It was almost four years ago that a County Durham father and son unearthed one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of recent years while on a metal detector trip to a remote fellside.
In that moment, they came face to face with a transfixing image from almost 2,000 years ago.
It was what is now known as the Crosby Garrett Roman cavalry helmet, named after the hamlet in Cumbria 20 miles south of Carlisle, where it was found.
The object has two principal components – the helmet bowl which covered the top, sides and back of the wearer’s head and a mask in the form of a human face.
The helmet was sold by London auctioneers Christie’s for £2.3m to a private buyer, who loaned it for display at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.
The three-month exhibition, which ended on January 26, drew 20,402 visitors – the most successful ever display at Tullie House.
“Visitors were really captivated by its beauty, its story and its uniqueness. People would just sit and stare at it,” says Tullie House marketing manager Michelle Wiggins.
Now a group of experts have joined to investigate the background to the face from the distant past and have produced a booklet published at £5 by the Armatvra Press.
The helmet is of a type which would have been worn by Roman cavalrymen taking part in a spectacle called the hippika gymnasia.
This was a mock combat featuring two opposing defence and attack teams.
“These events would have been part-training, part-display – a sort of Strictly Come Dancing on horseback,” says Dr Mike Bishop, who worked for 10 years as an archaeologist in the North East.
He co-edited the booklet with Prof David Breeze, past president of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne and president of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.
From the outset, the helmet has exercised a fascination for experts and exhibition visitors alike.
This is not surprising, given that it was probably originally meant to have a psychological effect on those who viewed it.
“The helmet is one of the great masterpieces of Roman metalwork – unparalleled in detail and the most complete and elaborate of only three such helmets to have been found in Britain,” says Roger Cooke, chairman of Tullie House Museum.
Mike Bishop says: “The helmet is a remarkable find. It has a hauntingly expressionless face.”
Thought to date from the Third Century, the helmet was discovered at the site of what is believed to have been a Romano-British farmstead. occupied by native people. The find site was investigated by archaeologists who established that it contains substantial Romano-British and prehistoric remains.
The area was the territory of the Carvetii, whose capital was Carlisle and who were given self-govering rights by the Romans.
“Why the helmet was buried there is a question we may never be able to answer,” says Mike.
“It may have been somebody’s heirloom, the prized possession of an old cavalryman who had formed an association with a local woman and settled down, or it may have been stolen and hidden away.”
Analysis of the helmet has shown it to be 82% copper, with the face area tinned.
This would have produced an impressive contrast of the shiny silvery appearance of the face against the coppery gold of the helmet.
The eyes are pierced to allow the wearer sufficient vision, with eyelashes and eyebrows marked.
The nose has pierced nostrils and the pursed lips are parted, and separated by a horizontal slit, while the face is framed by curls.
On top of the helmet’s cap is the figure of a griffin. A similar griffin was found at Vindolanda fort in Northumberland.
The Roman writer Arrian describes face-mask helmets and the events at which they were worn: “The riders, according to rank or because they distinguish themselves in horsemanship, set off with golden helmets in order to attract the attention of onlookers by this means.”
Cavalrymen took great pride in their appearance, as shown by their depictions on gravestones.
The gravestone of Flavinus, in Hexham Abbey, portrays him wearing a full back to front crest and side plumes on his helmet.
As well as the mystery of why the helmet was buried in a fellside field, the find raises questions about the relationship between the Roman army and local peoples.
“The discovery of the helmet on a fellside reminds us that such objects can still be found ,” says Mike.
“It’s a splendid piece of equipment to look at, a breathtaking artefact.”