This 2,000-year-old Roman helmet used to look like a ‘rusty bucket’. Now it’s restored almost to its former glory

March 28, 2024

Replica of the Hallatan Helmet. The original is set to be displayed at the Harborough Museum in Leicestershire, UK.
Replica of the Hallatan Helmet. The original is set to be displayed at the Harborough Museum in Leicestershire, UK. Credit: Harborough Museum.

In the early 2000s, amateur archaeologists in the UK dug up a large and extremely rusted metal object somewhere in Leicestershire. It certainly didn’t look like much. However, this would prove to be one of the most important archaeological finds made this century in Britain. The artifact, still encased in the soil block in which it was found, was examined by experts at the British Museum, who with their trained eyes found it was an ancient Roman helmet.

This was no ordinary foot-soldier headgear. As conservators painstakingly peeled off the many layers of rust and soil, they realized this was a Roman cavalry helmet of extraordinary craftsmanship, etched with intricate decorations made of gold and silver.

The block that the helmet pieces were extracted from.The block that the helmet pieces have been extracted from. Credit: British Museum.British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet.British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet. Credit: British Museum.

The helmet was discovered alongside thousands of Iron Age and Roman coins and pig bones within what is believed to have been a shrine from around 43 A.D. Its intricate design, adorned with decorations made of precious metals, suggests it belonged to a high-ranking Roman cavalry officer.

This decoration showcases a wreath symbolizing military victory and a scallop-shaped browguard displaying a woman’s bust surrounded by animals. The cheekpieces portray a Roman emperor riding a horse with the goddess Victory flying behind him, and beneath the horse’s hooves, a cowering figure, possibly a native Briton, lies.

 

A reconstruction drawing of how the helmet might have originally looked. Illustration by Bob Whale

After two decades of meticulous restoration, the artifact, now known as the Hallaton Helmet, has been restored to marvelous condition. Initially described jokingly as a “rusty bucket”, the Roman helmet has now regained a semblance of its former glory. It is set to be displayed in the U.K., offering the public a rare glimpse into Roman military history and craftsmanship.

Restoring the past

The block that the helmet pieces have been extracted from. Credit: British Museum.British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet. Credit: British Museum.

The helmet was discovered alongside thousands of Iron Age and Roman coins and pig bones within what is believed to have been a shrine from around 43 A.D. Its intricate design, adorned with decorations made of precious metals, suggests it belonged to a high-ranking Roman cavalry officer.

This decoration showcases a wreath symbolizing military victory and a scallop-shaped browguard displaying a woman’s bust surrounded by animals. The cheekpieces portray a Roman emperor riding a horse with the goddess Victory flying behind him, and beneath the horse’s hooves, a cowering figure, possibly a native Briton, lies.

A reconstruction drawing of how the helmet might have originally looked. Illustration by Bob Whale

The cumbersome restoration process involved 3D scanning the fragments to facilitate a careful reconstruction. Each fragment, from the helmet bowl to the seven cheekpieces, was painstakingly pieced together by conservators. They managed to restore the helmet 80%. Based on this restoration, researchers made a detailed replica, providing invaluable insight into the craftsmanship of Roman military gear.

The story of the exquisite Roman helmet is still shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the high-status man who served in the Roman cavalry buried it at his local shrine as a gift to the gods after returning home from a successful military campaign. Or, perhaps it was a diplomatic gift of sorts to a supportive local population.

Echoes of Roman Britain

Others suggest the helmet is a spoil of war, captured in battle. That’s not a far-fetched conclusion since the Roman Empire was still in its early stages of conquering Britain around the time the helmet was buried. In AD 43, the Roman emperor Claudius launched an invasion of Britain, facing stiff resistance from local tribes. Over the next 45 years, the Roman army gradually extended its control over much of present-day England and Wales and ventured into territory now in Scotland, where Hadrian’s Wall, and later the Antonine Wall, would mark the empire’s northernmost frontier.

The Romans would rule over these lands for nearly three centuries before Britain was abandoned by a crumbling empire on the edge of disintegration.

The helmet has been returned to Harborough Museum after conservation work. Credit: Harborough Museum.

The refurbished headgear will be displayed at the Harborough Museum in Leicester, located about 100 miles northwest of London. Nearby, the British Museum is hosting the exhibition Legion: life in the Roman Army. It consists of more than 200 archaeological objects that showcase the experience of serving in the ranks of the forces of ancient Rome. This exhibition will be open through to June 23.

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