Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Issue of the Crosby Garrett Helmet's Griffin

There are some things about the Crosby Garrett helmet's PAS report which are a bit odd. The technique of manufacture is said to be "cast", but it obviously is not. But the Griffin on the top is.

I am a bit puzzled about the griffin. The description in the PAS database is typically brief and incomplete: "a crest attachment in the form of a winged griffin with its right paw raised and resting on an amphora". The PAS "news announcement" carries a link to a report written by Dr Ralph Jackson Senior Curator of Romano-British Collections of the British Museum dated 9th September 2010 (which is nbot in turn linked to in the database record).

Dr Jackson's report has quite a lot to say about the griffin, though more on its supposed parallels and meaning than being a record of what was actually seen:
Furthermore, an associated bronze figurine in the form of a winged griffin was clearly originally attached to the top of the helmet – the curvature of the griffin's base-plate together with remains of solder on its underside correspond exactly to the curvature and patch of solder preserved on the crest of the head piece. [...] At all events, although some Roman cavalry sports helmets are surmounted by repoussé eagles [...] I am not aware of any other surviving example that retains a cast crest figure of the type on the Crosby Garrett helmet.[my emphasis]
The PAS photo showing it detached indicates that it sits on a curved cast copper alloy strip. No tang, no rivets. Dr Jackson says that he saw "solder" on its underside and on the "crest of the head piece", though the solder is not mentioned in the PAS description and no report is available of the object's conservation by Christie's. The solder is not particularly noticeable on the PAS photo (number five of seven) of this part of the object. Anyone who has done any soldering will know that for solder to bind two pieces of metal, they have to be in contact, and in its present state the photos show that the join between the helmet and its supposed finial is not very good. If we look at the reconstructed state, the strip sits snugly on top of this crest when seen from one side of the helmet, less so when seen from the other. To what degree does this reflect the original state? There is however on page 123 of the Christie's exhibition catalogue an odd 'shadow' next to the seating of the object on the top of the helmet (right hand side in the frontal view - so the wearer's left side), what is this if the crest was reattached on top of the solder on the crest of the helmet? Traces of an earlier attachment? Of what? Was what Dr Jackson saw on the helmet crest solder or a zone of tinning, or something else?

The griffin is shown in the PAS photos before (?) restoration (when were they taken?) lying loose and separate from the sheet fragments. Upon their reconstruction (it is not clear on what basis their form was recreated) it now sits on the top of the reconstructed object, but lurching forward. In fact, the whole griffin sits on the forward-facing part of the peak of the helmet, rather than the curved strip extending back across the top of the object. If this is really where the object was intended to fit, why was this strip not extended back by the maker to provide a more secure joint? The join as it is depicted in the Christie's reconstruction is an extremely bad and weak one, quite out of keeping with the workmanship of the helmet as a whole.

It is also rather odd that on a well made piece like this the griffin which 'crowns' it in its reconstructed state is decidedly asymmetrical. Not only is its base made to fit only on the front of the crest of the helmet, but it has one 'flat side' (that on the right as we look at it frontally) and both the beast's wings as well as the amphora which it is holding reflect that. The rear view on p. 120 of the Christie's catalogue show this clearly. It is almost as if this griffin was actually originally made as one of a pair of opposing griffins. But then for what? The handles of a metal vessel for example?

The PAS account nor Dr Jackson's report make no mention of the two small loops on the griffin. What are they for? The Christie's description (p 118) links them with the two eyelets on the back ridge of the helmet too (also omitted in the PAS report) and suggests that perhaps there were "brightly coloured ribbons" attached to the helmet, But then could you get a ribbon through those tiny loops? What about the one on the back of the griffin? Surely to thread a ribbon here, there would be a metal ring passing through the loop which would have the ribbons on it? If so, where are those rings now? One remains in the eyelet on the (wearer's) right side of the helmet on the back ridge. I can imagine such ribbons attached to the crest would be a severe encumbrance in any hippika gymnasia, liable to get tangled in equipment and endanger the pulling of the helmet off (no information is given by any of the reporters of this item about any internal padding, chinstraps or anything like that). That is quite apart from the fact that if a ribbon or bunch of ribbons was attached to the lower loop on the griffin, it would dangle down in front of the rider's face. Not only would that look stupid (culturally relative concept) it would dangerously obscure the rider's vision (not a culturally relative concept).

The PAS speculate that the helmet maybe had been deposited in the hole as a "votive offering", and have no doubt the griffin was found in the same hole, but what evidence [apart from a solder mark not documented by anyone in any detail before being obscured in the reconstruction] is there that this griffin was a helmet terminal, and that it came from this particular helmet? Did the finder bring to Christie's bits of one object, or of two which have been combined in a pastiche made before the object was properly examined?

What however this illustrates is that in the case of a metal detected object that is briefly seen by the PAS before disappearing from scholarly (actually everybody's) view, there are a great many things that need to be documented if we are aiming at true "preservation by documentation". This has not been achieved here. There are several features that should be included in the description of this helmet but which are omitted in the PAS description. Key features are not discussed, evidence which would allow us to understand the item is simply not presented. This is by no means an isolated case, underresourced FLOs are under pressure to turn out as many "records" as possible to boost the figures presented in the annual reports, but in the haste, detail will inevitably suffer. This therefore reduces the value of the records produced as mitigation of severe losses to the British archaeological record by unrestrained exploitation by thousands of selfish individuals with metal detectors as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit. Even in a case like this where the PAS have had three and a half months (three people plus Dr Jackson) to refine the records of an object that was bound to attract a lot of attention (and will continue to do so), they surely could have done better than this.

UPDATE: I have just spotted some discussion on a metal detecting forum made independently of this post: medamius - Wed Sep 15, 2010 9:02 pm says:

I also have to say that having made a few of these type of helmets, it's my firm opinion that that griffin on the top does not belong there. In fact check it out and then tell me where do the two holes in the griffin have anything to do with this helmet.

LANCUM-E48D73: Crest fitting representing a griffin (photo PAS).

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