Scandinavian helmets of the 10th century

In this article, we will have a short look at evidences of helmets used in Scandinavia during the 10th century. Pictures of modern replicas are added as well.

Spectacle helmets:

Nasal helmets:

Unknown types:

Russian helmets in Scandinavia:

Conclusion

Bibliography


Spectacle helmets

Gnëzdovo

Object, context A head on the sacrificial (or weaving?) knife from Gnëzdovo, Russia, mound number 74. 2nd half of the 10th century.
Description The head is rather schematic. Fechner writes, that the head is covered with a helmet that has typical hemisphere shape with spectacle mask. No visible spike on the top, no visible decoration. