The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet – The One That Got Away

In May 2010,  a metal detectorist from Peterlee in the northeast of England was in a field near Crosby Garrett in the Eden Valley  in Cumbria. He found 68 pieces of folded metal, carefully placed on a face-shaped mask.

Crosby Garrett Helmet at the sale (Flickr)

Crosby Garrett Helmet at the sale, photo copyright Daniel Pett

At first, the detectorist had no idea what he’d found. He’d discovered a handful of Roman coins on the site before – not too surprising given that the field is close to a Roman road – but there was no official record of previous habitation thereabouts1. The detectorist decided that the metal pieces were some sort of Victorian ornament.

Back home, the detectorist was sufficiently curious to try some research on the internet and realised that he might, in fact, have unearthed something quite special. So, like all good metal detectorists (*please read note added 15.01.12), he contacted the local Portable Antiquities team who met him at the Crosby Garrett site to see where the metal had been unearthed. The Finds Liaison Officers could then confirm that as the metal pieces were not a precious metal (they’re brass) and they were parts of a single item found on its own, they fell outside the legal definition of ‘treasure’ under the 1996 Treasure Act. This meant that the detectorist and the landowner were free to dispose of them as they saw fit.

The metal pieces were then sent to the famous London auctioneers, Christie’s. They applied an immediate embargo on information about the find – which means no one was allowed to discuss it, much less publicise it – and applied strict control over academic and scientific access.

It was soon apparent that most of the folded pieces of metal were of the same type as the face mask, so Christie’s decided that the best way to maximise the appeal, and hence the value, of the find was to arrange for it to be re-assembled. They employed an expert conservator, who, by careful hammering, manufacture of resin inserts for missing parts, and application of a lot of glue (or the conservator’s equivalent), succeeded in re-creating the masterpiece of Roman art here pictured.2

It’s a Roman helmet which covers the whole head and face, dating to somewhere between 75 – 250CE. The front part used to be hinged at the hairline, so it could be lifted like a visor. There is a griffin figure on the crown of the head and loops which are believed to have been used for attaching streamers. Originally, the helmet and face would have been tin plated, giving a high-shine silver appearance, and the griffin would have been a dull gold colour. It has been well used, with evidence of wear at the visor and a small metal plate added to hold together a couple of splits.

There are other helmets of this type across the former Roman empire, including one found at Ribchester in Lancashire, one from Newstead in Scotland, and one from Guisborough in North Yorkshire. This doesn’t mean they were normal cavalry wear, though; it’s believed they were used solely for sports and displays of horsemanship, as described by the writer, Arrian, sometime in the early second century:

They ‘wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze… Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the head and cheeks only but are made to fit all round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes . . . From the helmets hang yellow plumes, a matter of décor as much as utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes.’3

The nearest major museum to the find site, Tullie House in Carlisle, was naturally thrilled to hear of the helmet’s discovery and was keen to purchase it. Christie’s embargo made it impossible for them to go public with their acquisition plan, but they started to work behind the scenes to identify potential donors.

Four months after its discovery, the helmet was fully restored and Christie’s launched it to the public, gaining considerable television and newspaper coverage both at home and abroad. The auction date was set for October, 2010, and Tullie House could finally go public with its fundraising efforts. They raised an astonishing £1.7m, with several individual donations sufficient to cover Christie’s auction estimate of £200,000 – £300,000.

Tullie House endeavoured to enter into private negotiations prior to the auction. All hands were on deck; in addition to Tullie’s own team, the Roman expert from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a valuer from the Treasure Valuation Committee and several MPs on the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group all tackled Christie’s, the detectorist and the landowner, to no avail. It seems that the invitation to negotiate was turned down without any sum of money being discussed; the owners – and Christie’s, of course – were determined that it should be sold at public auction.

Under the glare of umpty TV cameras, the helmet was finally auctioned in London on October 7th, 2010. There were six bidders and Christie’s initial estimate was passed within seconds. By the time Tullie House had to back out at £1.7m, there were still two bidders in the race. The hammer finally came down in favour of an anonymous British bidder who paid more than ten times the estimate: £2,281,250 plus fees.

It’s tempting to think that this was the right route for the detectorist and landowner, given the eventual amount realised at auction. Although they hadn’t discussed any specific sums of money with Tullie House prior to the auction, I wonder if they assumed that Tullie’s offer would be close to Christie’s auction estimate of £2-300k. It certainly seems that all parties suspected that the sale price would be enormously in excess of the auction estimate – I don’t know whether Tullie House’s exact budget was in the public domain at the time, but I do recall hearing a figure not far short of it. Perhaps the owners, having heard the same rumours of Tullie’s large budget, assumed Tullie would succeed in buying it at auction but for a rather higher figure than they might have offered by private treaty. I also wonder if the cost of the restoration ordered by Christie’s complicated any potential negotiation.

