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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Our Thrilling View of the Crosby-Garrett Roman Cavalry Mask

As I mentioned in my last blog, while on our April trip to Cumbria, Great Britain, I was reading Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins, about her visits to Roman ruins in Britain. She dedicated some pages in describing the 2010 discovery by a metal detectorist near the eastern Cumbrian hamlet of Crosby-Garrett of what he at first thought was a crushed Victorian ornament, but what turned out to be a 3rd century A.D. Roman cavalry sports helmet used for ceremonials. If the helmet had been declared treasure, a value would have been placed on it by the government, which the finder and land-owner would have split, most likely paid by the wonderful Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, Cumbria, for its Roman antiquities collection. It was bronze, but not part of a find of bronze objects, and so by law it was allowed to be sold on the open market at auction.  Because of regional excitement, Tullie House Museum managed to raise 1.7 million pounds sterling.
In the meantime, a restorer reshaped what had been deliberately crushed and buried, perhaps as part of a ritual. The helmet, which would have been attached to the visor mask with hinges, was in 68 pieces, the visor's chin  "gashed,"  the curling hair "missing chunks." The restorer reshaped it, closed cracks, cast molds of curls in resin to replace the missing ones and made a chin of resin. Higgins, who visited the helmet at Christie's prior to the sale, wrote, "He gilded the resin with silver leaf and distressed it, so that the whole object had a smooth seamless patina with no visible joints. He reattached the griffin." This restoration was to make the helmet more appealing to an art collector. A museum would have allowed missing parts to remain absent. "When first made, the helmet would have appeared golden and the visor tinned, so that it would have shone like silver." It was made in Phrygia, now a part of central Turkey, and probably brought to Britain with a cohort of Phygian soldiers, part of the Roman army, to occupy north Britain and man Hadrian's Wall
And so at Christie's auction in the fall of 2010 Tullie House bid its 1.7 pounds, but an anonymous buyer made the successful bid of 2 million pounds. All that was known was that the buyer was a Brit. The Tullie House's request to exhibit the helmet for its 2011 reopening after renovations went unanswered.
Jump ahead to April 2017. After reading this chapter in the book, I was sorting through booklets in our rental flat and there was a Tullie House Museum pamphlet. Lo and behold, on its cover was a photo of this Phrygian mask.  It was currently on exhibition at Tullie House (through September 2017. And so we visited the museum and this marvelous artifact.  A curator saw our intense interest and strolled over to give us a private lecture. No, they still don't know who owns it - its loan was done through a third party.  He pointed out where the hinges were and where plumes would have been attached to a metal loop on top.  And told us that when the helmet was pressed and buried between two rocks, its was already an antique.
Close-up of griffin crest on helmet
Tullie House exhibits some amazing Roman artifacts from the Border region where the Romans and their cohorts built and manned Hadrian's Wall. 

Roman helmet meant to represent Amazon woman from Trojan War. 2nd century A.D.

2nd to early 3rd century A.D., meant to represent a Greek warrior
Roman propaganda showing Scottish Caledonians being trampled by 2nd Augustine Legion

We were in the right place at the right time, and I was delighted to see this ceremonial helmet in person.

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