On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October?

The Crosby Garrett helmet was discovered in May 2010 by a metal-detecting enthusiast in his early 20s, within the parish of Crosby Garrett, which in turn lies within the part of Cumbria which was, until 1974, known as Westmorland. Although the man in question promptly reported his astonishing find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme — something he hadn’t done previously, despite apparently working the same site for seven years, marking either a signal triumph of hope over experience or something else entirely — he immediately exercised his legal right to offer up the item for public auction. The helmet, apparently found broken into 33 larger pieces and 33 smaller pieces, was thus extracted from its archaeological context and then — although details are sketchy — stuck back together, presumably with all the silent restorations and frank guesswork such exercises more or less invariably imply. The find site has not been reported, presumably to shield it from the attentions of rival metal-detectors. Nor, however, does it seem to have been subjected to systematic excavation.

Those who like reading about archaeology may wish to contrast this procedure with what they already know about the excavations at Flag Fen, Vindolanda, Corbridge, Wroxeter, Sutton Hoo — the list is potentially a long one — in which the patient and persistent interrogation of what seemed initially a fairly lacklustre site was eventually repaid with finds of international significance, none of which would have made much sense had their simply been dug up, sifted for things obviously shiny and saleable, and then abandoned. Those who like knitting together nostalgic counterfactuals may have fun wondering why it was that the metal-detecting enthusiast in this case was not encouraged — i.e. ‘nudged’ with as great a weight of convention, propriety, local feeling, guilt and celebrity hand-holding as any interested party could throw in his direction — to do the decent thing, whether that’s construed as selling his find by private treaty to a public collection, or indeed donating it outright. Meanwhile those who crave well-informed bleakness and pessimism of a very high order indeed should get themselves hence to Paul Barford’s blog-post on the subject of the Crosby Garrett helmet, as deeply-felt as it is thought-provoking.

Where, though, does all this leave us? The Crosby Garrett helmet, admittedly, is a rare example of this sort of parade armour. According to Christie’s, only two similar helmets have ever been found in Britain. Nor do they seem to be particularly plentiful elsewhere, either. So the helmet is arguably important, both in archaeological and military-historical terms, even in its current decontextualised, ahistorical, questionably-reconstructed, aestheticised, romanticised and deracinated form.

But more to the point — and this really is much more to the point, as it’s the sole level on which that decontextualisation transforms itself from a crippling defect into a signal virtue — it’s also a notably charismatic artifact. This isn’t just a matter of the blithely flawless condition in which the object is now being shown, the crispness of those cast bronze details or even the ghostly shimmer of tin overlying them. No, there’s something about what is, in effect, a beautiful mask — the shape and presence of a face, that expression at once arrogant and sensual, the absolutely human scale — undercut by the weirdness of those staring empty eyes, all of which encourages a slippage from rational admiration to responses at once more complex and visceral. I feel this, for instance, looking at the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo helmet, just as I did when looking at the Ribchester helmet in the British Museum’s 2008 Hadrian exhibition — there’s a review here — and although I haven’t yet stood face-to-face with the Crosby Garrett helmet, I imagine that when I do, I’ll feel something similar. The metaphor thrown up by that glimmering surface and the suggestive void behind it and around it, just waiting to be topped up every relevant fear or fantasy, is a thing too perfect to be sacrified on the altar of intellectual consistency.

It probably helps that we know so little about this handsome thing. For instance, one of the various genuinely interesting questions left unanswered by the Christie’s experts is the issue of the helmet’s origins. Where was the helmet made? Does anyone know the answer to this? And who might have worn it? From my faltering understanding of Roman Britain, the vision of history conjured up for the edification of children of my own only-just-post-imperial generation — a vision in which a handful of actual Romans and foreign auxiliaries struggled to work their will upon a resentful and periodically obstreperous native population — has now been replaced with a tale at once more confused and more appropriate to our own times, in which those ‘foreign’ auxiliaries started recruiting native troops within hours of setting up camp — one, indeed, in which ‘Roman’ Britain in fact continued well past the point at which the actual Romans had gone back home, indeed long into the Dark Age night. Never mind ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ — within decades of those first military incursions, we were the Romans, with romanitas hovering somewhere between the status of lifestyle choice and secularised religion. So when we come — and by ‘we’, I should perhaps add that I mean the whole diverse and culturally multivalent population of the United Kingdom, right now — to try to imagine the man who wore this helmet, to see his face and to read his thoughts, there is no longer even an us-versus-them dichotomy left to interrupt whatever fictive historical intimacies we might hope to enjoy. Whoever might have worn this mask – he’s ours, he’s us.

