos supplied by Christie's. But the auction house, who had been helpful to Tullie House, had requested an embargo. Preparations for the campaign had begun behind the scenes, but the speed with which the fund rose in the three and a half weeks before the sale was still a surprise. The scale of this achievement was not revealed until afterwards, but the museum's agent was able to bid up to £1.7m – armed with the £1.92m that this would have meant with the added buyer's premium (the local authority museum could have reclaimed the VAT). The feat is the more astonishing for it having occurred in the midst of a recession and a severe national government spending review.

Contributing to the appeal's success was the pioneering use of social media such as Facebook, which took the campaign around the world. An anonymous overseas benefactor (whom local media at the time speculated was a Carlisle businessman) offered £50,000 if this could be matched pound for pound by the public (it was). He had also offered £200,000: a rare feature of the appeal was the number of parties approached who pledged more than they were asked for – everyone, it seemed, was bowled over by Christie's photos of the restored helmet and its face.

An offer of £450,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund was raised to £1m. An initial offer of £100,000 from the Headley Trust and the Monument Trust, Sainsbury family charities, became £300,000. The Art Fund pledged £200,000. The J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust was approached for £50,000: it gave £75,000.

Meanwhile, at an early stage James Ede (managing director of the antiquities dealer Charles Ede Ltd and a valuer for the Treasure Valuation Committee) and Sally Worrell had offered to facilitate a private treaty sale for Tullie House. Now Lords Renfrew, Howarth and Redesdale, representing the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, wrote to Christie's urging such a private sale. The Portable Antiquities Scheme appealed to the finder to allow the museum to acquire the helmet. Finally, three days before the sale, Andrew Mackay drove to Peterlee to see the metal detectorist, and Hilary Wade (director of Tullie House) simultaneously went to Crosby Garrett to meet Eric Robinson: letters were delivered pleading dialogue (no sums were discussed). All approaches failed.

On the day, the higher estimate was passed within seconds. Six bidders – two in the room, three on the phone and one via the internet – pushed the price towards a million. One, said to be the Getty Museum, dropped out at £800,000. When Tullie House quit, two buyers remained to take the final bid to £2m; there was no sign that the winning phone bidder had reached his limit. Including buyer's premium and VAT, the full bill was £2,330,468.75, a hammer price of up to ten times the estimate.

"Cumbria has had a few bad knocks recently", Mackay told the Guardian's Maev Kennedy moments later, "and this fundraising campaign was a good news story for the area, so this is a real blow. People will be terribly disappointed – we had children emptying their piggy banks." Donations continued to come in for future acquisitions.

The buyer remains anonymous: all that is known is that he (a man) is a UK resident and fine art collector. Tullie House has written to him, through Christie's, hoping to open a dialogue and noting the enormous public interest.

Treasure Act review?

The outcome exposes a real gap in the treasure law. Lords Renfrew, Howarth and Redesdale now wrote to the Times, noting that a "review of the Treasure Act was due in 2007 and is now clearly overdue." An object of this archaeological importance, they said, "should go to a public museum". This view was shared by detectorists. "Without exception", wrote Trevor Austin, general secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting, "everyone I have spoken to believes that the helmet... belongs in a museum and not hidden away in some private collection".

CBA director Mike Heyworth likewise wrote to Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, communications and creative industries (and attaching a copy of his CBA correspondent column for Mar/Apr 2010). On his governmental website, Vaizey noted that the most popular topic addressed to "Ask Ed Vaizey" was the Crosby Garrett helmet – "and a number of people asked about a review of the Treasure Act".

This plea was widely echoed, from a Guardian leader to Souren Melikian, who wrote somewhat alarmingly in the New York Times that, "Wanton destruction of the buried common heritage of mankind is a crime against culture... perhaps it is time for international organisations to set up an art-market watchdog."

The dominant reaction in the UK of dismay that the helmet had not been declared treasure, would not have been seen even a few years ago. The helmet contains no gold or silver, but part of the definition of treasure embraces non-precious metal items found in association. However, this currently applies only to prehistoric objects, and there is a clear case for extending it into Roman times: it would be absurd to think that even a group of seven bronze parade helmets would not legally be treasure. A small bronze rectangle amongst the Crosby Garrett fragments may not have been part of the helmet (Bradbury recorded traces of lead, possibly solder, on one face, but could see no lead on the inside of the visor or helmet). Though now impossible to tell without further examination, if this strip was not part of the helmet, it would have made the find treasure under the act's likely revision.

However, the helmet might well have been a genuine isolated find, and would thus probably have escaped even a revised act. To further strengthen the act could mean a radical change in the proven system of trust in the world of portable antiquities in this country. Leaving aside the issue of ownership, it is a system that has benefited the helmet: we know exactly where it came from, archaeologists have been able to examine and record it and Christie's has allowed public access to the restoration records. On the other hand, conservation and more detailed study would have revealed more about the object, and its loss to identity and public interest in Cumbria and beyond is very strong. There is a debate to be had – one in which personal attacks on the buyer or finder have no place.

One of the first occasions for such discussion was in parliament on 11 November, when Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn asked whether the helmet's sale might encourage the government to review the Treasure Act. "It is strange", he said, "that a national treasure can be sold at public auction by an anonymous vendor to an anonymous buyer... [W]ill the government consider reviewing the law on antiquities at sale by auction in favour of some transparency?" Baroness Rawlings replied that such transparency without the buyers' and sellers' consent would be a "breach of the principles of confidentiality and data protection". A spirited discussion followed (see PAS News Item).

Meanwhile, Tullie House Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme are discussing with the farmer the options for geophysical survey and excavation at the find site. A conference on Roman parade helmets is being considered for 2011, with a major complementary exhibition that would bring together items from across the Roman empire for the first time. Ownership is not the end of the tale.

Sally Worrell is national finds adviser – prehistoric, iron age and Roman artefacts, Portable Antiquities Scheme; Ralph Jackson is curator of Romano-British collections, British Museum; Andrew Mackay is collections development and interpretation manager, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery; Roger Bland is head of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum; and Mike Pitts is editor of British Archaeology. We would like to thank Christie's and Darren Bradbury for help with this feature. The PAS's announcement of the helmet, with links to the find record, Christie's catalogue and Ralph Jackson's report.

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