It’s 1868, and London’s River Thames is a sewage-filled snake winding through the overcrowded city. To make it easier for commercial ships to pass, the authorities order the dredging of its murky waters. But beneath the surface they discover something that hasn’t seen the light of day for 2,000 years.
The story begins in Victorian England, when the country’s capital city was home to some 3.5 million people. Ten years before the discovery – in 1858 – the Great Stink had turned the banks of the Thames into a horror show with warm weather exacerbating the stench of human and industrial waste to almost unbearable levels.
Wary of the spread of disease, the authorities began to focus on directing sewage away from the river. Meanwhile, the newly formed Thames Conservancy, charged with the river’s upkeep, worked to keep the waters in line with the demands of commercial shipping. And in order to accommodate the newer, wider vessels, it was necessary to dredge the river.
In early 1868 dredging work was taking place in the Thames with the aim of improving its navigation. Apparently, much of the material removed from the riverbed went on to be used as ballast to stabilize boats. Yet there was one discovery that definitely didn’t find its way to the local shipyard.
While toiling on the Thames riverbed, workers stumbled across something remarkable. It was a bronze helmet with two conical horns unlike anything that had been discovered in the region before. Forged from two separate sheets of metal – one for the front and one for the back – the helmet was held together by a series of neat rivets.
Interestingly, both sides of the helmet were decorated in the repoussé style – a type of creative process that involves hammering the back of a metal sheet in order to create a relief pattern. Using this ancient technique, the bronze had been embossed with a striking design.
The designs were apparently in the style of the La Tène culture – representative of an Iron Age people who lived in Britain from 250 to 50 BC. What’s more, the helmet was adorned with five bronze studs – with space for a missing sixth. And according to experts, the embellishments had once housed decorations crafted from glass that had been colored red.
On top of the work on the main body of the helmet, some additional parts had been riveted on to create the finished piece. Beneath the front sheet, a sickle-shaped section of bronze had been added, while binding and clips had been used to strengthen the edges of the cap. Meanwhile, each horn had been crafted from a single sheet of copper alloy and capped with a terminal stud.
On either side, the helmet was equipped with circular fittings – perhaps designed to hold a cheekpiece or a type of chinstrap. And connecting the two fixtures was a row of decorative rivets, running across the helmet and circling the base of both horns. Finally, the edges were punctuated by a number of small holes that might once have held a liner in place.
By the time that the helmet was retrieved from the river, the bronze had turned a dull shade of green. However, at one time it would have been polished to a bright gleam. And at almost two feet in circumference – and with a weight of some 20 ounces – it must have been a very impressive piece.
In March 1868 the Thames Conservancy loaned the discovery to the British Museum. And over the years, experts have been able to piece together a picture of who might have created the helmet – and why. Apparently, they believe that it dates from around 150 to 50 BC, towards the latter part of Britain’s Iron Age.
Interestingly, the helmet is too thin and delicate to have had any useful protective purpose. Most believe instead that it was created to be used in ceremonies. What’s more, the cap part of the piece is small in size, making it unlikely to have been worn by a grown warrior. Alternatively, it may have been created to sit on a statue’s head.
Dubbed the Waterloo Helmet, this piece has come to occupy a unique position in British archaeology. You see, it is only the third helmet from the Iron Age ever to be found on English soil – along with the Meyrick Helmet, discovered in the armory of an 18th-century collector, and the Canterbury Helmet, retrieved from a meadow in Kent in 2012. However, neither of these other helmets have horns.
In fact, the Waterloo Helmet is the only Iron Age helmet with horns to ever be discovered in Europe – despite the fact that they make a number of appearances in contemporary artwork across the region. For example, a 55 BC carving in Orange, France, depicts men wearing horned helmets – although they are curved rather than straight.
Similarly, a cauldron discovered in Gundestrup, Denmark, in 1891 is decorated with a figure wearing another horned helmet. The find apparently dates to around 150 BC. These horns are also curved, however – although they do terminate in rounded knobs, rather than points, just like those on the Waterloo Helmet.
Even though the Waterloo Helmet is the only known example of its kind, its aesthetic has had a wide-reaching impact on artistic depictions of the era. In fact, it is now common for Iron Age men to be shown wearing horned helmets – despite there being little evidence to suggest they were commonplace.
Bizarrely, the helmet isn’t the only archaeological anomaly that has been recovered from Britain’s riverbeds over the years. In 1857, for example, just over a decade before the Waterloo helmet’s discovery, another startling discovery was made by workers dredging the Thames – this time in the vicinity of London’s Chelsea Bridge.
Dubbed the Battersea Shield, this decorated sheet of bronze is often regarded as one of the most remarkable examples of the era’s craftsmanship ever discovered in Britain. Again designed in the La Tène style, it is thought to date from 350 to 50 BC – making it potentially even older than the Waterloo Helmet.
And even earlier than that, in 1827, another shield was recovered from the River Witham in Lincolnshire, England – some 150 miles north of the River Thames. Thought to date to around 400 BC, this piece also boasts the familiar La Tène flourishes. In addition, it once bore a leather emblem in the shape of a wild boar.
But is there any connection between these Iron Age discoveries retrieved from rivers many miles apart? According to some experts, the location of these pieces implies that they were once tossed into the water as religious offerings. But if that was indeed the Waterloo Helmet’s original purpose, it is now enjoying a second lease of life. In 1988 it was permanently gifted to the British Museum – where it remains on display to this day.