Essays, Warfare & Military Technology
Leave a comment

The Mystery of the Viking Age Helmet

Nine Viking Age helmets. That’s all there is left. Two are complete, the rest are fragments. I don’t know about you, but I find this rather astonishing. Of all the warriors, fights and weapons in the Viking Age, there are only nine helmets left? Why is that?

The even more astounding reply is that no one really knows. Yet, there was plenty of iron ore in medieval Europe, and especially in Scandinavia.1 By the seventh century, Danish smiths could skillfully prepare steel weapons.2 If so many were made, however, more should have somehow managed to survive time? Or did they all just waste away in the wet soil of northern Europe? Or get smashed up by modern farming machines?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, there was enough iron ore, but its production and craft were laborious, meaning it was costly to make an iron helmet. Chances were that only the elite could afford them and that helmets were re-used many times, perhaps by more than one warrior, when they were still in good shape. We know that having iron armour gave status to its owner. This makes it less surprising that despite the iron production in Scandinavia, there was still much import of foreign armour and weaponry.3

Origin and Types of Early Medieval Helmets

After the fall of the Roman Empire, new powers emerge in early medieval Europe. In Francia, the Merovingian dynasty is succeeded by the Carolingians. In Anglo-Saxon England, the kingdom of Mercia and then Wessex make their mark. And in Scandinavia, it is a rich period of burials and beautiful grave goods, called the Vendel period. Remarkably, more helmets survive from the Migration Period (6–8th centuries) than the Viking Age (8th-11th centuries).4

Lamellenhelmet

In 1987, Heiko Steuer publishes a classification for early medieval helmets (6th and 7th c.) that is still used today. He distinguishes three types of helmets. First, there is the Lamellenhelmet with its high conical shape, overlapping strips, and plume. These were mostly used among the Lombards in Italy, though a few have popped up in Germany and one in central Europe. In all, though, most are discovered in eastern Europe. Its origins are believed to lie with the Avars.5

Where the Lamellenhelmet is clearly an adaptation of the nomadic tribes to the east of Europe, two other types, the Spangen and Crest helmets derive from the Roman Ridge helmet. They have strips, bands and plates. Brow, cheek and neck guards and the crest complete the helmet. One of the best Roman examples is the Berkasovo I from the fourth century.6

Spangenhelmet

Second, Steuer recognises the Spangenhelmet with its straps. There are at least two dozen found, mostly in central and eastern Europe and all but one in Steuer’s list has Christian symbols.7 The Baldenheim helmet itself, like the Vézeronce helmet, are from Merovingian Francia. They are probably of Byzantine origin or heritage. Both are associated with rich graves and thus, high status. They are made of T-shaped strips (or mounts), a pointed crest, cheek guards. The shape of the helmet is slightly more conical than the regular Spangenhelmet, in my opinion. Like the Lamellenhelmets they can be set apart from the helmets found in northern Europe. 8

Crest helmet

And third is the (Nordic) Crest helmet. Most and many have been found in Sweden and fewer in the rest of Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England. To this type of helmet belong the Sutton Hoo, Valsgärde and Vendel helmets.9

Similar Decorations

The similarity between the crest helmets in Anglo-Saxon England, Frisia and Scandanavia is not limited to the shape or guards, but also their decorations. The dancing figures with horned helmets on the Sutton Hoo and Staffordshire helmets are similar to the Scandinavian Valsgärde and Vendel helmets and artwork on the bronze Torslunda plates. The mounted warrior resembles the one on the Pliezhausen brooch from an Alemannian noblewoman’s grave.10

The Hallum helm from Frisia also resembles the Vendelhelmets. Its two remaining fragments are the bronze animals on the nose guard and back end of the crest.11 After analysing possible scenarios, and recreating the helmet, Dutch archaeologists suggest that most likely, this was a gift of a Scandinavian king. They take the story of Beowulf as an explanation which gifts a warrior or royal blood received to reflect and elevate his status. Helmets being among them.12

The Horned Helmets

So, especially the Anglo-Saxon and Frisian helmets show a close connection to the Scandinavian helmets and artwork. Then for the elephant in the room, the horned helmets. Were there ever? Yes, there were! But probably not used in the way you think. The concept of the Viking warrior carrying the horned helmet into battle is a romantic one conceived in the eighteenth century, an artists’ impression for opera and paintings that was adapted by literature in the nineteenth century.13

Veksø helmets (Wikipedia / Natmus Denmark).

However, they did exist, as proven by a pair of Bronze Age horned helmets from Veksø, Denmark. They are richly decorated with mighty curling horns. They are very similar to the depictions of the dancing figures on the Sutton Hoo and Staffordshire helmet. And also to the Torlsunda plates and the Oseberg tapestry. In terms of practicality, it’s hard to imagine someone using it in a shield wall… more likely a leader wanting to intimidate from a high position or on a horse? I wonder how much it weighed on one’s head. More likely, considering the dancing element and procession element in the depictions, is that the horned helmet was an (important) attribute for long-standing rituals in the Scandinavian society of the early Middle Ages.14

The Viking Age Helmets

Scandinavia

Gevninge

c. 6–8th c.
Lejre, Denmark.
Discovered in 2000 during the excavation of a farmstead.
Fragment: bronze and gold eyebrow. 15

Gjermundbu

c. 950–1000
Haugsbygd, Norway.
Found in WW II during the excavation of grave 1 (burial mound).
Fragments: 17 iron pieces. 16

Lokrume

c. 10th c.
Gotland, Sweden.
Found in 1907.
Fragment: iron and silver eyebrow, noseguard. 17

Tjele

c. 950–1000
Tjele, Denmark.
Discovered in 1850, found among smithy items.
Fragment: eyebrow and nose guard. 18

Uppåkra

c. 550–800
Uppåkra, Sweden.
Fragment: eyebrow. 19

Anglo-Saxon England

Coppergate

c. 750–75
York, England.
Discovered in 1982 during building work. Complete but damaged during discovery, iron and brass.
Crested helmet with Christian inscription 20

Yarm

Early medieval / Anglo-Viking.
Durham, England.
Discovered in the 1950s.
Complete, iron. 21

Eastern Europe

Kyiv

Later part 10th c.
Kyiv, Ukraine.
Discovered in Desjatinna church. Fragment: mask. 22

St Wenceslaus

c. 950–1000.
Prague, Czech Republic.
Complete, iron and silver inlay, conical, noseguard.
Resembles Lokrume fragment. 23

Conclusion

Why have only nine Viking Age helmets been identified so far? In academia the idea prevails that so few existed because they were costly and associated with high status. But academic research is salso till sparse on this topic. A fine website to consult about Scandinavian Viking Age helmets is Tomáš Vlasatý’s website Project Forlǫg. He not only explains the Scandinavian helmets, but also any depictions of Viking Age (Scandinavian) helmets. He lists his resources and like Hurstwic, he has a nice way of tackling the lack of information by discussing the helmets (fragments) and their features with re-enactors.

What also caught my eye (sorry for the pun), is that of the 9 helmets of four only the eye and brow seem to remain. Perhaps it is just a coincidence. But, as a finale to this article, I leave you with the consideration from a conference paper that this might also be part of a ritual relating to Odin’s (one) eye. 24

References


  1. John Ljungkvist, ‘Chapter 13: Handicrafts,’ in: The Viking World edited by Stephen Brink (Oxford: Routledge, 2012), pp. 188–189.  ↩
  2. Henriette Syrach Lyngstrøm, ‘Vikings versus Iron Age: Who made the best swords?,’ ScienceNordic Published 08 May 2018. Last Accessed, 22 August 2020. sciencenordic.com/denmark–forskerzonen–iron–age/vikings–versus–iron–age–who–made–the–best–swords/1455834.  ↩
  3. John Ljungkvist (2012), pp. 189.  ↩
  4. See the full articles of Heiko Steuer, ‘Helm und RingschwertPrunkbewaffnung und Rangabzeichen germanischer Krieger Eine Übersicht,’ in: Studien zur Sachsenforschung Volume 6 (1987), pp. 190–236.
    Dominic Tweddle, The Anglian Helmet from 16–22 Coppergate. in: The Archaeology of York | Volume 17: The Small Finds edited by P. V. Addyman (York: York Archaeological Trust, 2015). web.archive.org/web/20170225052930/http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/wp–content/uploads/2014/08/The–Anglian–Helmet–from–Coppregate–AY–17–8.pdf  ↩
  5. Steuer (1987), pp. 197–198.  ↩
  6. Edward James, ‘The Militarisation of Roman Society, 400 – 700.’ De Re Militari Published 22 May 2014. Last Accessed 14 August 2020. deremilitari.org/2014/05/the–militarisation–of–roman–society–400–700/.  ↩
  7. Steuer (1987), pp. 191–193.  ↩
  8. ‘Casque d’apparat: Époque mérovingienne (fin du 6e siècle – début 7e siècle après J.–C.),’ Musées de Strasbourg Last Accessed 06 September 2020. www.musees.strasbourg.eu/oeuvre–musees–strasbourg/–/entity/id/614088?eustrasbourgportletentitydetailEntityDetailPortletreturnURL=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.musees.strasbourg.eu%2Frecherche%3Fppid%3DeustrasbourgportletsearchassetSearchAssetPortlet%26pplifecycle%3D0%26ppstate%3Dnormal%26ppmode%3Dview%26eustrasbourgportletsearchassetSearchAssetPortletkeywords%3Dbaldenheim%26pplifecycle%3D1%26eustrasbourgportletsearchassetSearchAssetPortletorderByCol%3Dscore%26eustrasbourgportletsearchassetSearchAssetPortlet_orderByType%3Ddesc  ↩
  9. Steuer (1987), pp. 199–202.  ↩
  10. Ing–Marie Back Danielsson, ‘Sense and Sensibility: Masking Practices in Late Iron Age Boat–Graves,’ in: Making Sense of Things: Archaeologies of Sensory Perception, edited by Fredrik Fahlander and Anna Kjellström (Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2010), pp. 125 [pp. 121–140].
    Helle Vandkilde, ‘Bronze Age Voyaging and Cosmologies in the Making: The helmets from Viksø Revisited.’ in: Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kristian Kristiansen edited by Sophie Bergerbrant and Serena Sabatini (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013), pp. 167 [pp. 165–177].  ↩
  11. Johan Nicolay, Gert van Oortmerssen, Bertil van Os & Gary Nobles, ‘Een Vendelhelm uit Hallum? Verslag van een Archaeologische Zoektocht,’ in: Paleo–Aktueel, Volume 28 (Groningen: University of Groningen / Groningen Institute of Archaeology & Barkhuis Publishing, 2017), pp. 67, [pp. 59–68]. [Dutch Language with short English summary at the end].
    Johan Nicolay and Sebastiaan Pelsmaeker, ‘De Vendelhelm uit Hallum: Een Experimentele Reconstructie?’ in: Paleo–Aktueel, Volume 29 (Groningen: University of Groningen / Groningen Institute of Archaeology & Barkhuis Publishing, 2018), pp. 61–62 [pp. 61–70]. [Dutch Language with short English summary at the end]  ↩
  12. Johan Nicolay, ‘De Vendelhelm uit Hallum: Wat doet deze Helm in Friesland?’ in: Paleo–Aktueel, Volume 30 (Groningen: University of Groningen / Groningen Institute of Archaeology & Barkhuis Publishing, 2019), pp. 60 [pp. 55–64]. [Dutch Language with short English summary at the end].  ↩
  13. Roberta Frank, ‘The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet,’ in: International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber edited by Michael Dallapiazza, Olaf Hansen, Preben Meulengracht–Sørensen, and Yvonne S. Bonnetain (Trieste: Edizioni Parnaso, 2000), pp. 206–207 [pp. 199–208].
    Sacha O‘Connor, ’Why do Horned Helmets still Matter?’ in: Digging into the Dark Ages Early Medieval Public Archaeologies edited by Howard Williams and Pauline Clarke (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020), pp. 53–58.  ↩
  14. Helle Vandkilde (2013), pp. 165, 167.  ↩
  15. ‘Gevninge – Gateway to Lejre,’ Vikingeskibs Museet Last Accessed 06 September 2020. www.vikingeskibsmuseet.dk/en/professions/education/viking–knowledge/the–viking–age–geography/runesten–og–billedsten/spor–efter–vikingerne/gevninge  ↩
  16. Tomáš Vlasatý, ‘The helmet from Gjermundbu.’ Projektu Forlǫg Last Accessed 6 September 2020. sagy.vikingove.cz/the–helmet–from–gjermundbu/  ↩
  17. Tomáš Vlasatý, ‘The helmet from Lokrume, Gotland.’ Projektu Forlǫg Last Accessed 6 September 2020. sagy.vikingove.cz/the–helmet–from–lokrume–gotland/  ↩
  18. ‘Helmets Found in Western Europe,’ Viking Age Compendium Last Accessed 6 September 2020. www.vikingage.org/wiki/wiki/HelmetsfoundinWesternEurope  ↩
  19. ‘The Significance of the Finds,’ Uppåkra Arkeologiska Center Last Accessed 06 September 2020. www.uppakra.se/archeological–findings/.  ↩
  20. Tweddle (2015).  ↩
  21. ‘Revisiting the Yarm Helmet,’ The Viking Age Archive Published 16 August 2020. Last Accessed 06 September 2020. www.thevikingarchive.com/revisiting–yarm–helmet/  ↩
  22. Tomáš Vlasatý, ‘Scandinavian Helmets of the 10th Century.’ Projektu Forlǫg Last Accessed 6 September 2020. sagy.vikingove.cz/scandinavian–helmets–of–the–10th–century/  ↩
  23. ‘Nasal Helmet,’ Wikipedia Last Updated 21 September 2019. Last Accessed 06 September 2020. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasal_helmet.  ↩
  24. Paul Mortimer, ‘What Colour a God’s Eyes?‘ Conference Paper at Historiska seminariet i Malmö 2018, pp. 3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340018038WhatColouraGod’s_Eyes  ↩

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.