‘All that glisters…’ – The Hallaton Treasure at the Harborough Museum

The much loved British sitcom Detectorists coined the phrase “gold dance” back in 2014. To the uninitiated, a gold dance is the peculiar and spontaneous jig of delight metal detectorists do when (if!) they’re lucky enough to find gold buried in the ground. Whether or not Ken Wallace danced a gold dance of his own back in November 2000 isn’t clear, but he would have had good reason to having found the first 130 coins of the Hallaton Treasure; later verified as the largest hoard of British Iron Age coins ever found. 

Just outside the village of Hallaton in southeast Leicestershire, over 5,000 gold and silver coins were unearthed, along with a silver-gilt 1st century Roman cavalry helmet, various items of jewellery and fragments of pottery. Oh, and the skeleton of a dog. Much of the items found dated to the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century, and many of the coins bore insignia which linked them to a Leicestershire tribe; the Corieltauvi, who appear to have accepted Roman dominion over their land with little resistance.

The Corieltauvi were a mainly agricultural people from the Iron Age, who had few strongly fortified defences and no centralised systems of government. This was great news for the invading Romans who quickly took over their settlements and captured the capital of Ratae Corieltauvorum (now modern day Leicester) in AD 44. As well as new land, the Romans now found themselves in possession of much of the Corieltauvi's treasure: richly decorated coins featuring the names of the multiple tribal leaders who had once ruled over them.

The treasure, which was excavated with the help of the Hallaton Fieldwork group and the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, now sits in pride of place in the Treasure Gallery at Harborough Museum.

Harborough Museum grew from relatively modest origins out of the collections of the Market Harborough Historical and Archaeological Society, which dated from 1931. Initially run by the District and County Councils and the Historical Society, the museum continued to grow until, thanks to a series of grants and funders, the Hallaton Treasure Gallery opened in 2009. This transformed the museum from local interest centre to host of an exhibition of national importance.

As you first access the Treasure Gallery, you are straight away struck by the most poignant of the finds; the bones of a faithful dog. The partially complete skeleton was one of three dogs buried at the site and archaeologists believe they were deliberately killed to be guardians of the treasure – perhaps mimicking the dogs’ potential role in life as guards.

Dog remains

There is a striking juxtaposition here – the skeleton so starkly laid out at the entrance to the exhibition, which is itself entered via the gift shop with its rows of children’s wooden swords and sticker books. Cleverly done too. Not only does it set a powerful tone, but also pays tribute to the dog itself who is allowed to continue fulfilling its destiny as guardian to the entrance of treasure, even from behind a glass box.

Coin display

Inside, the museum makes full use of its relatively small area. Dark walls and cabinets are lit subtly which lends an atmosphere of intimacy to the whole exhibition; what could otherwise have been a stark and echoey space is made quiet and solemn. Displays are laid out to make the most of all available space and not just consigned to the perimeters of the rooms. Take for example, a glass cabinet of some of the coins found in 2000, which entices visitors in and encourages them to move around the display cases. These can be viewed from both sides, enabling analysis of the treasure from all angles. From here visitors are encouraged to explore the other displays of pottery, jewellery and even bone fragments from hundreds of animals which were cooked for feasts. The museum highlights the brutality involved in such feasts by displaying a box full of the bones of only a fraction of the pigs sacrificed, including partially complete jawbones and teeth.

Magnificent Helmet

The pride and joy of the exhibition, however, has to be what Harborough Museum describes as its “Magnificent Helmet”. Initially found shattered and broken into thousands of pieces and suffering heavy corrosion, this ceremonial cavalry helmet was painstakingly restored after nine years of conservation, by the experts at the British Museum at a cost of £650,000. Originally the helmet would have had two cheekpieces, which have survived but remain too fragile to attach back on. The better preserved cheekpiece depicts an unknown Roman emperor on horseback as the goddess Victory flies behind him. The museum has displayed this glorious artefact against the backdrop of a 2nd century villa mosaic, which continues to emphasise the theme of wealth and Roman victory in its size and intricacy.

2nd century villa mosaic

Further into the exhibition, an interactive display tells the history of the archaeological site and encourages younger visitors to explore the various aspects of the dig – from the graves to the wider site.

In fact if there’s one thing Harborough Museum does very well, it’s making this whole exhibition accessible to children. The cases are carefully curated to be seen from child height with stools available for the very small, and there are many drawers and doors to be opened by excited little hands to examine coins and bones in more detail. There’s even a dressing up station where budding actors can take on the role of Anglo Saxon farmers or Roman generals and try on a variety of headgear, these are not scaled to fit little heads however, resulting in somewhat hilarious results when my own toddler tried a helmet on! The curators should be commended on just how engaging and informative they’ve managed to make this exhibition for children.

The Hallaton Treasure Exhibition might not be hugely well known outside of Leicestershire, but it has strong links with powerhouses such as the British Museum, and as such is of a similar quality to those found in exhibitions at one of these institutions. The exhibition is a source of great local pride and a fantastic destination for young families and history enthusiasts throughout Leicestershire.

Market Harborough Museum details:

Symington House

Adam and Eve Street

Market Harborough


LE16 7LT

Admission to Harborough Museum is free and the museum is a Visit England Quality Assured Visitor Attraction.

The museum is part of Symington 1, a cultural hub including library, adult learning, museum and registration service situated on the first floor of The Symington Building.

The Symington Building has the following facilities:

Pay and display car parks. The closest car parks are Symington Way and Fox Yard for the closest accessible entrance. Market Harborough Station is also a 10 – 15 minute walk away.

Concierge for information and directions.

Café and ice cream parlour.

Toilets including accessible toilet.

Opening Times:

Harborough Museum is open Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 6pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm.

The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Access information:

Wheelchair and Class 2 scooter accessibility and lift to first floor. Class 3 scooters are not allowed on upper floors

Low counters are available.

Assistance dogs are allowed on the first floor.

A hearing loop is installed.

The museum and library have some members of staff who are Dementia Friends and all visitors are welcome.

There are browser areas with seats and tables, an interactive floor for children and toilet facilities on the same floor.

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Ellen Huxley