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.
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.
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.
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.