1,000-piece puzzle may unlock secrets to the Roman conquest of Britain - Archaeology - Science - The Independent

1,000-piece puzzle may unlock secrets to the Roman conquest of Britain

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The helmet could have been captured as a war trophy or a diplomatic gift from a Roman officer

Historians and archaeologists are trying to solve an ancient mystery that is already shedding remarkable new light on the Roman conquest of Britain.

After years of painstaking conservation work, experts at the British Museum have succeeded in reconstructing the finest Roman battle helmet ever found in the UK.

Originally discovered by a metal detectorist, as literally hundreds of corroded fragments buried in a field in the East Midlands, the helmet has gradually been revealing its secrets to British Museum conservators who have been re-assembling it like a 3D jigsaw.

In a laboratory excavation of the block of earth containing the helmet, they discovered that the front of the iron and gilt silver artefact bore a sculpture of a Roman goddess – probably Victory - and that the cheek pieces sported images of a Roman emperor and of the great classical demi-god, Hercules.

But now they are faced with solving an even more challenging mystery – who the helmet originally belonged to and the exact circumstances surrounding its burial.

Archaeologists believe that the helmet was put in the ground by native Iron Age British tribesmen as a votive offering to the gods in the months or years immediately following the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD.

Studies of other material found at the site show that it was a major native British religious complex, used for the ritual interment of votive offerings for several hundred years – in the late Iron Age and Romano-British periods.

The investigation has so far revealed that, at around the time of the Roman conquest at least 14 other votive deposits (mostly Iron Age silver coins) were interred at the site. The helmet was also buried with native currency. In total, the original mid-first century AD value of these offerings (excluding the helmet itself) would have been the modern day equivalent of around £80,000.

But now historians are trying to place the votive offerings in the wider context of the Roman conquest itself. They are trying to unravel whether the offerings were being made to gain the gods’ support in defeating the Roman invaders – or, alternatively, to thank the gods for the arrival of the legions.

The interpretive dilemma facing historians stems from the complex nature of mid-first century AD native British politics. Historians have long known that some British tribes or sub-tribes were extremely pro-Roman at the time of the conquest – and that some others were not. However, the political position of many of the tribal kingdoms and confederacies is not yet known, including that of a people called the Corieltauvi  (literally ‘the Army of the Earth Goddess’) who appear to have dominated much of the East Midlands  at the time the helmet was buried.

Linked with this question of political allegiance, is the mystery of how the helmet was acquired by the native British people who buried it.

There are two main options. If those people were hostile to Rome, then it’s likely that the helmet was a war trophy, captured by Britons and buried to ensure continuing British success against the invaders. Perhaps significantly, there were parts of several other helmets buried alongside it – a fact that would be consistent with the war trophy option.

Alternatively, though less likely, the helmet could have been a diplomatic gift from a senior Roman officer to a local British chieftain – or a Roman offering at a native shrine.

But who did the helmet originally belong to?  Its style shows that it was originally the property of a Roman cavalryman. He would have been a member of a cavalry unit - associated with a legion, potentially based at nearby Leicester.

Some scholars have suggested that shortly after the Roman invasion, Leicester may have become an operational base for all or part of the 14 legion (known as Gemina and originally formed a century earlier by Julius Caesar).

Some of the Roman army cavalrymen associated with that particular legion came from what is now the Netherlands – and were particularly crack troops recruited from a Germanic tribe, known as the Batavi (literally ‘the Superior Men’) – the tribal people  who originally supplied the core element of the emperor’s personal mounted guards. It’s conceivable therefore that the original owner of the helmet was a Batavian,  stationed in the East Midlands, but originally hailing from the Nijmegen area of the Lower Rhine.

The native British ritual site where the helmet was buried, was a large oval, possibly palisaded, complex on the summit of a hill at Hallaton, Leicestershire, overlooking the probable  Iron Age ‘international’ boundary between the Corialtauvi and their southern neighbours the Catuvellauni (‘the Land of the Great Warriors’).

The earliest votive offerings – a group of gold coins of the southern British Atrebate tribe – were placed in the ground there in the late first century BC. Then, in around the 20s AD, groups of local silver coins were buried together with a small Iron Age British silver bowl, a 1.2 kilo silver ingot (made at least partly from melted-down British coins) and two continental-originating Roman glass eyes, potentially from a cult statue of some sort.

Also interred on the site was a ten pint Iron Age communal drinking vessel, the remains of a series of ritual feasts (at which around 400 suckling pigs were consumed!) – and a series of Roman brooches and a gold bracelet, buried much later in the Roman period.

The conservation and detailed analysis of the helmet, 5000 coins and other finds has taken British Museum and other experts a decade to complete since the material was originally excavated by Leicester University and a local archaeological  society, the Hallaton Fieldwork Group, in 2001. The laboratory excavation and re-assembly of the helmet at the British Museum was led by one of the museum’s leading conservators, Marilyn Hockey.

The helmet will join other treasures from the site on show at Harborough Museum, in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, as from January 28. It is the culmination of a long archaeological investigation and conservation operation funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies through Leicestershire County Council which now owns the helmet and other finds from the site. Leicester University, which helped carry out the original excavation, will next month publish a book about the site -  Hoards, Hounds and Helmets: A Conquest Period Ritual Site at Hallaton, Leicestershire  by the excavation’s director Vicki Score.

Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Tim Wiese
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Test Manager

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush, London

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Network Manager - Shepherd's Bush...

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Full time German Supply Teacher...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week