Rare Roman cavalry helmet slips through loophole

Roman bronze cavalry helmet and mask, 1st - 2nd c. A.D.In May of this year, an unnamed metal detectorist found an extremely rare bronze Roman cavalry helmet complete with face mask in Crosby Garrett, Cumbria, UK.

It would have been used in cavalry sports events — shows done in honor of religious festivals or visiting dignitaries — not during battle, which is why it’s so beautifully decorated. The face was originally plated in tin, so it would have shone brightly and contrasted with the gold bronze color of the curls. There are rings along the back and on the griffin crest which may have had streamers tied to them during the display.

It is one of only three complete helmets with face masks ever found in Britain. The other two are in museums. This one will be sold to the highest bidder in a Christie’s auction October 7th.

Tullie House in Carlisle, which has an important Roman collection, is desperate to acquire the helmet with the backing of the British Museum, but faces an uphill battle to match bidders at next month’s sale. One expert believes the helmet could go for £500,000 or more. […]

If Tullie House is outbid, as seems inevitable, export of the helmet is likely to be temporarily barred by the government to give a British museum the chance to match an overseas buyer’s bid.

Here’s hoping. Christie’s estimate is £300,000, but that strikes me as an absurd lowball figure. In fact, it’s almost weird how low the estimate is given the exquisite beauty and rarity of the piece. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the final purchase price be out of museum range.

When members of the public find antique objects in the UK, they can voluntarily report them to a local archaeological authority. If the objects are judged treasure, a fair market value is determined and museums given the opportunity to pay the finder and landowner the assessed amount. There’s a yawning loophole, however, through which this remarkable helmet has fallen: treasure is defined as gold and silver, or bronze if part of a hoard. A single bronze object, no matter how rare, how special, how much UK museums would fall over themselves to get it, does not count as treasure, so the finder can just hand it over to Christie’s for his and their profit.

There are other shadinesses involved in this deal. Neither the treasure hunter nor Christie’s has reported the exact location of the find. The helmet was found in pieces and Christie’s put it back together for the sale. No archaeological study of the fragments was done before restoration, and we don’t even know how exactly Christie’s put humpty dumpty back together again. The age estimates have varied from 1st through 3rd century A.D. (they’re sticking with 1st-2nd c. in the auction catalogue) but that’s all from Christie’s experts. Nobody knows what kind, if any, scientific analysis has been done. Therefore, as beautiful and precious as this piece is, it is now a contextless piece of ancient art, just like so many looted objects.

Paul Barford, archaeologist and writer of the exceptional Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues blog, lays out many of the issues in this entry. He also gives great rant in this more recent entry.

I say let the Crosby Garrett helmet go abroad. Let it be an easily understood symbol for the people of the British Isles just how their archaeological heritage is being squandered by those who should be protecting it. Furthermore, I hope it goes to the furthest ends of the Earth so that any Brits who want to see it can put themselves for a moment in the place of all those citizens from “antiquities’ source countries” who have difficulty seeing their own region’s archaeological heritage because it is hoarded away as (oh-so-culchural) trophies in western museums and personal collections.

Testify, Brother Barford. :notworthy:

6 thoughts on “Rare Roman cavalry helmet slips through loophole

  1. I’d be tempted to the payday as well. Do you know how many frozen coffee drinks 300,000 bones can buy? I wouldn’t even care about the brain freeze! But my long time hero and mentor would probably never speak to me again – that is until I save his life on one of our forced adventures.

    It belongs in a museum! ~HJjr

    1. I hate to break it to you, but your hero and mentor is a looter. I know. It was hard for me to accept too, but just because he destroys archaeological sites to steal the most valuable object on commission from a museum doesn’t make his practices any less abominable. Shh… Shh… It’ll be okay.

  2. The contents of your blog post aside, why is everyone persistently calling this artefact a Roman Cavalry Helmet? It bloody isn’t! The original reporting of the find made me laugh out loud: some sort of, wholly undocumented, ceremony or tournament had been invented to explain the helmet’s existence. IT IS NOT A CAVALRY HELMET! It is, clearly, a helmet/mask showing the image of the god Mithras, who was widely favoured by the Roman soldiery (several temples/shrines dedicated to Mithras have been found at Roman forts, and particularly along Hadrian’s Wall); it’s all there, the golden hair and visage, the phrygian cap, not to mention the fact that it looks exactly the same as other Roman images of Mithras that have been found (both painted and sculptural). The ‘historian’ responsible for branding it a “ceremonial cavalry helmet” (what utter tosh) needs banging on the head with the helmet, for the offence of deciding what you’ve got before doing the research and then bending history to fit (inventing some ceremony), rather than admit your initial opinion was wrong.

    1. It’s not an invented ceremony. Cavalry sports events at which these masks were worn were described in some detail by Arrian in Ars Tactica. Nor does the Phrygian style of the helmet exclude it from being a ceremonial cavalry helmet. The Ostrov Helmet in Bulgaria is Phrygian as well.

      Enough of these helmets have been found around the former Roman empire that their mask and helmet styles have been classified. The idealized youth face mask of the Crosby Garret Helmet is consistent with Robinson’s Cavalry Sports Helmet Type C and Kohlert’s Type V. It’s a unique example of rare surviving quality, but it’s still a cavalry helmet.

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