“We can’t of course say yet that there is any connection with Caesar’s invasion, and we’re very unlikely to be able to prove it either way, but the dates are tantalisingly close.”
When the battered metal helmet turned up in a field on the outskirts of Canterbury, the archaeologists had to peer at it carefully to be sure it wasn’t a relic from a careless American GI in the second world war — albeit one with eccentric tastes, since it contained a mass of burned human bone.
The helmet, revealed for the first time as last year’s haul of archaeological finds by metal detectors was unveiled at the British Museum, is in fact an artefact from a much earlier conflict. It is an exceptionally rare Iron Age Celtic helmet from the time of the first invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar, who landed only a few miles away on the Kent coast. The bones haven’t yet been analysed, but the presumption is that they are those of the helmet’s owner, who must have been a warrior — and could in those complicated times have been a Gaul fighting either by Caesar’s side, or with the defending Britons.
It is one of only a handful of such helmets from the period from either Britain or in Gaul, better known these days as France, where it was probably made, but unique in being used for a burial. “We can’t of course say yet that there is any connection with Caesar’s invasion, and we’re very unlikely to be able to prove it either way, but the dates are tantalisingly close,” Andrew Richardson of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust said.
Caesar invaded first in 55 BC, and returned with a larger force in 54BC, fighting several skirmishes and battles, including one near a site where the city of Canterbury now lies. The copper alloy helmet has been dated to around 50 BC by the small bronze brooch found with it. The archaeologists believe the cremated bones were scooped up from the funeral pyre in a cloth, pinned with the brooch and placed in the helmet, then buried in a small pit. It was so close to the surface that plough ruts ran within inches of either side.
Although there’s a hole in the crown, probably caused by corrosion from water pooling inside it, it is virtually complete, and its original spike which would have made the wearer look more like a cartoon German soldier from the first world war than a GI was found nearby. Canterbury museum hopes to acquire it.
It is among almost 100,000 finds of archaeological objects, and 970 treasure finds including Roman gold and Viking silver, almost all found by metal detectorists, covered by the latest report from the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which runs the scheme, said so many hoards have now been reported that a study is being launched on why the UK has so many.
If the helmet was witness to the very earliest days of the Romans in Britain, a trove of 159 gold coins found near St Albans, Roman Verulamium, the second largest find of its kind, is almost certainly a relic of their last days. Coins expert Sam Moorhead pointed out Roman coins among the very last minted in Ravenna, Milan and Rome itself with the Barbarians almost at the gates of the cities.
Each coin would have bought a fine military cloak, or fed a soldier for three months, but they were hidden as the Roman government of Britain crumbled, and never retrieved. The Verulamium Museum at St Albans hopes to acquire them, but meanwhile they go on display for the first time this week in the coins gallery at the British Museum.
Six centuries later peace was still a wish: something stopped a Viking from coming back to retrieve his stashed mass of silver, from a field near Bedale, North Yorkshire. His loot included weighty arm rings probably made in Ireland, ingots nicked by a knife to check the precious metal wasn’t adulterated with lead or copper, fragments of beautiful gold mounts from a sword owned by some Anglo-Saxon who probably didn’t hand it over voluntarily, and a huge twisted silver, wire necklace.
It was the blackened wire which Stuart Campbell first spotted, as he tramped off a “vile, verminous, vicious day at work”, and since it was almost beside an electricity pylon, he concluded grumpily that he had found some old electrical cable. When more bits of metal turned up he called in his friend Steve Caswell, who works at the same animal feed mill, and gives equally good grump. They are both men of few and blunt words, and have therefore formed an exclusive metal detecting club of two members. “Idiots some of the detectorists, they’d drive you mad,” snarled Campbell.
They filled in the hole, carefully replaced the clods of grass in case any of the “idiots” came by, and called in archaeologists, who eventually recovered 29 ingots, four silver collars, and 10 pieces of beautifully decorated gold from the hoard, as well as other bits of silver probably destined to be melted down if their owner had ever returned.
Their value has yet to be determined, but will be shared between them and the landowner, and the York Museum hopes to acquire them. “I felt a bit grim actually,” Campbell said,” I wondered if we should just have left everything in the ground.”
They’ve been out again since the find in May, but have only found “stuff”, they said. “Well, and that medieval ring,” Campbell recalled. “And that gold bracelet on Sunday”, Caswell reminded him. “Oh, and this,” he said, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket, and fishing out a little Anglo-Saxon silver coin. “That’s quite good,” Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins at the BM — who had to drag his manuscript on Viking hoards back from the printers, in order to include the Bedale find — said, peering at it. “675 to 750 AD, Northumberland, one of the earliest English regnal coins, not bad at all.”
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