Illuminating the past – Enhancing the present – Inspiring the future

A Late Iron Age helmet found near Canterbury

December 3rd, 2012

A rare prehistoric helmet has been unearthed on farmland outside Canterbury. The helmet, made of bronze and dating to the first century BC, was discovered by an amateur metal detectorist.  Andrew Richardson, then our Finds Manager, takes up the story.

“Arriving home from work one October evening, I received a telephone call from a local metal detectorist who I know from my time as Kent Finds Liaison Officer. This chap had also in the past worked as a volunteer for the Trust and so, having made what he described as a ‘significant discovery’, he decided to contact me. He said that he had found what he believed to be a ‘Celtic bronze helmet’. I knew of no such helmets from Kent; the famous ‘Deal warrior’ excavated by Keith Parfitt at Mill Hill had a bronze head-dress, but that was not a helmet as such. Even for Britain as a whole, I knew such a find would be incredibly rare. But the finder seemed very confident and I knew he was an experienced detectorist, so I arranged to visit him first thing the next morning to have a look.

At his house he produced a box and opened it up to reveal a late Iron Age brooch in very good condition along with what was indeed a bronze helmet of the same period. There was also a fragment of burnt bone which he said he had found with the helmet and brooch, and he remarked that more bone had been present at the find spot. It therefore seemed probable that the finds were derived from a cremation burial. We agreed that, if possible, it would be best to carry out a small excavation of the find spot to learn as much as we could about the context of what was indeed a ‘significant find’.

The finding of two prehistoric base metal objects together in the same place made the finds potential Treasure so on my return to the Trust I reported the discovery to the Coroner, Finds Liaison Officer for Kent and the Treasure Registrar. Discussions with colleagues and with the landowner, tenant, FLO, British Museum and others then followed and it was agreed that a speedy excavation of the immediate find spot was the best course of action.

Our finder had very sensibly reburied a bag of lead fishing weights in the backfilled hole, which made locating the precise find spot much easier than might otherwise have been the case. Thus, on a cold (and occasionally wet) Saturday in late October, a team drawn from the Trust and Dover Archaeological Group carried out the excavation, opening a 2m square trench centred on the find spot.  This revealed no elaborate chiefly burial, but rather a small oval pit, cut into the natural chalk, which had just been missed by deep plough furrows to either side. Cutting into this, the detectorist’s original recovery pit could be readily identified as a roughly circular hole about 0.35m in diameter.  Careful removal of its filling yielded a moderate quantity of cremated bone and a few small fragments of copper alloy sheet, presumably derived from the helmet.

Excavation of helmet find spotExcavation of helmet find spotBone

At the base of the detectorist’s excavation, the lower half of the helmet’s oval outline was preserved as a near perfect cast in the surrounding undisturbed soil.  In places, this outline was stained green from the copper alloy composition of the helmet, and a few small fragments of actual copper alloy sheeting remained on the base.

Tina Parfitt excavating helmet find spotClose up on excavation of helmet impressionHelmet impression
Circular pitCircular pitExcavation trench

From the account provided by the finder and the evidence recovered from the subsequent archaeological investigation, the overall form of the burial can be reconstructed with some confidence.  A shallow circular pit had initially been cut into the natural chalk.  Into this, the inverted helmet had been placed. It was positioned in the eastern half of the pit, orientated north-north-east by south-south-west, with its projecting rear neck-guard at the north-north-east end.  Either just before or just after the helmet had been put into the ground a quantity of cremated human bone had been placed within it.

The brooch was contained within the upper part of the bone deposit and it is likely that the cremated bone had originally been held within some sort of cloth or leather bag/container which had been closed at the top by the brooch.  The whole had then been placed within the inverted helmet which in this case served as an ‘urn’.  The pit was then backfilled with relatively clean soil and chalk, with no surviving evidence to suggest that the spot had been permanently marked in any way. No evidence for any other interments was discovered in the excavation and it would seem that the helmet burial was either an isolated one or formed part of a somewhat dispersed cemetery with widely spaced burials.

Iron age helmetIron age helmetIron age helmet

The pit was cut on its west side by one of the plough furrows.  The rim of the helmet exhibits damage, probably cause by contact with a plough. Had the helmet not been found when it was, there can be little doubt that it would have suffered further plough damage in future, ultimately leading to its fragmentation and dispersion.”

No comparable Iron Age cremation burial using a helmet in this way is known from Britain and the helmet itself is unlikely to be of British origin. Further study, of the helmet, the brooch, the cremated remains and perhaps the area around the immediate find spot, is needed to try to refine the dating and character of this unusual discovery. It is tempting to place the helmet in the context of Caesar’s Gallic War, or indeed his expeditions to Kent in 55 and 54 BC. The helmet is of a type which could have been used by Caesar’s troops, or their indigenous allies and enemies.  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.

