Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Steely Gaze Part of Cavalry Attire Since 6th century BCE

An Exceptional Roman Bronze Cavalry Parade Helmet1st century CE Bronze Roman Cavalry Mask.  Image by Ancient Art via FlickrAn auction in Britain has made a millionaire of the metal detectorist who discovered a fantastic Roman parade helmet and mask in a field near the little English hamlet of Crosby Garrett.  Whenever I see such a beautiful piece of art surface in a rather unlikely place I always wonder how it came to be discarded by the original owner.  The article in the UK's Daily Mail said the detectorist, who had searched the field for seven years, had only found bits of scrap metal and a few coins before discovering the 1st century CE cavalry helmet
The artifact looks so complete I was surprised to read that it was initially found in 67 fragments.  Some of the fragments showed traces of a white metal coating, indicating that the face mask would originally have been tinned to give the appearance of silver.  But, the silver on this helmet may have been removed in preparation for ritual burial much like the Xanten helmet unearthed in the late 1980s in an old arm of the Rhine River.   The Crosby Garrett mask had also been folded before burial, and placed with the visor face down, further suggesting that it may have been a votive offering.  
Surprisingly, researchers studying the Xanten helmet reconstructed it with folded iron like the original and found the mask could withstand the force of an arrow fired from a Roman ballistae.

A close examination showed that the helmets were forged from sheet iron, folded and wrought from several layers of iron, and covered with silver foil for decoration purposes. Remains of braided ribbons combined with circular bands around the head were found outside the skull piece. The textile applications proved to be made of horsehair. The fineness and the length indicate that selected hairs from the tail of the horse were used. The headbands were sometimes additionally padded with a woolen fabric to generate a certain relief. An ancient glue mix was used to fix the silver foil and the textile applications. It consisted of pitch, bitumen and fatty components. - Sylvia Mitschke, University of Sheffield, Questions of identities concerning Roman cavalry helmets
Heavily armored cavalry wearing masks actually dates back as far as the 6th century BCE.

One of the earliest known examples of heavy cavalry was discovered in Khwarezm, a region in central Asia near the Aral Sea. Excavations have revealed paintings of warriors clad in armor mounted on an armored horse, carrying a lance and bow. It is estimated that these horsemen were used in that region as early as the sixth century BC. It is also around this time that cavalry gradually began replacing chariots in the near east. Cultures such as the Assyrians, Achaemenids Persians, and later the Macedonians all successfully fielded heavy cavalry in their armies. The Acahemenids, in particular, were known to field heavily armored horsemen along with horse armor.- Cataphracts and Clibanarii of the Ancient World, All Empires Online History Community
 Graffito of a Parthian Cataphract at Dura
Europos.  Courtesy of  All Empires.
 The Seleucids, ruled by descendants of one of Alexander the Great's generals, first used heavily armored cataphracts against the Romans in the battle of Magnesia in 188 BCE.  Although the Seleucid army was defeated in the battle, including the cataphracts, Polybius tells us that the Romans began arming their cavalry in the "Greek style" during the late Republican period.  Both Plutarch and Crassus reported that the shear momentum of the rider and horse was capable of driving the spear through two men. I wonder if Crassus had any premonition of the fate of his troops at Carrhae when he recorded that observation?
Although Christie's did an excellent job of restoring the Crosby Garrett mask's aesthetic appearance I was disturbed to read that experts from the British Museum were not asked to examine the find before restoration took place so archaeological information may have been lost.  Apparently, even though this mask brought a staggering sum of money from anxious bidders, it was not legally considered "treasure" by the British government because it contained neither gold nor silver. 
Although no significant remains of Roman occupation was known in the general area where the mask was found, preliminary investigations that have been conducted since the discovery indicate a Roman occupation layer may be revealed with further excavation.

The article mentioned that there have been only two other complete helmets with masks found in Britain.  Fortunately, others have been found elsewhere to give us information about the variety of designs that were developed during the height of the Roman Empire. has a webpage with images of several distinctly different cavalry masks that have been found across Europe dating from the Augustan period through the 5th century. 

Cavalry Helmet Mask Roman 75-125 CE BronzeBronze Roman cavalry mask 75-125 CE.  Image by mharrsch via Flickr
I have seen other examples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the one pictured at right produced from 75 - 125 CE at the Getty Villa.

Arrian of Nicomedia described the wearing of full face masks by cavalry troops on parade in the 2nd century CE:

The horsemen enter fully armed and those of distinguished station or superior in horsemanship wear gilded helmets of iron or bronze, to draw to themselves the gaze of the spectators. Unlike the helmets made for active service, these do not cover the heads and cheeks only but are made to fit round the faces of the riders with apertures for the eyes, so as to give protection to the eyes without interfering with vision. From the helmets hang yellow plumes — a matter of decor as much as of utility. As the horses move forward, the slightest breeze adds to the beauty of these plumes.—Arrian of Nicomedia

The Roman Cavalry Late Roman Cavalryman AD 236-565 (Warrior)   The Cavalry of the Roman Republic 
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