It is in our nature to recognise and emotionally respond to faces, and it is hard to stare into the eyes of the Sutton Hoo helmet and not feel as though you have, in some sense, met a person, rather than simply viewed an archaeological artefact. No surprise then, that over and above all the other treasures in that unprecedented burial panoply (including some with considerably higher bullion value) it is the helmet from Sutton Hoo that
has become emblematic of the assemblage, and the most enduring symbol both of Anglo-Saxon material culture, and even of British history itself.
The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spanned six centuries, and although it is unfairly reductive to characterise it purely as a time of war, it is undoubtedly true that regular clashes between well-equipped armies peppered the period and dictated the convoluted path taken from locally identifying post-Roman communities to a coherent united England. The scale of Anglo-Saxon armies continues to be debated, and it is not entirely clear how well equipped they were, but archaeological discoveries in recent decades have provided abundant examples of war-gear – especially weapons – to inform our image of Anglo-Saxon warriors. Such gear is most abundant from the early period (5-7th centuries) thanks to grave goods from the ultimately doomed furnished-burial rite, but even from these centuries, that most evocative item of war-gear, the helmet, is exquisitely rare. We just don’t have many examples. There’s a bigger problem though; we don’t even know how many examples we have. Almost all running totals are wrong.
(Originally published in May 2020)
How many Helmets?
Here’s the official corpus up to 2009, in order of their excavation (but not identification); for reasons which will be discussed further down, after 2009 things become a bit of a mess.
Monyash, Derbyshire. 1848.
Discovered during excavation of a “tumulus” in the “bleak” situation of Benty Grange Farm on the ancient road between Ashbourne and Buxton, by 19th century antiquarian Thomas Bateman, the Benty Grange helmet was the greatest of a small number of extant (if highly degraded) grave-goods from what had been a high status, lone mid 7th century burial. The broad but low burial mound also yielded remains of a silver-bound cup, a mass of iron chainwork with hay-fork-like hanging attachment (most likely analogous to the elaborate hook-piece of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 cauldron-chain), and some small fragments of what had once been an Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl, of the type common in 7th century “chieftain” burials. Although excavated before the advent of modern archaeology, we know far more than other Anglo-Saxon burials excavated in the 19th century thanks to the methodical and meticulous approach employed by Bateman and his colleagues – which included David Llewelyn Jewitt, tasked with producing highly detailed watercolours of all the finds as they appeared when they came out of the ground. The assemblage of finds is highly suggestive of a high status, perhaps even “royal” burial, but this sits uncomfortably with its remote position and conspicuous lack of weapons – the context may have been robbed in antiquity.
The helmet itself comprised of a framework of thin iron strips riveted together, surmounted by a boar-figure which further analysis showed was built of copper-alloy beneath shaped iron shells, with gilded silver spots, and fierce lentoid cabochon garnet eyes set within gold filigree. Preserved texture on the iron was quickly identified as having come from horn plates, long rotted away, which would have spanned the framework to produce a complete dome, with the gaps between them, running along the iron frame, covered by additional horn strips in a complimentary arrangement held on by centrally-placed domed rivets with decorative double-axe-headed rivet caps. Additional silver elements included a cross on the nasal surrounded by a carefully planned arrangement of studs, and a further array of flakes of silver foil (not extant or collected, but mentioned in Bateman’s diary) providing the tantalising possibility that the helmet was further augmented with pressblech foils (as shown on our reproduction).
- The Sutton Hoo Helmet
Discovered during the now legendary excavation of the intact royal ship burial, Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, by Basil Brown and others, in 1939, the Sutton Hoo helmet is now the most familiar and enduring symbol of Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Though now so familiar, in fact, the helmet was discovered smashed into many pieces, and the importance of these fragments was not immediately realised. Reconstruction of the helmet from the jigsaw-puzzle of iron and bronze were attempted by Herbert Maryon from 1945-46, with the results put on display and widely praised, except among Swedish scholars familiar with the related helms of the Vendel-culture. Additional fragments were uncovered during re-excavations in 1967, which ultimately allowed for reconstruction of the now familiar design by Nigel Williams in 1971. A reproduction of the helmet in its full glory was quickly attempted by the Royal Armouries, and the
helmet became an international sensation, although contrary to widespread understanding, some unresolved design problems still remain.
A full discussion of the design of the Sutton Hoo helmet could form an entire article, or even a book in and of itself, but very briefly, the helmet we now know was approximately 2.5kg, made of iron covered with decorative pressblech foils of tinned bronze, producing a mostly silvery appearance. The face-plate bore a hollow gilded bronze nose, mouth, moustache, and boar-head tipped eyebrows augmented with garnet cloisonné arranged with a toothed beast-head between so that together they form a winged beast, kissing another which terminates the silver-wire inlaid crest. The helm is a unique variant of the “northern ridge helm” design most abundantly represented by similarly constructed and decorated helmets from high status eastern Swedish graves of the 6-8th centuries (Vendel Culture) and most of the other Anglo-Saxon examples, though its bowl, formed of two halves, is lower and more close-fitting than either Pioneer/Wollaston or Coppergate. Though often overstated, the cheek-guards and particularly the neck-guard, rather more than those of the Vendel culture, can be seen to be clearly derivative of late Roman designs. It is widely accepted that the helm was well designed and highly functional. Its decoration is without any overtly Christian motifs, and comprised entirely of designs consistent with late 6th to early 7th century Anglian art and (as far as we understand) Anglian mythology.
- The Coppergate Helmet
The best preserved of the five, the Coppergate Helm was discovered during excavations in preparation for the building of the Coppergate Shopping Centre in York, when a mechanical digger hit a hard object which turned out to be the helmet, causing some damage. It was in a wood-lined pit approx. 1.4m long, together with a seemingly random collection of other objects including a weaving-sword, churn dasher, and various other small pieces of various materials. From the context it seemed this highly valuable object had been hidden, in a place otherwise used to throw rubbish, with the intention of being retrieved later.
The helmet is of well-worked iron embellished with cast brass decoration, including wonderful interlace on the long outward-jutting nasal, eyebrows terminating in boar heads (more atrophied than
The helmet was unquestionably a princely possession manufactured in 8th century Northumbria. The history of Northumbria in the 8th-9th centuries was extremely turbulent, and it is tempting, if fanciful, to imagine this helmet (an heirloom and badge of Northumbrian royal status) being squirreled away, out of sight, around the time of the Viking capture of York in 866.
- The Wollaston / Pioneer Helmet
This helmet was discovered in March 1997 during excavations on ground adjacent to the Nene flood plain and 250m from a small group of Bronze Age barrows, where quarrying (by Pioneer Aggregates) was due to begin. What was discovered was a single burial of a young male, beneath what was probably a burial-mound long since ploughed away. The burial contained a limited set of skeletal remains, the helmet, three iron buckles, a small knife, two copper alloy clothing hooks, a bronze hanging-bowl (with inlaid millefiori escutcheon), a mysterious assortment of short iron rods and tubes, and a patternwedled sword blade with no extant hilt fittings. The sword was pattern-welded, with an interrupted twist design similar to that of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 sword. Overall the burial is comparable particularly to Benty Grange, but also to other relatively high status, late phase warrior burials.
The helmet was in fairly good condition, with a mostly intact bowl, single extant cheekpiece with iron hinge, deliberately inwardly bent but reinforced nasal, and in contrast to all other examples then known, no signs of any precious-metal fittings or embellishments. Unfortunately the back of the helm was largely disintegrated, and so little can be said with certainty about its neck-guard. Its structural construction is closely homologous to that of the Coppergate helm from approx. a century later, and it also shares a nose-to-nape and ear-to-ear crossing ridge, though this time formed convex and of iron, integrating a small and simple boar-crest like a diminutive and less costly version of the Benty Grange boar. The more utilitarian design of the Wollaston helm inevitably invites speculation that it may be representative of a more common type of helmet worn by professional Anglian warriors, as implied by the relatively uniform depictions of nasal-helms on the Pictish Aberlemno II stone. For more on the Wollaston Helm see http://thethegns.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-wollaston-pioneer-helm_1.html
Metal-detectorists in May 2004 discovered a plough-damaged Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Shorwell on the Isle of Wight, of which only one grave was individually identifiable. Subsequent archaeological excavation recovered from this grave, the remains of a pattern-welded sword with silver pommel and gilded bronze scabbard-mouthpiece, bronze buckle, spearhead, shield boss and grip, fluted glass vessel, hanging bowl, and around 400 fragments of what was thought to be an iron cooking vessel. These fragments, from the head area of the burial, were eventually reassembled at the
This helmet is distinctive, both in being the only example to date, of a Spangenhelm (rather than ridge-helm) found in an Anglo-Saxon context, and that it comes from a context at least a century earlier than all other helmet finds – approx. early to mid 6th century. The lack of a central reinforcing ridge (justifying its classification) is obvious, though the use of a single broad nose-to-nape band (rather than multiple bands all joining at the apex) produces a less conical dome and hints at some continuity with the Wollaston and Coppergate helms. The helm lacks any decoration, and apart from some holes near the ear – probably for the attachment of a leather chin-strap, it features no extant cheek, face, or neck protection. However, the Benty Grange helmet should caution of us of the danger of not seeing beyond the metalwork, and it is possible that the badly preserved remains represent only the underlying structural ironwork of a partially organic helmet. For more on Shorwell see. http://thethegns.blogspot.com/2012/12/finally-english-spangenhelm-shorwell.html#more
What’s Wrong with the Staffordshire Helmet?
