A RARE Roman helmet discovered in Eden is set to become the centre of a fierce bidding war to keep it in Cumbria when it goes under the hammer at Christies next month.

The 2,000-year-old bronze helmet which features a full face mask and a never seen before Griffin crest on its peak has been described by experts as an ‘extraordinary, rare and important find’.

Christies expect the mask to fetch between £300,000 and £500,000 when it is auctioned in London on October 7 but staff at Carlisle’s Tullie House museum are desperate for it to stay in the county.

And this week they launched an appeal asking for donations from the public to help them buy it.

Museum archeologist Tim Padley said: “It is an iconic item and we really want to keep it close to where it was found. In 2011 we are opening a new Roman gallery where we’re aiming to show the power and sophistocation of the Roman military, and the helmet perfectly sums up those two things.”

The intricatly worked helmet was found by a metal detectorist from Peterlee on farmland in Crosby Garrett, near Kirkby Stephen, and is only the third of its kind ever found in the UK.

Dr Ralph Jackson, Senior Curator of Romano-British Collections at the British Museum said: “The face mask of the Cumbria helmet is chillingly striking, exceptional and unparalleled. It is a find of the greatest importance.”

Archeologists think the helmet would have been used in cavalry sports events known as ‘hippika gymnasia’ and its face would have had a polished white-metal surface and its hair and hat a golden-bronze colour. Bright coloured streamers may also have been attached to the mask and it could have had a matching shield.

Arrian of Nicomedia, a Roman provincial governor under Hadrian, left the only recording of the games in his diary in AD 136, noting that the helmets were worn by high ranking horsemen ‘to draw the attention of the spectators’.

“The mask would have been very much part of the Romans impressing the natives. Part of trying to demonstrate superiority in a military occupation would be by showing off weapons and armour, and I think the mask would have been an initimidating part of that idea,” said Mr Padley.

The helmet is believed to be an isolated find although there are earthworks dating from an unknown era nearby which may now be investigated.

Although cavalry men were based in Carlisle throughout the Roman occupation, there are no known cavalry game sites in the county.

The only other helmets discovered with face-masks are the Ribchester Helmet, found in 1796 near Preston and now in the British Museum, and the Newstead Helmet, found around 1905 and now at the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.

Under British treasure laws objects that are at least ten per cent gold or silver must be presented to a coroner who declares whether they should first be offered for sale to museums.

But because this helmet is made of bronze it can be auctioned directly to the public and the sale proceeds will be split between the finder and landowner.

If you would like to donate money to the Tullie House appeal call 01228 618743 or visit their Facebook group Keep It In Cumbria.

Click on the link below to see Westmorland Gazette's cartoonist Colin Shelbourn's take on this story.