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Roman helmet: Will it go on public view?

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Will Gompertz | 12:19 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010

As Reg insists in Monty Python's Life of Brian: "Alright - but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Well, there's also the buried treasure: coins, swords, jewels and helmets. What the Romans seem to have failed to leave us is much common sense - which has led to an exquisite example of a ceremonial helmet, found on a farm in Cumbria by a man with a metal detector, ending up not in Carlisle's Tullie House Museum as many hoped, but with a private bidder.


If the buyer is from the UK, as per this morning's rumours, that's not necessarily good news for those who hope the helmet will go on public view. A foreign buyer would probably try to take it abroad, at which point the Department of Culture's Export Committee would step in and give the Tullie House Museum six months to match the price; if successful, the museum would then take charge of the property.



With a UK buyer there is nothing that can be done; the chance has gone. Perhaps the buyer will lend it to the museum, perhaps they won't: it is his or her prerogative. All this could have been easily avoided, according to Roger Bland at the Portable Antiquities Scheme if the Treasure Act had been updated in 2007 as had been planned.

If this had happened, he says, it is likely that its definition of treasure would have been extended to include Roman finds of base-metal objects - not just gold and silver. A similar extension regarding pre-historic finds was made to the act in 2003.

When a find is deemed to be treasure, it immediately becomes the property of the Crown. At this point, an independent committee makes a valuation and gives interested public museums four months in which to raise the money. This was the case recently with the Staffordshire Hoard.

Christie's set the pre-sale estimate at between £200,000 and £300,000, yet the Tullie House Museum, not a wealthy organisation, managed to stay in the bidding game until the price exceeded £1.7m - which demonstrates a determination to buy the helmet for public display on the part of the museum and of members of the public, who were donating money right to the end.

The helmet clearly struck a chord; the museum and the public failed in their campaign because, they say, they were failed by the laws of the land. The Romans would not have been so slack.


  • Comment number 1.

    If this helmet had been found a few tens of miles to the north, the Scottish treasure trove law would have applied. Unlike in England, anything can be declared treasure trove, not just precious metals.

  • Comment number 2.

    It's simply awful that such an important part of our national heritage can be locked away by a private collecter - and potentially never again be seen or analysed by scholars, historians scientists.

    What happens if, next month, a corresponding breastplate in the same style is discovered? The context between the two items will never be understood if they cannot be compared side-by-side.

  • Comment number 3.

    So stupid that such a significant treasure can disappear into private hands. The laws should be changed before other items suffer a similar fate. The current law seems to reflect an out-dated understanding of what "treasure" is.

  • Comment number 4.

    Considering that the Museum raised £200,000 in donations I'm amazed that they kept going to £1.7 million. Sounds a bit odd. If they had access to that sort of money then why did they struggle to get the donations in the first place?

    Unfortunately the point is that the helmet belongs to someone and they have the right to sell it. If they had wanted to they could have surely put in a clause saying that anyone who buys it must make it available to a museum.

    I would be very surprised if it's not though. Someone who can pay £2 million isn't going to have it on their coffee table, sounds much more like an ethusiatic businessman who will want to show off their generousity. Although that might not be in Cumbria. It would actually be seen by more people somewhere like the British Museum so I can imagine it going there if anywhere.

    Laws should be changed though definately.

  • Comment number 5.

    The only law change required is that the finder should be the owner, not the Crown!

    As for this relic, I couldn't care less if it was in a showroom or not. Roman Technology finds are far more important than this particular piece of art, to be honest, this object does not even resonate when compared against an intact catapult.

    Art fans can argue all they like, it is technology that are the most important objects, not art. Art plays a very, very inferior role.

  • Comment number 6.

    We can find £43,000,000 a day to be a member of a club which gives us nothing back,the EU,we can bail out the privately owned banks with billions of pounds which has effectively bankrupted the country,we can print billions of pounds from fresh air to pay to keep a bankrupt country going because taxes won,t,but we can,t find a paltry couple of million for a unique and beautiful item the like of which should be kept in this country.Says it all really what a state this nation is really in,being bankrupt is one thing,but having no sense of national identity,culture,history or pride is totally another.

    The estimate of £300,000 was an absolute joke,how many times have we seen valuations challenged recently on Treasure Trove payments because they bear no relation to the true market value.

  • Comment number 7.

    "The Romans would not have been so slack."