The media and public were impressed, and both helmets have served as excellent marketing tools for their respective museums, in the way that only shiny helmets can. The rationale behind the reproduction-cum-reconstruction (copying then putting together Hoard bits is both and neither, so for our part we sometimes resort to the made-up term “reassemblage”) was laid out in heroic detail in the magnum opus “The Staffordshire Hoard; an Anglo Saxon Treasure” (Fern et al. 2019) which is still being digested, but among those well-versed in Anglo-Saxon and associated-culture helmet archaeology and reproduction, already sceptical of the identification of some key elements of the Hoard as helmet parts, the reception for the helmets was muted. The strongly magpie-ish tendency, competitiveness, substantial resources and privileged access to world-leading historic craftsmanship, of some members of this community, should have surely meant a feeding-frenzy to be the first to have a golden Hoard helmet when the news hit in 2009, or when further pieces emerged in 2012, or when the cleaning and conservation was completed and the Hoard was revealed in full in 2014, but nobody went for it – perhaps nobody could make it work, and so, quite unexpectedly it was left to the Hoard team themselves to grasp this gilded nettle first.
We are certainly not the first to observe that these diminutive and weakly attached, precious-metal face-flaps would be more likely to cause injury than prevent it. Compare this to the ergonomic elegance of the Sutton Hoo helmet which is now believed to have been a product of the same royal East Anglian workshop; is it plausible that such armourers would compromise the function of a helm in this way, simply for added visual flair?
If this criticism sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, we should remember the infamous first attempt at re-assembly of the Sutton Hoo helmet, and compare it to the splendid item we know today. This first attempt – and likely all future attempts – can only ever be approximations, which through iterative integration of new insights from analysis, re-evaluation, and experimentation, hopefully nudge ever closer towards the true original helmet’s form.
Reconstructions are dangerous things; they can communicate a false degree of certainty; decisions must be made once and for all – one must literally rivet one’s colours to the mast, while the error bars, other possibilities and interpretations fall away. I will never forget a conversation with a lady at a public event in Tamworth in 2012 who, enthusing about the glittering Anglo-Saxon helmet that had been found there and was on display, was considerably disappointed to be told that it (the “Tamworth Castle Helm”) was a beautifully crafted but speculative reconstruction designed to show how the Staffordshire Hoard helmet foils worked. We are not in the same position, of having our reproductions behind museum glass and being mistaken for being “real” but can always be more mindful of articulating uncertainties. Navigating uncertainty is the hardest part of the job; it’s a joy to reproduce a specific and well-preserved find in its entirety, but to reconstruct the Hoard is to "play Anglo-Saxon on hard-mode", and within the Hoard, the ultimate challenge is the helmet. Drakon Heritage and associates deserve credit for even trying. In future years, undoubtably, others will attempt speculative reconstructions of elements of the Hoard helmet, approaching the challenge from the opposite direction by working readily understood fragments into existing designs, and unconstrained by the need to make use of, and explain, every fragment.
The enormous challenge of reconstructing the Staffordshire Hoard helmet stems from one key fact, however, which is also the reason that arguably disqualifies it from consideration in our list of Anglo-Saxon helmets; there is actually no helmet present, to study.
There is no Staffordshire Helmet
The lack of structural (as opposed to decorative) elements disqualifies the Staffordshire Hoard helmet as a helmet find, however, not purely as a matter of semantics, or because of the terrible implications this has for interpretation, but rather, because of the precedent which its inclusion would set.
Another is the delightful gilded silver boar-head discovered by a metal-detectorist in Horncastle, Lincs, in 2002, which had been attached by means of three small rivets to a larger object. The proportions of this terminal are comparable to the crest-terminals of the Sutton Hoo and Vendel-Culture crests (far moreso than the diminutive “horse” heads of the Hoard) and the beaded filigree-bordered garnet cabochon eyes bear immediate comparison with the Benty Grange boar. In an entertaining and not unprecedented self-referential homage to the larger object, the boar himself wears a helmet with eyebrows and crest, infilled with crouching quadrupeds. A similar, though plainer cast copper-alloy boar-head of similar proportions is displayed at West Stow, and features the same self-referential helmet-crest and eyebrows.
Although pressblech foils can belong to other items (being used extensively in princely burials to decorate drinking horns and other vessels) the processing warrior, spear-dancer and (to a lesser extent) horse-warrior designs within near-square rectangular fields are peculiar to helmets, and thus, applying the same rule, any flake of such a foil (or perhaps even its patrix?) should also be regarded as a helmet find. A good example - a patrix recently added to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, from Whittington near Lichfield, with zoomorphic interlace resembling foils from the Sutton Hoo helm, and with the same frieze-width as the helmet foils from the Staffordshire Hoard, is very likely to have been involved in the manufacture of a helmet. When one takes into account the possibility that the fragments in the Staffordshire Hoard itself might represent more than one helmet, our count of Anglo-Saxon helmets becomes nonsense.
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