Julia Farley, Iron Age curator at the British Museum says: “This is a very exciting find, one of only a handful of Iron Age helmets to have been found in Britain. In late Iron Age Kent, it was not unusual to bury the cremated remains of the dead in a bag fastened with one or more brooches, but no other cremation has ever been found accompanied by a helmet.  The first century BC was a time of war, but it was also a time of travel, communication, and change.  This helmet emphasizes the new connections being forged across the channel, at a time when life in south-eastern England was about to change dramatically.  The owner of this helmet, or the people who placed it in the grave, may have lived through the very beginning of the story of Roman Britain.”

The finder (who wishes to remain anonymous) is to be commended on the way that he dealt with this discovery. He attempted to photograph the helmet in situ but was unable to do so due to problems with his camera. He removed the helmet with very little disturbance to its immediate context and marked the spot with a bag of lead weights, enabling it to be easily relocated.

Thanks are due to the landowners and to the tenant farmer, for giving permission for excavation of the find spot to take place. The excavation was led by Keith Parfitt and Paul Bennett, accompanied by the author and Jake Weekes and Annie Partridge of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, along with Tina Parfitt, David Holman and Richard Hoskins of Dover Archaeological Group. Crispin Jarman of the Trust surveyed the site.

Boat 1550 BC: the replica boat moves from France to Belgium

November 27th, 2012

It seems only yesterday that the international exhibition ‘Beyond the Horizon: Societies of the Channel and North Sea 3,500 years ago’ opened in the medieval château-musée in Boulogne-sur-Mer. But on 6th November 2012 the exhibition closed after a hugely successful four-month run that attracted over 14,700 visitors. But this was not the end of the story; the exhibition is to move 125 miles north to the huge modern museum at Ename, near Oudenaarde in Belgium. First the rich assemblage of objects were removed from their display cases, sealed in custom-built packing cases and taken by lorry to the museum’s secure stores, after which all the display panels, exhibition cases and audiovisual equipment were dismantled and transported to the new venue. By 20th November, all that remained in the exhibition hall was the half-scale replica of the Dover Bronze Age boat, the jewel in the crown of the exhibition.

The responsibility for extracting the boat from the museum in Boulogne and getting it to Ename was a heavy one, and for this reason a team from CAT was charged with this task as the people most familiar with the boat itself. So it was that a small band of four; Peter Clark, Paul Bennett, Andrew Richardson and Tim Laughlan gathered at Dover Docks at 03:30 in the morning to make the journey through the rain to Boulogne-sur-Mer, driving a 4×4 vehicle with boat trailer in tow. Thanks to the help of one of the Trustees of the Dover Bronze Age Boat Trust, Steve Bispham, P & O Ferries had kindly agreed to take the team across the channel free of charge. By 08:00 they were in the ‘salle comtale’, a fine medieval building with a very narrow medieval door almost exactly the same width as the boat itself, about 1.2 metres broad and 8.5 metres long, weighing just under one tonne. With the boat placed on rough timber rollers, the team manhandled the boat through the door with the help of levers and some French contractors working at the castle who willingly leant a hand to manoeuvre the boat into the castle courtyard and on to the trailer.
The boat leavingThe boat leaving
The next challenge was to get the boat out of Boulogne itself; the beautiful walled town has only four narrow gates and the crowded winding streets meant that we could not simply drive away; a more circuitous route had to be adopted, taking the boat up on to the pathways along the top of the ramparts and around to one of the gates. Angélique Demon of the Archaeology Service of Boulogne-sur-Mer had arranged with the local gendarmerie that this route had been kept clear, and after negotiating some tight hair-pin bends, various joggers and dog walkers, we eventually got out of the town and were on the road to Ename.

The journey was without incident, though there was always some tension that someone might drive into the back of our boat on the busy and rain-swept motorways. It was with some relief that we arrived at Ename safely, where we were met by Peter van der Plaetsen and his team who lifted the boat from the trailer with a small crane and dragged the boat into the huge exhibition space of the Ename Heritage Centre.
The boat arrivingThe boat arrivingAlmost shelter from the rain
The next morning the boat was lifted up and fitted onto its display cradle, and by lunchtime it was safely in position in its new home. Work could then begin fitting out the exhibition ready for its opening on December 16th The exhibition will stay in Ename until the end of May 2013, when once again the boat will be back on the road, this time to rejoin the original vessel in Dover as the exhibition moves to its final venue in the UK.
Inside Ename Heritage CentreA new home for the boat

Didn’t we do well?

