Proposed by: Nathan Ross
Grid Ref: SP967097 (496700, 209700)
Lat/Long:  51.778434,  -0.600270
Positions: British + Roman
Starting scenario: Starting Scenario: Along Watling Street moving out from London
Original URL:

I was in the British Museum last week, and happened to notice one of the exhibits. Most of you will know it - a bronze Coolus E helmet. What caught my attention was the information card: found during the digging of the Grand Junction canal between Tring and Berkhamstead.

British Museum Helmet[Image: AN00033850_001_l.jpg?width=304]

There are actually (I think) very few legionary helmets from Britain - this one, another at Colchester, and a third from the Thames. All of them early-mid 1st century. The find spot for this one is a bit vague: 'Northchurch, Norcott Hill' - but if it was found during the canal construction in 1813 then it must have been close to the canal itself, perhaps where Norcott Hill crosses it, or thereabouts. This is close enough to Akeman Street, of course. But why would a helmet have been deposited there, when so few have been found elsewhere?

Here's the hypothesis: the helmet could have belonged to one of the legionaries who fought in the Claudian invasion of AD43. These men, upon discharge, could have been settled in the new veteran colony at Colchester and taken their kit with them. When the colony was conquered by the rebels in AD61, the helmet was picked up by one of the Britons. He took it with him to the final battle against Paulinus, where it was dropped or discarded during the rout - perhaps in the fight around the wagons. It was then interred with all the rest of the battle debris, only to be unearthed more than 1750 years later during the construction of the Grand Junction canal. As a large and recognisable item, it alone was preserved.

So - is there anywhere close to the probable find spot that might fit with our battle site description? I think it might (I've removed the canal from this plan):


Looks like a defile, 900m-ish wide, narrowish 'plain' in front. No sign of woods behind, but patterns of forestation etc etc. There is the problem of the Bulbourne, which would have risen much higher before the canal altered things - but if this was midsummer it may have been a fairly inconsiderable stream, or even completely dry.


I've been trying to find a bit more information about this site (14/2/2016). As Deryk mentioned above, there have been surveys of the area around Cow Roast, with some tempting finds and some less tempting possibilities.

This paper gives a good summary of (official) finds so far.

With regard to the Coolus E helmet, the paper notes that the stated find date is unlikely, as no work on the canal was ongoing in 1813; 1798-99 is more likely. It estimates the find spot as 'Grand Junction Canal, in the vicinity of Dudswell Locks', which looks about right. This would possibly have been wet ground even if the stream was low, and debris left here (perhaps following the hypothetical rout!) might have been lost in pools or muddy areas.

The paper also states that excavations at the 'Esso site' (presumably now the Texaco garage on the south-east edge of the village, backing onto the canal) turned up an iron pilum head, together with some British coins. The Fendley House orchard across the road turned up a bone sword grip.

There's an intriguing mention of a 'putative temple in the field near Newground... known only from an aerial photograph'. I've been wary of the ideal of battle memorials.

There's also a suggestion (on p.8) that the area to the north of Cow Roast (between Aldbury and Tring Station, maybe?) was wooded - the timber later used as charcoal for iron smelting. Could be Tacitus's 'closed in the rear by a wood'?

However, there has been quite a lot of surveying in this area, including geophysics, and nothing of a more obviously military nature seems to have turned up. Most of the finds relate to the iron smelting works that was apparently established here in the later 1st century - although much of it seems to have been deliberately dumped in pits.

There's a brief point about 'metal detectorists... active in the fields around Newground Farm' turning up coins and 'small metal objects' - possibly this is the source of the 'arrowheads and sling bullets' that appeared on ebay?

I also had another look at Steve Kaye's last paper (2015) - the site is given as 'New Ground Road' and listed as numbers 10 and 11 on his list of plausible locations, which is reassuring. Interestingly, he suggests that the Roman water supply for this site (and another possibility at Tring Station) could have come from the Thame headwaters, to the north-west, rather than from the Bulbourne.


Next a map with railway and canal marked with what appear to be the sites of the military finds, helmet, and the rumoured detector finds of slingshot etc:

one, from 1766, showing the valley around Newground prior to the construction of the canal and railway. As you can see, the Bulbourne rises rather higher and a little to the north-east. The red line follows the approximate course of Akeman Street. But there's a very interesting-looking 'defile' feature just east of Wigginton, and if the area just to the north was wooded this would 'close' it off quite neatly from the rear: