Monday, December 3, 2012

The Helmet

Sometimes in archaeology something will happen which is totally and completely unexpected. Sometimes it will be a discovery of a new site which has been lost for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, sometimes a site which was 'not supposed to have anything in' turns up an Anglo-Saxon cemetery (CSI: Sittingbourne reference here), or a metal detectorist will bring something in for identifying.

The Discovery

A metal detectorist got in contact with our Finds Manager, Andrew Richardson, and mentioned that he had found a 'Celtic' helmet in a field he'd been detecting (I would never use the word Celtic - explained very eloquently here by a fellow archaeologist blogger from Archaeosoup Productions). Andrew used to be the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for Kent and so knew a lot of the local detectorists through his work. A Finds Liaison Officer works in an area, for Kent they are based at Kent County Council, and are there to record any finds members of the public may bring in, or want identifying by working with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to record artefact's and declare treasure. It is an entirely voluntary scheme - unless you do have treasure which must legally be declared - but the information recorded helps archaeologists build up a bigger picture of the history and archaeology of a place.

Andrew went to look at the helmet, being a bit sceptical about the whole thing saying “when I got the phone call saying an Iron Age helmet had been found, I have to admit I was a bit doubtful. Such finds are extremely rare and no Iron Age helmet has been found in Kent before. But the finder is an experienced detectorist and seemed very sure about what he’d found, so I agreed to visit him first thing the following morning. I was delighted when it turned out that he was right!”  

Here's a photo!! The hole in the top was caused by the helmet being upside down in the ground and has corroded over time. The helmet would have been worn with the 'peak' at the back.

Images courtesy of CAT
....He also found this lovely brooch and spike (which we believe went on top of the helmet possibly to hold a plume).....

Image courtesy of CAT

.....but suggested that there may be more in the area as he had got further readings with his detector but didn't have the time to explore them. He had tried to get hold of the farmer, but couldn't, so removed the helmet and took it home with him. He left a bag of lead weights in the hole before recovering it so as to find the spot again if required, which was very good of him because one cold October Saturday some of us (a handful from CAT and the Dover Archaeology Group) went up there to investigate the hole further, to record the find properly, and to see if there was anything else in it. The detectorist had picked up cremated bone so we wanted to have a look at whether this was a burial or not. As you can see by the photo it as not a small field and the fact he came across it at all was more luck than judgement!

We get down to digging and find the hole the helmet came out of....

...which was a little smaller than we were expecting, although in all honesty we didn't know what we were going to find! Tina started excavating the hole with a gang of anxious on-lookers...

...and started to find more cremated bone (being saved in the red pot above)! When questioned the detectorist, who came out too, stated that he had removed the soil out of the helmet when he took it out of the ground, and that the bone had come out then. We were all hoping that this was the case, as no one present could think of a parallel 'helmet burial' in the UK and we could test our theory out by excavating the undisturbed fill (back fill) of the original cut (hole dug to put the helmet in) which had remained undisturbed when the detectorist had removed the helmet. Make sense?

We carried on and came across this. This is the impression of where the helmet had been in the ground and you can see where the copper in the bronze has stained the surrounding soil, and if you look very closely you can see the remains of the top of the helmet on the bottom. This for us is very exciting as we can now record the exact position, alignment, depth and location, and we like doing that in archaeology.

The next step would be to remove the rest of the undisturbed fill. We want to see if there is any more cremated bone or any other datable material, like pottery, to help us in our interpretation. My next photo shows another feature we picked up on and that is plough furrows. These are the vertical marks in the photo cut into the natural geology and are caused by ploughing over many years, especially with the advent of better machines which can plough deeper into the soil.

The helmet itself has been dinged (technical term) by the plough and has caused some damage to the front. It was fortunate that the helmet hadn't been dragged down the field or suffered extensive damage from the plough, like the Ringlemere Cup which had unfortunately been partially crushed when that was found in 2001.

Luckily on further excavation of the hole we found no more bone in the soil which is great for us as it means the cremation was placed in the helmet at the time of burial. The brooch, we think, was used to secure a bag made of leather or cloth which would have held the cremation before it was placed in the upturned helmet and put in the ground.

So what does it all mean?

Only 3 other helmets from this period have been found in the UK and none of them are like this; the Horned Helmet found in the Thames at Waterloo, one from near Bogner Regis, and one from Snettisham in Norfolk. As far as we are aware there are no other 'helmet burials' found so far in the UK from this period, and the only other that we know of is from Poland, so we are all excited about it's discovery!

What we do know is the helmet is unlikely to have been made in the UK and possibly came over from Gaul. It is tempting to place the helmet in the context of Caesar’s Gallic War, or his expeditions to Kent in 55 and 54 BC. However, it is of a type which could have been used by Caesar’s troops, or their indigenous allies and enemies making the identification of the individual inside very difficult. There are many ways such a helmet could have come into the possession of a member of the local Cantiaci tribe, rather than representing a Roman military burial in the field. Mercenaries from Britain had travelled to join the fighting in Gaul, and it is possible that this helmet could have belonged to a British or Gallic warrior who fought in Gaul, against the Romans or perhaps even alongside them, eventually bringing the helmet back to Britain with him. Of course the person inside may not even be the person who wore the helmet in life, and until the cremation is analysed properly we can't rule out that it may not even be a man inside it......

What happens now?

As you can see there are many questions left to be answered.

If the helmet had been discovered on it's own it would not have classed as Treasure but luckily for us it came with a very nice brooch and under the Treasure Act 2003 two, or more, pieces of pre-historic metalwork are considered Treasure. As such we have had to declare it and we have taken it to the launch of the Annual Treasure Report at the British Museum. This is a annual event where the more exceptional items of Treasure will be put on display for the Press to see and, hopefully, publish in their newspapers.

For the time being the helmet, brooch and cremation will remain at the British Museum. The cremation and helmet will be analysed by specialists and conserved. Once the  Treasure Valuation Committee have valued it, it will be offered to the local museum in Canterbury and if they can't afford it (lord knows what the value might be) then the British Museum may be able to raise the money to keep it. Otherwise it might go into a private auction, like the Crosby Garrett helmet found in 2010. 

So for now that is all I can really say on the matter. I will keep you all posted with further developments!! be continued....

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