All of which makes the acquisition of the Crosby Garrett helmet for a UK public collection — for instance, Tullie House in Carlisle — in some ways an obviously attractive prospect. Tullie House has, unsurprisingly, launched an appeal to raise the £500,000 or thereabouts which may be needed to secure the helmet at auction. (Let us pause to recall, at this point, that the buyer will be paying to Christie’s a buyer’s premium of 20 percent of the hammer price up to £500,000, and 12 percent thereafter, just as the seller would normally pay a consignment fee of some sort covering restoration, marketing, handling and so forth, although in high-profile sales like this one, fees are occasionally limited or waived.) The relevant justgiving.com page is here. There’s also a Facebook page called Keep It In Cumbria. As I write, about £25,000 has been raised in donations from the public. Doubtless quite a few of these donations come from local people who are rightly excited to learn about the find and wish to be able to see it face-to-face. In the event that the helmet is sold to an overseas buyer, it seems likely that the government will temporarily withhold issue of an export licence, to allow a UK collection time in which to match the relevant bid — the price having been pushed up, of course, by the process of the sale itself.

One of those who has come forward to support the appeal is Rory Stewart MP, who represents Penrith and the Border. He has set out his reasons for backing the appeal in a brief note here, and at greater length here. Predictably, these include the charisma of the helmet itself, alluded to above: ‘No-one can look into the face of that young Roman cavalryman without feeling a powerful and mysterious link to the past,’ he writes. But he also makes what must be one of the better political arguments for keeping the Crosby Garrett helmet in Cumbria. Put bluntly, while the Lake District and the more extrovert stretches of Hadrian’s Wall attract a welcome weight of tourist footfall, the Eden Valley — a place of unarguable if somewhat austere beauty, replete with attractive old villages and historical interest — has yet to impose itself upon the public consciousness. It could do with the economic benefits that increased tourism would bring. The well-publicised arrival of an ‘iconic’ object such as the Crosby Garrett helmet might help to tempt visitors up from the Lake District, or over from Hexham, to spend their money in a part of the north-west sorely in need of economic encouragement.

Mr Stewart, one suspects, having written very powerfully about the casual, cynical and irreversible destruction of archaeological sites elsewhere — his account of visiting the Minaret of Jam is one of the most memorable passages in The Places In Between, which, given the quality of his writing in that book, is saying an awful lot — and also having demonstrated an understanding of the links between heritage, urban regeneration and economic benefits in his work for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, is perfectly well aware of the opportunity that was thrown away when the decision was made to extract the Crosby Garrett helmet from its archaeological site and transfer it to the saleroom. Places like Flag Fen and Vindolanda, mentioned above, both make a positive virtue of the fact that they are real, living archaeological sites, with real excavations taking place for much of the year, in the open where visitors can watch, learn and — one suspects — go away inspired to study further. In doing so, both sites have provided a welcome boost to somewhat aimless local economies. We cannot know, of course, whether the Crosby Garrett site would have continued to provide stimulating discoveries — on the other hand, we can now be sure that it will not provide the sort of focal-point that might have turned the Kirkby Stephen area into magnet, not simply for chancers with metal-detectors and big dreams, but also for the sort of armchair archaeologists who might have visited local excavation sites and museums, stayed overnight in local hotels and B&Bs, picked away at the mysteries of the lightly-buried past over locally-sourced meals and the odd local pint or three in comfortable local pubs.