    Actually they would - the Roman law of treasure was confined to precious metals and coins, precisely the point complained about here. I appreciate BBC journalists seem to enjoy adding a school-essayesque comment at the end of articles, but please try to be accurate.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ opaqueentity - I read the National Heritage Memorial Fund agreed to give Tullie House £1million - hence they were able to reach £1.7million.

  • Comment number 9.

    As someone who knows who the buyer is, and is familiar with their views on Artefacts such as these, I am fairly sure they will choose to display it. Things like this take time to organise, people just have to be patient.

  • Comment number 10.


    You appear to know the buyer. They must feel very pleased with themselves having deprived the Tullie House Museum from obtaining the Helmet. Tullie House worked hard to raise the funds to aquire this helmet. The money was given by people who weren't rich but had a pride in their heritage.

    This aquisition would have attracted tourism to Cumbria and created jobs.

    I would like to give the buyer a piece of my mind.

  • Comment number 11.

    I used to be a collector and I would often be frustrated that the only versions of some rare pieces were in museums. Not on view, stuck in their back rooms, only to be seen by prior appointment 2 months in advance. And usually only if you are a student with a strong reason to go.

    At least some private ownerships means someone besides the museum curator gets to see and own the item. If treasure trove applied then this guy would have got 300k instead of its true value. Abandon treasure trove, and instead make the finders of all items put them up for public auction where the government can bid too.

  • Comment number 12.


    As it was a struggle for Tullie house museum to raise £200,000 I think it's probably a good thing that the artefact is going to be owned by someone who has the means to ensure it is correctly preserved and maintained, and isn't reliant on hand-outs. Remember, museums started out as private collections that were opened to the public by the owners.

  • Comment number 13.

    @opaqueentity please read the article before posting. Nowhere does the article say only £200,000 was raised. Clearly one way or another the museum felt able to spend £1.7m I would guess because that was pretty much close to how much they had available.

  • Comment number 14.

    Wulfruna, most people do not care about this item. When people want to study our Roman past they want to know how they influenced they world today, they want to know how they got to be so ahead of their time.

    They are interested in the Aquaduct, underfloor heating etc. and how they made these achievements. A metal head with an usual cap is not worthy of such a high price that you deem is the right of the nation to spend on.

  • Comment number 15.

    This is not 'disappearing' into private hands. Private hands found it, a museum did not.

    If a private individual had not hoped to benefit then it would not have been discovered and we would not have even the pictures.

    If angry commentators here want to bid and display it in public then they are free to do so.

  • Comment number 16.

    I do not know the Tullie Museum, but I feel quite sure that they would attract more visitors if they bought contemporary art. Having seen the photo of this old helmet why would anyone other than a specialist in such artefacts want to bother looking at it live. It is just a piece of old craftwork. I cannot deal with all this bleary eyed stuff about heritage.

    The object itself tells us nothing new or significant about history or art or craft. For those interested in such stuff the available money would now be better spent on funding a professional archeological investigation of the discovery site - even then who would frankly care.

  • Comment number 17.

    Frankly I don't see the problem - the helmet exists - it will always exist - weather an artefact is in the Guggenhiem, the Louvre or the V&A - it's equally not accessible to me. Take the Elgin marbles - I'm no more likely to see them in Greece or in London. It really does not matter who owns this stuff. look at the mona lisa - i get a better view of it on the Internet than I would even get looking at it directly (through its protective screen) - where has the perspective gone or have the chattering arty classes stolen the show? This "saving stuff for the nation" is a myth

  • Comment number 18.

    If people are not interested in artefacts why were there four hour queues to see the Staffordshire Hoard? They were closing queues to see the hoard at 1.00 pm so that they could get everyone through.

    I was so pleased that Staffordshire managed to raise the funds to buy the hoard and I hoped that Cumbria would be able to do likewise.

    The Hoard is a big pull to Staffordshire and creates tourism. After seeing this first hand I wished that Cumbria could also experience increased tourism.

    It has a knock on effect. People visiting Hadrian's Wall would visit the Tullie House Museum. They would stay in bed and breakfasts, eat in local eateries and buy from local shops. All this would help the local economy and keep people in work. This has now been lost when the gavel went down.

    Apart from the economic benefits, little is known about the shadowy people that formed part of the Roman Army. How will we find out more about these Auxillary soldiers (not necessarily male either), if everything is sold to the highest bidder.

    Tullie house made a brave attempt to buy the helmet because they have pride in their heritage. Something that money cannot buy.

  • Comment number 19.

