The Sinister Roman Cavalry Helmet of the Ribchester Hoard
The Ribchester Helmet is a cavalry helmet dating to the Roman period in Britain. As indicated by its name, the helmet was found in Ribchester, Lancashire, in the northwest of England. The Ribchester Helmet was not used for combat but served either a sporting or ceremonial purpose. This helmet is a unique artifact, as only two other examples, the Crosby Garrett Helmet and the Newstead Helmet, have been unearthed in Great Britain thus far.
How was the Ribchester Helmet Discovered?
The Ribchester Helmet was discovered in 1796 by John Walton, the 13-year-old son of a clog maker. In “the waste land at the side of the road leading to the church, and near the bed of the river”, Walton stumbled upon a Roman hoard. The hoard was buried in a hollow about 2.7 m (9 feet) in the ground and contained a mass of corroded metalwork.
Ribchester cavalry sports helmet viewed at British Museum, London. (Helen Simonsson / CC BY-SA 2.0)
What Was the Condition of the Helmet?
The metal objects were preserved thanks to the dry condition they were in, which was attained by covering the artifacts with sand when they were deposited. Although this kept the objects dry, it also resulted in them being defaced, due to the corrosive effects of the sand on copper. The Ribchester Hoard also contained a number of other artifacts, including a bust of the Roman goddess Minerva, the remains of a vase, and many items that seemed to have served a religious function. Needless to say, the most significant item in the hoard was the Ribchester Helmet.
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Cavalry sports helmet - The Ribchester Helmet. (Rex Harris / CC BY-SA 2.0)
How Old is the Ribchester Helmet?
The Ribchester Helmet has been dated to between the late 1 st and early 2 nd centuries AD. Although a Roman cavalryman used the helmet, it is clear that it was not meant to be worn in actual combat. This is due to the helmet’s fine workmanship and rich ornamentation, which would have made it impractical on the field of battle. The Ribchester Helmet was made using copper alloy and consists of a cavalry helmet with a visor in the form of a human face. The helmet is decorated with reliefs depicting a skirmish between infantry and cavalry. It is believed that there was a sphinx attached to the top of the helmet, though this had been lost prior the object’s discovery.
How Was the Ribchester Helmet Used?
The Ribchester Helmet may have been used by a participant of the hippika gymnasia (meaning ‘cavalry sports’ or ‘horse exercises’). These exercises were meant to hone a cavalryman’s skills and to provide a display of his skills to entertain the troops. During the hippika gymnasia, both horse and rider would be dressed in ornate gear, so as to make displays even more spectacular. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the Ribchester Helmet could have been a trophy that was “erected in the celebration of military festivals or carried in procession among the Greeks and Romans”.
Calvary Sports - knightly competition in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (acrogame / Adobe)
Why is the Discovery of the Ribchester Helmet Such a Rare Find?
The Ribchester Helmet has been displayed in London since its acquisition by the British Museum in 1814. In 2014, the helmet returned to Ribchester, where it was temporarily exhibited in the Ribchester Roman Museum. At the time of its discovery, the Ribchester Helmet was the only helmet of its kind to be discovered in Great Britain. Since then, two other helmets have been discovered – the Newstead Helmet and the Crosby Garrett Helmet. The former was unearthed in 1905, while the latter in 2010. While the Newstead Helmet, like the Ribchester Helmet, became part of a museum’s (the National Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland) collection, the Crosby Garrett Helmet had a different destiny.
Crosby Garrett Helmet. (Mike Bishop / CC BY-SA 2.0)
In 2010, the Crosby Garrett Helmet was discovered by a metal detectorist. As the artifact was a single item of non-precious metal, it was not considered to be a treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act. Therefore, the finder and the landowner were free to dispose of the helmet as they best saw fit and the helmet was auctioned at Christie’s. Although Carlisle's Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery were able to raise a total of £ 1.7 million, they lost out to an anonymous bidder who secured the artifact for a total of £ 2.3 million. The Crosby Garrett Helmet has been on public display four times since then.
Following its successful exhibition at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in 2013, the Crosby Garrett Helmet went on display alongside the iconic Ribchester Helmet at the British Museum in early 2014. (Mike Bishop / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Top image: Ribchester Helmet, discovered in the summer of 1796 by the son of Joseph Walton who was playing behind his father’s house in Ribchester, Lancashire, England. Source: Left, CC BY-SA 2.0; Right, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Ashworth, E., 2005. The Roman Riches of Ribchester. [Online] Available at: http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/stones/ribchester.shtml
Baines, E. & Whatton, W. R., 1836. History of the County of Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster. London: Fisher, Son, & Co.
National Museums Scotland, 2018. Parade helmet and face mask. [Online] Available at: http://nms.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-100-036-815-C
Robinson, J., 2014. Ancient Ribchester Helmet back home at last. [Online] Available at: https://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/news/11328774.ancient-ribchester-helmet-back-home-at-last/
The BBC, 2017. Crosby Garrett Roman helmet returns to Carlisle museum. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-cumbria-39279419
The British Museum, 2018. The Ribchester Helmet. [Online] Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1364342&partId=1
The Telegraph, 2010. Rare Roman helmet and face-mask discovered. [Online]
Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8000018/Rare-Roman-helmet-and-face-mask-discovered.html