The Crosby Garrett helmet is still with that anonymous British bidder, as far as we know. I gather that Tullie House was allowed to contact him via Christie’s, but there is no news on whether he will allow it to be displayed so Cumbrians can view this Cumbrian historical masterpiece.

The remaining mystery is that the conserved helmet was constructed from 67 of the 68 pieces of metal found. It was decided that the remaining piece was a patch, as there were traces of solder on it. There were, however, no matching traces of solder to be found on the rest of the helmet. If it had been possible to demonstrate that the 68th piece was part of a second object, then, according to the Treasure Act, the helmet would now be in public ownership.

© Diane McIlmoyle 10.01.2012

Note: Metal detectorists aren’t always popular but can I point out what Trevor Austin, general secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting, said at the time: ‘Without exception, everyone I have spoken to believes that the helmet… belongs in a museum and not in some private collection’. (British Archaeology, ‘The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet’, Jan/Feb 2011. See link below.)

*Note added 15.01.12 I hear from Paul Barford (see comment below) that in fact, the helmet pieces might have gone to Christie’s before the find was reported to the PAS. This is not – I emphasise NOT – cricket 😦

Further reading: ‘The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet’ in British Archaeology (116), Jan/Feb 2011 by Sally Worrell, Ralph Jackson, Andrew Mackay, Roger Bland and Mike Pitts. 16

  1. In fact, the FLOs (Stuart Noon and Dot Boughton) who visited the finds site at Crosby Garrett concluded that there were earthworks from an ancient, previously unknown, settlement nearby. Archaeology was proposed, but I don’t know if it is planned. See British Archaeology, above.
  2. Details from Darren Bradbury, the conservator, are in a side box in the feature in British Archaeology, above.
  3. Arrian, Ars Tactica 34

Tullie House opened a new Roman Gallery in 2011.

NEWSFLASH! The Crosby Garret Helmet will be on display for the first time at the Royal Academy’s ‘Bronze’ exhibition  from 15th September – 9th December 2012.

EVEN MORE IMPORTANT NEWSFLASH! The Helmet will be on display at Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum from November 1st, 2013 to January 26th, 2014. Hurrah!


8 thoughts on “The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet – The One That Got Away

  1. Hi, fantastic post on a subject dear to my heart. I’ve written a short piece in reply here:

    the sequence of events surrounding the discovery were not quite as your account has it, the finders did not need the PAS to tell them that in the absence of other items found with it, a copper alloy helmet was not a candidate for ‘Treasure’, they knew that already (if I am right about their identity, they had already taken part in at least one other Treasure inquest). Within a few days of the find, one of the finders was in Christie’s with the bits. The PAS only learnt of it and got involved much later. It should have been how you described it, what actually happened was sadly much different.

    Thanks for picking up the significance of the second “bit”. It is interesting that in the PAS record of the find, this is not catalogued separately (why not?). There are some who doubt that the griffin actually does belong to that helmet – so that would potentially be a further separate piece, also some of the PAS photos show a short piece of copper alloy rod which also seems not to be part of the helmet. top right.

    The PAS only had a few hours to study the object under less than ideal circumstances.

    So, yes, it seems vital that there should be an excavation of the actual findspot to find out more about the context of deposition of this item.

    • Hi Paul – Thanks for this and thanks for coming over. I didn’t know that the detectorist had contacted Christie’s before the PAS, and I guess that little gem hasn’t been reported for the same reason that you and I are quite mad about it – it gives detectorists a bad reputation 😦

      Personally, I think Christie’s conduct in this matter is unpleasant. It seems apparent what their interests were, and they don’t coincide with ours.

      I hope there will be a proper excavation. My hope is that something is going on unreported, as happened with the Viking stuff at Cumwhitton. Perhaps I should go for a little drive 😉

      In the meanwhile, I was up at Tullie House (Carlisle museum) a few months back talking to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and they say that they are in touch with the owner. I hope that’s the case, and we therefore might get a glimpse of it… and the ‘proper’ people get to have a good analysis.

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  3. The museum had in fact known about the helmet since early June, had read Ralph Jackson’s preliminary report and had seen photos supplied by Christie’s. But the auction house, who had been helpful to Tullie House, had requested an embargo. Preparations for the campaign had begun behind the scenes, but the speed with which the fund rose in the three and a half weeks before the sale was still a surprise. The scale of this achievement was not revealed until afterwards, but the museum’s agent was able to bid up to £1.7m – armed with the £1.92m that this would have meant with the added buyer’s premium (the local authority museum could have reclaimed the VAT). The feat is the more astonishing for it having occurred in the midst of a recession and a severe national government spending review.

    • Thank you for that, Mr Gold Account 😉

      Very interesting. I had heard about the £1.7m which was astonishing on so many levels, as you say – not least that the estimate was enormously lower that that. I’m glad it’s now turned up at the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition, but I think the whole of Cumbria would dearly have loved it to be housed at Tullie House, or at the very least, first displayed here. It’s hard to get past the suspicion that something ‘not quite cricket’ happened here.

      Thanks for coming over.

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