And that, really, encapsulates the tragedy of the Crosby Garrett helmet. Let’s be clear about what I am saying here. I don’t particularly blame Christie’s for selling it. Christie’s is an auction house. It sells things — that’s what auction houses do. Nor do I blame Tullie House for seeking to buy it. And as much as I wish that metal-detecting man had made a different choice when he saw those shattered fragments of bronze lying in the mud, I’d even defend his right to dispose of them as he likes, subject to the existing law of the land in these matters. Anyway, so what if he sells the helmet to an overseas buyer? A mere few minutes’ walk from the room in which I write this stands the British Museum, in which I could now view, if I wished, treasures from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Palestine and Persia, the riches of Greece and Rome, magnificent objects from sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania and the millenia-old civilisations of the Far East, as well as quite a lot of other things besides. Who am I, then, to suggest that a schoolgirl in Chengdu or Terhan — or, rather more plausibly, a very rich adult in Buffalo or Atlanta — might not benefit from the Crosby Garrett helmet as profoundly as I benefitted, back in my days as a history-mad schoolgirl, from making my pilgrimage to London to see the Sutton Hoo helmet? And if one’s going to make the argument that artifacts somehow ‘belong’ near the place where they were made, or used, or at any rate found, haven’t we got quite a lot of restitution to do?

But at the same time, we cannot entirely ignore the incentives that will be operating in the days following on from the moment on 7 October when the hammer finally falls at Christie’s, the whip-round for cash with which to ‘save’ these reconstituted shards of our family silver, or at any rate bronze, begins to rise to its full, emotive, panic-inducing zenith, and the media gets to work reporting how much, exactly, the metal-detector and landowner will take home from the actual sale. In order to ‘save’ the Crosby Garrett helmet, we must send out a message, loud and clear, to treasure-seekers everywhere, that random prospecting amid ploughed fields and alongside half-forgotten hedges is not only a suitable alternative to archeological or even antiquarian enquiry, but also that it pays. We must accept that the undocumented, perhaps irreversible cleaning, piecing-together and creative ‘conservation’ of a major find is a palatable alternative to the kind of patient, reversible efforts whereby e.g the Sutton Hoo sceptre has been re-arranged and reinterpreted almost half a dozen times before reaching its current, perhaps still provisional state. Most of all, we must find it in ourselves to accept that admiration for something so rare, mysterious and beautiful somehow allows us to transcend the sort of logic we might well apply to the less glamorous material remains of our more or less recent past — or to the material remains of other peoples’ pasts, as far as that goes.

All of which, perhaps, sounds just slightly negative. Yet here’s an odd thing. There really is a level at which I hope that the Crosby Garrett helmet finds its way back to Cumbria, just as I genuinely hope that the Staffordshire Hoard ends up on long-term display somewhere in the West Midlands. One doesn’t have to be a card-carrying romantic to harbour an intuition that artefacts sometimes do gain something from being seen, as it were, against the landscape that so recently surrounded them, although of course this is probably all a bit more fun if one is that sort of romantic. And since I am, up to a point, even in the fairly prosaic context of the Roman galleries of the British Museum, I find myself reading the names of the places where those thousands of frail, persistent, powerful tokens of another way of living were once again brought to light. Mildenhall, Snettisham, Carrawburgh, York, Leadenhall Street — there’s a kind of dialogue between those present-day places and the compromised detritus of their history which, while it may or may not say anything very important, sometimes rings with a kind of intoxicating poetry, a surreal logic more persuasive than mere fact. Meanwhile to stand up by the wall at Housesteads, gazing out across those long green ridges of hills and reflecting that those same hills might have been seen, from that same wall, by men who also knew North Africa or the Balkans, could perhaps recall tales of raids into Parthia or the Bar-Kochba revolt, does, rightly or wrongly, seem to bring the past closer in a way that, for all the intellectual pitfalls involved, remains profoundly moving, surprising, perhaps even consoling.

Things and places do, in a sense, connect — in our present-day life, of course, but also in what we know, or at any rate think we know, about our distant past. It is probably too late, now, to ‘save’ the Crosby Garrett helmet, in the sense that so many terrible things have befallen it already that simply cannot be undone — all of which is a pity, although frankly worse things happen all around the world, each and every day. One shouldn’t over-estimate the significance of any of this whole sad business. But all the same, what’s left of the Crosby Garrett helmet could, I suppose, be returned to Cumbria. For what purpose, you ask? I would send it back there, if I could, not simply for the present-day practical good it might reasonably be expected to perform there, but also as a sort of grim warning about the fragility of our material history, a memorial to our own blind-spots and prejudices — perhaps even as a sort of vague and belated offering dis manibus, if there are any of those still lingering about, by way of apology for the way in which we so insistently turn their inadvertent leavings to our own half-thought-out, short-lived, often misguided purposes.

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