A Tale of Two Treasures

Kith.

They will tell you that kith means your friends and relations. But look past recent times and you will find another meaning entirely: kith means: your native land; your country, and the people in it.

Just before the dawn of the nineteenth century, a little boy made a discovery about his kith, in the fields and tracks and ditches of Ribchester in Lancashire. Like his friends, he learnt about his place in the world by exploring it: unmonitored, and unaided. The son of a clog maker, he was wont to play on the wasteland by the side of the road leading to Ribchester Church. And like many little boys, he loved camps, and he found a fabulous hollow just right for making one’s own.

Digging was part of the deal. He dug until his hands were raw: and then- quite a long way below the surface – he hit something.

Treasure.

Roman treasure, as it turned out: a whole hoard, bowls, vases, basins, a bust of Minerva: and an extraordinary helmet.

Not just any helmet, and not a helmet for fighting. This was a ceremonial helmet, used for the games the soldiers used to take part in. It consisted of a flamboyant hat and a visor which took the form of a young face. Eerie, almost.

827px-Ribchester_Helmet_c

History does not record what happened – if  a Lancashire urchin came home wearing a Roman helmet; but his clog maker father did not let it stay his for long. He sold it to a local member of the gentry who collected such things, and it found its way to the British Museum shortly afterwards in 1812.

It has stayed at the British Museum since, not ever again adorning a boy’s head, not ever taking part in games for which it was designed. It has wowed antiquarians for centuries and was thought to be the fairest and best preserved Roman Helmet ever found in Britain.

Until they got the metal detectors out in Crosby Garrett, Cumbria.

No-one knows who the metal detectorist was, who found it. We know he was in his twenties, and that by agreement with a local Cumbrian farmer, he was searching his fields for finds, only a few years ago in 2010.

He had never found much: a few tokens, bits and pieces. And then, the metal detector screeched and it howled, sending the alarm up that beneath the soil was something well worth investigating.

The helmet was in pieces. But they knew it was important. When reassembled, the helmet took the breath away of all who beheld it. And still does, today.

Photo from the BBC

Photo from the BBC

I wonder if it was easier to wrest the helmet from the hands of the metal detector, than that little boy centuries before? The helmet fetched £2.2 million: despite efforts by the Tullie House Museum, in partnership with the British Museum, to purchase it, it fell into private hands. The detectorist and the farmer were well compensated: but us, whose heritage this astounding find includes: we must wait until the collector assents to its being exhibited.

Treasure  can fall into anyone’s hands, can’t it? And it seems it will naturally gravitate towards the moneyed and the powerful.

Yet: there is something to be said for it being in the hands of its kith.

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40 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Treasures

  1. So exciting! I found a stone dagger once, alas it was when our farm was excavated by professional archeologists who also found a well preserved vikingsword! My find sort of did not add up to that, but was collected and labeled properly and as my great aunt ( one of the excavators) told me, it now rests in a big bin where nobody sees it. I sort of think I would have had more fun with it! Perhaps the dagger would have felt more at home with me too!
    the concept of kith was new to me, it sure is something to be said for the hands of its kith!

    1. Wow, Solveig, I can’t imagine what it must be like to find something so beautiful, and then see it taken away to a very safe big bin!
      For sure, it should be with its kitth – even if just a local museum where you can go and say hello sometimes.

  2. Good to see the Ribchester helmet! It wasn’t the British Museum who tried to buy the Crosby Garrett helmet but Tullie House, Carlisle’s rather smaller museum, and the nearest museum with Roman artefacts to the discovery location. It was astonishing that they could raise the amount of money they did – £1.7m – bearing in mind the auction estimate was 2-300k and Christie’s had put an embargo on both release of the information about the helmet and pictures of the conserved item until shortly before the auction. The Crosby Garrett helmet was on display for three months at Tullie House (loaned by the private owner) until last weekend; it’s now gone down for a temporary display at the British Museum.

    1. Hi Esmerelda, and thank you so much for this.Great to have someone with local knowledge commenting. My sources say the British Museum helped Tullie House put in the bid- is that right? And I believe the helmet has attracted record numbers of visitors whilst it has been up there.
      Looking forward to seeing it at the British Museum.
      I wonder what will happen afterwards?

      1. My understanding was that the fundraising was all Tullie House’s doing (but who knows what went on behind the scenes – it would be good to think they swapped critical info at times like these!), and it was certainly them doing the bidding at Christies. I have heard that The British Museum waded in to help negotiate the helmet’s recent appearance at Carlisle – hurrah! – by liaising with the private owner, who didn’t respond to Tullie’s initial request to borrow the helmet, message passed on by Christie’s. Tullie House apparently had 20,500 visitors to the exhibition – which I think was about four times the usual! Mind, I went four times myself. That, of course, was because I fear I’ll never see it again :(

  3. I suppose it’s better out of the ground but I think that finds such as that really do belong to the kith and kin shouldn’t be allowed to be whisked away from under the noses of institutions such as the British Museum. Seems like a shame no one will be able to see it. It’s probably in Hong Kong or Las Vegas.

