River Maas/River Meuse Helmet

A look at one of the more controversial helmets from the late Roman period, at least regarding the somewhat dubious reconstruction of the sparse fragments.

Location and Context

This helmet (or fragments of one) were found within the Meuse Valley area in the province of Limburg. The nearest town is the city of Venlo, close to the German border, a site that has been speculatively identified as being the Roman town of Sablones on the Roman road connecting Maastricht and Xanten, although no concrete evidence has been found that would reinforce this claim. More likely, Sablones was across the modern-day border, closer to the German town of Kaldenkirchen. Regardless of location, the town was notably mentioned in the Itinerarium Antonini, a Roman travel guide of sorts listing the stations and distances along various roads within the empire penned in the early 3rd century AD. The area therefore clearly benefited from a good deal of traffic, regardless of whether Venlo was indeed Sablones or instead simply lay nearby. 

The find itself was uncovered in farmland near Venlo by a metal detectorist in 1994 – 1995, seemingly as part of a larger metal hoard also containing gold coins (solidi) dating from the reign of Valens (AD 364 – 367) to Constantine III (AD 408 – 411), with multiple examples of coinage from dates between these two rulers. 

Unfortunately, it would seem the detectorist gave few details about the find or context upon retrieval of the objects. 

Type, Construction, and Materials

According to the attempts of the reproduction as seen in the image, the helmet belonged to the Intercisa type (link here), forming two parts of an iron bowl separated by a ridge, and coated in a precious metal layer (silver sheet with a gold foil covering). Miks notes that these fragments were adjoined by a bitumen-like putty (as an adhesive) and the silver sheeting seems to be cohesive between the fragments, suggesting they were indeed all part of the same object. The rivets seen on some of the pieces are also covered with gold foil. 

A fin-crest was seemingly found along with the helmet (further suggested by the presence of the Chi-Rho monogram plate), made of bronze and again covered with gold foil (although the monogram plate is notably covered in solver). 

Unique Details and Analysis 

As can be seen from the images below, the helmet being explored in this article is composed mostly of fragmentary pieces, and as such is subject to some speculation. The above section has been left rather brief so as to avoid accidental assumptions about the nature of this rather unusual find; indeed, it remains entirely possible that we are looking at more than one helmet here. The reconstruction itself has also been widely disavowed, as the attempt seems to be a rather arbitrary effort to put the pieces onto the assumed form of an Intercisa bowl rather than analysing their form for a specific assembly method. 

The presence of the Chi-Rho monogram plate would naturally suggest there was an Intercisa type present here, with a fish fin crest atop it. Beyond this, any further attempts at a reconstruction will invariably be wholly supposition. 

Firstly, we cannot guarantee that any parts other than the Chi-Rho monogram plate (and technically not even that) belonged to an Intercisa helmet nor even the same helmet as the plate. Secondly, there are simply not enough pieces remaining to form a fair judgement. Instead, it seems most fair to accept that this helmet (or helmets) will remain something of a mystery with several possibilities at what it/they may have looked like, as is the unfortunate case for more than a few late Roman artefacts. 

What we can conclude is thus: the helmet (or one of the helmets) possessed a Chi-Rho monogram plate, a common feature in the archaeological record and a typical indicator of an Intercisa-type with a fish-fin crest. We can also confirm that this helmet was, as seems to be typical of late Roman helmets, covered in a layer of precious metal and held together with decorated rivets possessing a layer of silver. 

No repousse work is evident on the pieces present, however that is no indication that such a feature was absent from the original object(s) as the pieces that remain are small, damaged, and may be in the wrong place on the helmet to have been decorated. Rather, the trend of decorative helmets available in the record would suggest that this example did indeed boast such a thing, it is simply no longer visible (although this is of course still speculation). 

Finally, we can conclude that the helmet is likely dated tentatively to around the early 5th century AD. Assuming the lack of information given by the metal detectorist has not confused the records and the fragments are indeed congruous with the datation of the coins found in the same area, the youngest coinage found was from the reign of Constantine III (AD 408 – 411), giving the helmet an approximate deposition date of the same. As a completely speculative note, it may be possible that the later datation of this example explains the lack of repousse work on the finds – perhaps the more strained early 5th century army was not as capable of producing as many decorated items of military kit as their early 4th century counterparts due either to time or money (or perhaps the pressure of the world state at that time). This is, of course, simply a guess. 

In conclusion, this rather well-known (according to Google search metrics) helmet is, sadly, something we can only tentatively imagine what it may have looked like. Were the fragments all from one piece, it seems almost certain that the finished product would bear a striking resemblance to other Intercisa type examples (as seen here), however as discussed above this is far from guaranteed. Another tantalising mystery of the late Roman period that will likely (sadly) never be solved… 

River Maas/River Meuse Helmet
Ross Cronshaw
By Ross Cronshaw