November 21st, 2012

from Los Angeles in the USA:

“Your web site … is one of the most helpful sites on archaeology for students we have seen”

Marian McKenna Olivas, Program Manager, National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles

and from Alabama:

“ … this volume is truly an exceptional work”

Professor Ian W Brown, University of Alabama, reviewing this summer’s publication, Buckland Anglo-Saxon Cemetery, Dover

from Japan:

 “We have learned a lot about how we should manage Archaeology and present it to the public … It encourages me to learn more about ‘Archaeology and Education”

Katsuyuki Okamura, Archaeologist with Osaka City Cultural Properties Association and Yoshio Negita, Chief Archaeologist with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tokyo, following an information visit to the Trust offices in August.

from Estonia:

 “I am very happy that I met all those wonderful people and saw amazing nature, heritage sites, one of the best trips I’ve done. And I got ideas and feeling that I am not alone! Thank you for that!”

Liia Vijand, Estonian secondary school History teacher undertaking PhD research in the value of increasing engagement in Archaeology at both primary and secondary level education. She visited us in July during an information gathering tour of English organizations involved with Archaeology in Education.

and closer to home:

“Our Ofsted report says ‘Pupils told inspectors that they particularly enjoyed information books which helped them to research themes and topics of interest. This was clearly demonstrated in one class where pupils used information they had acquired in previous lessons to distinguish between Roman and Celtic artefacts.’  It was using the CAT boxes that made all the difference…it also tied in with our literacy.  Ofsted said the lesson was outstanding – so I was very pleased!”

James Blomfield, class teacher at Capel-le-Ferne Primary School.  Children from the school visited the Folkestone Roman villa first season of excavation and later on made good use of the Archaeological Resource Kits available to local schools as part of the A Town Unearthed community project.

The Lost and The Found at…

November 14th, 2012

Damien Blackman cartoon

A delightful cartoon by Damien Blackman, who has been volunteering in the finds processing department.

Apart from washing and marking pottery, scrubbing other finds and generally giving a helping hand,  it appears Damien still has the time to practice his drawing skills.

If you would like to volunteer, like Damien, please contact:

Jacqui Matthews: Finds Supervisor and Volunteer co-ordinator
Telephone: 01227 825274

Visions of the Past: Kent and its Antiquarians

October 29th, 2012

Free Day Conference and Public Forum: 3rd November 2012
University Centre, Folkestone
Speakers: Lesley Hardy, Lorraine Flisher and Iain Neilson

Kent, with its rich and diverse history, has for hundreds of years been at the forefront of the study and understanding of the ancient past in Britain.

This day conference and forum opens up the work of early pioneers in archaeology and history, antiquarians such as John Leland who identified ‘Briton Brykes’ at Folkestone, the Rev Bryan Faussett who saved Anglo Saxon archaeology from destruction and Charles Roach Smith, rescuer of Roman London and founder in 1844 of the British Archaeological Association in Canterbury.

Join us for some fascinating talks and forum discussion and learn more about Kent, its history, archaeology and the men and women who have discovered it, fought for it and preserved it.

This day conference is free to all and is part of the A Town Unearthed: Folkestone Before 1500, project.

To book your place on-line go to:
or phone 01227 863451 (Mon-Friday 9.30 – 2.30pm). Further details.

Lyminge Archaeological Project

August 23rd, 2012

The project blog records that our Little Dig, supervised by Andy Macintosh and Annie Partridge, was busy at the Open Day. Read all about it here and more about the last days of the project.

Lyminge Archaeological Project: Open Day

August 15th, 2012

The Lyminge Archaeological Project is holding an Open Day on Saturday, 18th August.  The site opens at 10 am and site tours will take place at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm.  There will be flint knapping demonstrations at 12 pm and 2 pm and Regia Anglorum re-enactments at 12 pm and 2 pm.  Throughout the day there will be activities for young and old, including the Little Dig, Wheelie Bin stratigraphy, dressing up, I-Spy at the dig, an art competition and a book stall.  There will also be displays of finds from the dig so far and finds washing and sorting going on all day.

Come and join in!

Kon’nichiwa to archaeologists from Japan

August 8th, 2012

Katsuyuki Okamura (Archaeologist with Osaka City Cultural Properties Association) and Yoshio Negita (Chief Archaeologist with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Tokyo) met up with Marion at CAT to discuss what we do to promote Archaeology in formal and public education arenas.

They were both very keen on the CAT KIT and using archaeological finds in this way and many photos were taken. It was a great opportunity again to spread the word about CAT’s work and educational activities. Katsuyuki said, ‘We have learned a lot about how we should manage archaeology and present it to the public… It encourages me to learn more about ‘Archaeology and Education’ ’.

In exchange for our hospitality I was given a Japanese tea ceremony cloth and a bamboo fan – and I’m now known by these colleagues as Marion-san. I like it!
Japanese archaeologists at the Trust's office

    open all | close all