The most famous find of Ribchester, England, was not the result of an archaeological dig. This two-piece ceremonial helmet of embossed bronze consisting of a headpiece and a face mask was discovered by accident in 1796 by a clog maker’s 13-year-old son playing behind the house. It proved to be part of a hoard of Roman military equipment, probably placed in the ground about 120 AD, and may represent the private belongings of a single soldier.
Impractical for protecting a soldier in battle, this helmet would have been worn by participants in sporting competitions known by the name of “Gymnasia Hyppica,” where the cavalry of the Roman Empire displayed their skill and expertise, maneuvering and handling weapons such as javelins and spears in front of military commanders and even emperors.
Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC. Almost 100 years later, Emperor Claudius sent four legions to control the island. The Romans remained in Britain until the early 5th century AD.
It is known that these helmets were used for display because of accounts left by Arrian of Nicomedia, a Greek historian, military commander, public servant, and philosopher of the Roman period who was a governor in the time of Emperor Hadrian. In his Techne Taktike, a treatise on Roman cavalry and military tactics, he describes how soldiers with exceptional skills were allowed to wear these helmets in cavalry tournaments.
Ribchester was the site of a Roman fort called Bremetennacum or Bremetennacum Veteranorum, established during the first phase of Roman occupation of Britain in AD 72/73 by the 20th legion. This early fort was renovated in the late 1st century AD and was rebuilt in stone in the early 2nd century as part of a network of similar forts across the north of Britain. The heyday of Ribchester seems to have been the 2nd century, but the site was occupied well into the 4th century.
Decorated with a scene of a skirmish between infantry and cavalry and dating to between the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, this helmet is one of only three Roman helmets with masks to have been found in Britain and described as the highest quality helmet found. The other two are the Crosby Garrett Helmet found in 2010 by an unnamed metal detectorist near Crosby Garrett in Cumbria, England, and the Newstead Helmet, discovered in 1905 in Scotland, now part of the Newstead Collection at the National Museum in Edinburgh.
In addition to the helmet, found buried in a hollow, about three meters below the surface, the hoard included a number of paterae (a broad shallow dish), pieces of a vase, several plates, a bust of Minerva, fragments of two basins, a number of items of a religious nature, and other military metal items stashed in a wooden box of a barrack chamber, about three meters below the surface. The finds were thought to have survived so well because they were covered in sand.
The exceptional bronze cavalry helmet and face mask have been on display at the British Museum in London since 1814.