    1. Ha! No, Laura – its private owner, thai goodness, has been lending it to museums. As Esmerelda (above) confirms, it has been at Carlisle and travels down for a spell in London very soon.
      I’m getting my camera out and heading up to have a look!

      1. Well that’s a good thing to hear. I recall only a short while ago a Picasso in private hands had a guests elbow thrust through the painting, damaging it badly. Mind you the owner of the painting kept it in a hotel casino for his private use but apparently his guests weren’t as careful as those in a museum. I remember being quite thrilled in the Scottish Museum in Edinburgh to get so close to a Rembrandt that I could really see how the paint was applied. It seemed almost reckless, that an art treasure so valuable and beautiful could be just…just there. I’m quite a lot older now. I’ve seen some wonderful pieces but to this day I’ll never forget the first sight I had of a Rembrandt.

  4. Finders, keepers, sellers and buyers. I’m with you Kate about feeling repulsed that historical artifacts can wind up in the hands of private collectors. But that’s the world we live in. Even if the owner looks at it every day, a day will come when he or she will be dust. Unless, he or she demands burial with it and the lost and found cycle starts all over again. Seriously, these items belong preserved and displayed in a museum for all to see, not on a shelf or in a case to be viewed only by the privileged few.

  5. Imagine finding something like that when you’re digging up the patio, Kate! I found a 1900 penny once when turning over a border, and lost it again soon afterwards. Almost parallel to the chap who found the helmet in a different sort of way! If only…
    I agree with LA – finds such as these should be in a museum.

  6. I don’t understand how these things are allowed to go anywhere BUT a museum. How else can we ensure they remain preserved? For all we know, the moneyed lot could be using it in sex games……..

  7. Do you think the Romans want it back? I agree with all here who think historical finds should be preserved for everyone to enjoy. That leads me to a pet peeve about things such as Van Gogh paintings being sold for millions to private collectors. I think people like Van Gogh are public treasures. Why didn’t he get some of that money when he was still alive? It seems so unfair to everyone. There’s my rant. Thanks.

  8. To find such an object would be so amazing! The most marvelous thought, to me, is what is still out there to be found? There really must be so much more! These helmets are just gorgeous, Kate. And the phrase “kith and kin” was once so popular, and then it just kind of faded away like so many do. It was nice to think about that again.

  9. Lovely article, Kate — you do bring the past to life well by personalising it, a good example of empathy intelligently applied to history but an approach anathematised by the blessed Michael Gove.

    It’s odd, isn’t it, this feeling that heritage belongs to us, the people. Even if it’s articles made for and paid for by the rich and powerful. The notion of public ownership of treasures has only really taken root in the last couple of centuries, since philanthropists created institutions like the British Museum and the National Trust. I’m all for public ownership of ‘national treasures’ but do we really have a right to them?

    1. I believe we should – though not a right to property, Chris, but to access; because our stories and roots are more powerful to us than any of us realise, and these artefacts make up part of our story. Looking at the helmet up close opens a realm of realisation about what used to happen here. I’m working on a project to get people to bring their WW1 artefacts in from our local area for just that reason: each thing says more than a history book ever can, and fills in our picture of what people have done in the place we are grounded. I used regularly to prowl the bounds of Mereworth Castle in Kent, furious not because I couldn’t own it but because seeing it is a precious rarity for the people of Kent, though it was an important part if their timeline.We might spend our whole lives misinterpreting a place because some key to it sits in private hands which wish to keep it private. A perfect example of this is the London Necropolis Graveyard, an iconic symbol of Victorian London’s use of the home counties, yet I couldn’t even walk it and take photographs.
      Hrmph.
      And don’t even get me started on Mr Gove.

      1. I’m with you entirely on this, Kate: unless we have a sense of ownership of our history (and I’m not limiting it to national boundaries) we will remain disenfranchised, and even alienated, from our common heritage.

        History is forever enmeshed in politics in the broadest sense, and we’re wise to steer clear of deeper waters just now by avoiding further mention of He Who Must Not Be Named. For another post maybe? A bit controversial perhaps?

  10. I seem to be coming to my favorite blogs later and later these days, Kate, but, I do eventually “turn up” (could that be a sorta, kinda, kith? tee hee).
    First off, saw your book recommendation to Debra and now have it on my list of TBR, recalling the phrase, kith and kin, as well. I had not realized “kith” went deeper. Those helmuts are so magnificent. I do think they belong with their kith.
    I believe there is a small movement underway in the world of antiquity to return objects to their places of known origin. Of course, whenever money turns hands, their are difficulties in such things, but, bit by bit. . .

    Hope all is well at the Shrewsday Mansion.

  11. The helmet is really stunning and I like the word Kith. Here in my kith, our native people have lost a great deal of their heritage works to raiders.

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