about the famous 'golden helmet' found in De Peel near
Deurne, 1910. Saturday, March 25, 2006
We had been invited by our friend Aitor Iriarte from Bilbao, Spain, to accompany him to the symposium about the famous 'Deurne' helmet. Aitor was to present a paper about his reconstruction of several items from the Late Roman find, and he thought it would be a good accasion if we were to 'stand guard' as Late Roman soldiers while he presented his case, dressed as a Late Roman tribune. We thought so too!
The symposium was held at the Oranje Hotel in Meijel, Limburg, The Netherlands. Not far from there the helmet had been found in the Helenaveen, now almost a century ago, by a peat digger called Gebbel Smolenaars. Deurne, the name under which people know the helm, is the town closest by.
The hotel had room for about 120 guests and the room was quite full. Apart from Aitor there were 6 more speakers, each of them presenting a paper or a topic about the find or the circumstances surrounding it. The day started around 10 and was to last until 6 in the evening. In itself the symposium was not just something, it was very clear that tension still ran high among the locals! Scholars who had been investigating the whereabouts of seemingly worthless objects such as pieces of leather sometimes got to see them, but also ran into far less friendly replies. In my opinion, it is rather unusual for a Late Roman find to be so vividly remembered after almost a century - one guest told the audience about his father-in-law, who had been present at the find, and who could still get emotional about it.
The first to speak was Dr. Jos Pouls (professor Cultural Science, Open University), who refreshed the memories of the audience about the finder, Gebbel Smolenaars. He took a deeper look into the circumstances of the find, media attention at the time and the letter written about it later. His presentation painted a good picture of what did or did not actually happen during the find, something very important to judge the finds themselves.
Next in line was Dr.
Carol van Driel-Murray (professor Provincial
Roman Archaeology, University of Amsterdam), a reknowned
expert in ancient leather and footwear, and her
presentation discussion the shoes and other leather
pieces found at the site. She, too, had dressed for the
occasion in a Roman dress with on her feet the replicas
of 4th-c. shoes found at Cuijck, very similar to one shoe
found at Deurne. I was asked to extend my 'guard duty' to
her presentation and gladly complied.
Last speaker before lunch was Drs. Nico Arts (County archaeologist of the cities of Eindhoven and Helmond), who held a review about archaeology of the region, especially about so-called 'wet' deposits. Such deposits in the bog are not uncommon in the Peel, the area between the Meuse Valley to the East and Brabant to the West. His presentation strenghtened the case for the Deurne helmet also belonging to such a deposit.
After lunch, it was the
turn of Aitor Iriarte (Architect, city
of Bilbao, Spain). Like Carol before him, his topic was
not so much the find itself but his attempts to re-create
almost all of the items in that find. Over the past
decade he managed to re-create much of the helmet, the
shoes, the sword-sheath, spurs, helmet bag (once
erronenously known as the 'purse') and many other items
of a Late Roman cavalryman, not necessarily found with
the helmet. Despite his lecture being in English the
audience still received a good picture of what a Late
Roman cavalryman carried with him at the time.
Next in line was Dr. Hans Joosten (Bogs and Paleo-ecology, University of Greifswald, Germany), who had a very technical but also very attractive presentation. His paper was about the biological evidence, describing the findspot as it would have looked around 320 AD. Even though the technical terms must have sounded alien to most of the audience, his presentation made it into a very thrilling detective-story. Joosten and his team are most responcible for the end of the 'drowned officer' myth. Besides no traces of a body (the spot was by no means 'boggy' enough to sink in), the evidence makes it clear that the helmet was very much near the surface when first deposited. That makes a deliberate burial very attractive, although personally I think it possible that the package containing the helmet could also have been lost accidentally. The rest of the finds don't point automatically to a religious deposit, even though they surely don't exclude it. I hold van Driel-Murray's 'identity-offering' for unproven, because of the reasons mentioned above. Joosten, when asked, thought the 'accidental loss' unlikely but not to be ruled out.
Drs. Maarten Dolmans (Archaeologist, city of Venlo) was next in line. He took the historical approach, painting a very in-depth picture of the Roman military and the state of the Empire. He then went on to describe what 'our man' might have looked like, where he came from, how he joined the army and where he went on his travels. As a probable officer, the man may have served with the elite cavalry that accompaning the Emperor Constantine the Great during his moves from capital to capital and from war to war. Whatever he did in The Peel will forever remain unclear, and how the helmet got to be where it was found was something that Maarten Dolmans did not know for sure either. And while the desposit-theory seemed the most likely, Dolmans kept open the possibility of accidental loss.
Dr. Herman Crompvoets (Language expert and teacher, retired) was the last to speak, adressing the image of the find in the minds of the people during the years since the discovery. The notion of 'treasure' had been real strong, after all. he also spoke about the mystic Leo Kluijtmans, who added a supernatural dimension to the whole case, with the Roman who had 'spoken to him in visions'. But Crompvoets was clear on this - to believe or disbelieve the mystic was a case of belief, not science.
The book was presented
around 16.30, after the ubiquitous delays to the
programme. Pouls and Crompvoets proudly realted of their
efforts to get it published, after which all speakers
were once more gathered at the front and presented with
the first volumes of the book De Gouden Helm uit de
Peel, Feiten en visies.
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