The Crosby Garrett Helmet Comes Home!

Crosby Garrett helmet Photo copyright Daniel Pett

Crosby Garrett helmet Photo copyright Daniel Pett

I shouldn’t say this1, I really shouldn’t2, but when it comes to Romans I sometimes feel Cumbria was a bit short-changed. I mean, we have a whopping great wall3 (well, half of it), numerous forts4, Roman roads and so on – but where’s the fancy stuff? Where are the villas with mermaid mosaics and painted plaster? I know I should make a virtue out of misfortune and assert that we have Real Roman Life, not some over-fed Roman fat cats poncing about with amphorae of wine… but still. You need imagination and learning sometimes to make sense of Cumbria’s slightly-straighter-than-expected roads5 and bumpy fields6. I start to envy Northumberland’s piles of old Roman shoes7 and notes about underpants7.

All this was true (well, slightly2) until May 2010 when the most fabulous Roman artefact ever found in Britain8 came to light in a field near Crosby Garrett in Cumbria’s Eden Valley. Dr Ralph Jackson, who was lucky enough to get the chance to examine the Crosby Garrett helmet before it was sold, stated, the Crosby Garrett helmet is an immensely interesting and outstandingly important find… Its face mask is both extremely finely-wrought and chillingly striking… exceptional and, in its specifics, unparalleled. It is a find of the greatest national (and, indeed, international) significance…’9

It’s not the sort of helmet to wear every day. It is made from copper alloy with tin plating on the face, so originally it would have been golden and silver in colour, with the figure of a winged griffin at the crown. It may have been worn with coloured plumes or streamers attached to the top. Dr Jackson9 stated that such helmets, which date to 50-250CE and are found across formerly Roman Europe and North Africa, were worn not in battle but for cavalry tournaments, when I don’t doubt bling was the order of the day.

The story of its discovery and sale is still enough to make my eyes smart (described in an earlier post here), but I’m so glad the private owner10 has lent the Crosby Garrett helmet to Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum. Tullie House will be displaying the helmet from today until 26th January, 2014. After this, it will be moved to London to be displayed at the British Museum; even that’s a relief as when it was sold to a private buyer we feared we’d never see it again.

So what are you still here for? Get off this website and go and plan your trip to Tullie House. You’ve got three months to see the Cumbrian discovery of a lifetime.

© Diane McIlmoyle 01.11.13

  1. No, you shouldn’t.
  2. And again! Have you no willpower?
  3. Hadrian’s Wall.
  4. We’re into Stupidsville on numbers. Try Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, or Hardknott, on Hardknott Pass, or Walls Castle at Ravenglass (which is actually the bath house of the fort).
  5. The A6.
  6. Such as the temporary roman camp at Plumpton
  7. Vindolanda Roman Fort, Northumberland.
  8. That may not be true, but it should be, and might be.
  10. Seriously, if you’re reading this, I really am grateful. Thank you.

13 thoughts on “The Crosby Garrett Helmet Comes Home!

    • Sorry, Carol, I’ve been twiddling with my spam filter but you are decidedly NOT SPAM. I’ve now got the ‘official’ book that Tullie House has published to accompany the exhibition, complete with all sorts of analytical reports, and none posit a theory about where it was originally made.

      They are, however, confident it was found where the metal detectorists said it was found: “Archaeological features identified at the find-spot location seem to strongly confirm the reported find-spot – a recently-dug and backfilled pit was found at the grid reference provided, and fragments of copper alloy material similar to the helmet were recovered very close by.” (The Crosby Garrett Helmet, Tullie House, 2013 ‘Archaeological Evaluation’ by Chris Healey, p28)

  1. Sadly will not be able to get to Tullie House from here in darkest west Wales, but when it goes to the BM may plan a London trip to include a visit to see this.

    Still find it hard to imagine in what circumstances these so-called parade helmets would be worn — just seeing through the eye slits in the mask whilst on the back of a moving horse would be quite a feat it seems to me.

    • It’s a shame you can’t get up to Carlisle, but given the superiority of the helmet I would hope they plan to put it on immediate display.

      I know what you mean about practicalities – but the brochure that came with the exhibition has got pictures of several others found across Europe, and they’re all the same in that respect – small eye and mouth slits, major claustrophobia!

        • ‘morning

          Thanks for this. If you look at the helmet close up (and indeed the early photos) you can see that the face piece was recovered whole apart from a hole in the chin, which has been filled in. You can still see the cracks between the pieces in the top and back parts. It’s not perfect.

          I’ve heard a lot of comment about this case and indeed I’ve put my own ha’pennorth in. Archaeologists get very angry about all the circumstances – the fact that the helmet was taken to Christie’s before the PAS (allegedly); that the new owner remains anonymous; that Christie’s put an embargo on the helmet, restricting Tullie’s ability to raise money; that very few people got a close look at it before the sale. I also have a nasty feeling that the embargo was linked to the restoration – perhaps Christie’s paid for it, and therefore had to insist that they got their margin by selling it at the price they wanted. Now, after the publication of Tullie House’s booklet, we can add that archaeologists are incandescent with rage that they haven’t got the full nitty-gritty of the dig that took place thereafter, and indeed the exact grid location. Some people are even keen to allege it was a plant, which just goes to show that in the absence of corroborated detail, nonsense floods in to fill a vacuum (inspiring my latest post!).

          I do get all this, and share some of it. However, the only way we can get to see it is if the owner lets us, and hence museums, etc, have to be polite about it. They can’t trash him/her in booklets with his/her legitimately-owned artefact on the front of it. I also agree that it would be difficult to make the exact find-spot wholly public (although it’s hardly a secret as a whole load of archaeologists can’t hide in a field!) for fear of nighthawkers who would be even less museum/history-friendly than the discoverer of the Crosby Garrett helmet.

          If I was being charitable – and yes, it does stick in my gullet a bit – we could say that the helmet has been on display at the Royal Academy, is now in its home county, and is heading to the British Museum in London (although I don’t know for how long – hopefully a very long or permanent stay). Perhaps – just perhaps – the British public gets to enjoy this without having paid for it. Perhaps the owner wanted it, but also wants to share it. I hope so.

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