    @Wulfruna this helmet or whatever 'treasures' are found will still draw crowds wherever it or they are - Remember it's a global community and this helmet did belong to an Italian once, perhaps made by an Italian in Italy? Just because it was found here has little meaning when you really think about it. Once the archaeology is done, it's's real value is as a sideshow item. I firmly believe that I get a better view of these items on the net than I even would in real life. I don't subscribe to the tourism myth, it's all froth

  • Comment number 20.

    Various posters.

    If you have no sense of past can you have any sense of future. You must live in a bubble of now. Are you boring self centred people.

    The Realist,

    I agree entirely with the need to acknowledge the development of technology but most of the things you mention are civil engineering projects that we can read about but are more difficult to visit for most of us than going to a museum or gallery.
    A knowledge of the people concerned may help us to understand how they came to have the skills you admire.

  • Comment number 21.


    What makes you think that this helmet was owned by an Italian?

    Most of the Roman soldiers in that area were auxillaries from anywhere in the Roman empire and also from Barbarian lands. There were also female soldiers at Brougham. The female soldiers certainly would not have been Roman. Some of the auxillaries would have gained Roman citizenship but they were not ethically Italian.

    At Brough five miles away from Crosby Garrett a tombstone was found written in Greek. This was the tomb of a young man called Hermes of Commangene. Commagene is now part of Turkey. In this part of Cumbria were a number of irregular cavalry units which would consist of many different nationalities.

    These soldiers did not all go back and some of us may carry their DNA. St Patrick was of Romano-British descent. Some have suggested he came from Birdsowald on Hadrian's wall.

    I'm no expert but I think that this helmet was owned by an auxillary but we will probably never know.

  • Comment number 22.

    Damn i would like to have tried it on. and chased people about...sorry nut you under stand it looks really stupid!

    Oi grape hair........LOL i would love to have seen someone gallop a horse wearing that!
    I just go and call an ambulance!! As for someone buying it, so get more money. It is worth what the market will take, and it took a lot.

  • Comment number 23.

    Under our present law, this uncovered artifact BELONGS to the Monarch.
    Who is twisting the tail of our Queen to make her sell it?
    If she wants to keep it - perhaps to DONATE it to a museum of her choice - does she have a choice, or does she have less rights than every other citizen in this green and pleasant land?
    If she wishes to give the finder the appropriate percentage reward, then THIS should be the amount needing to be raised, not the total and invariably excessive figure, calculated in order to maximise the auction commission.
    The Queen loses nothing except the sale price of the artifact, nett of finder's award and sale commission, and the country gains an important artifact of OUR history. If the Queen chooses to do this, who are the people who are saying NO to the Monarch?

  • Comment number 24.

    They should scan it and and make replicas. That way, everyone wins: the crown earns a bit of cash, the collector gets the original, which they can hide away in a vault if they fancy, and the public gets something to look at.

  • Comment number 25.

    "They should scan it and and make replicas"
    But what are they scanning. If this helmet had been classed as treasure trove it would have been carefully conserved.
    Christies were asked not to restore it but they did. It has been restored to within an inch of it's life.
    A number of archeaologists are unhappy with the way it has been restored and have expressed concerns about the restoration and provenance.
    There really needs to be a change in the treasure laws to enable artefacts such as this being sacrificed for monetary gain.

  • Comment number 26.

    @Wulfruna, This would have been a work of the highest value to manufacture. I don't think Auxiliaries would wear such a high-value item. This is not a battle item.

  • Comment number 27.

    "I don't think Auxiliaries would wear such a high-value item."
    Flettie, there were not that many actual "Romans" in the North of England. Some of the auxillaries would have taken Roman Citizenship and with that a Roman name but would not have been ethnically Roman.
    See the article below about the finds at Brougham. It is really interesting and mentions the high ranking female soldiers. The items that formed part of the pyre are from high ranking soldiers. Highly unlikely that a Roman woman would fight in the Roman Army.
    Sarmatian women fought alongside the men however Sarmatians were buried not cremated. The Crosby Garrett helmet does not look Sarmatian (See the image of the funeral stele in Chester Museum). Sarmatian Helmets were more conical.
    Many of these auxillaries were used in the cavalry because they were good with horses.
    Brougham is about 15 miles from Crosby Garrett and it is possible that this helmet was worn by a soldier from Brougham.
    I will say it again. How are we and future generations going to find out more if items such as this are restored to within an inch of their life and locked away in private collections?
    I hope that if any good has come out of this it is that there is a change in the Treasure Act and this debacle of the Crosby Garrett Helmet will not happen again.


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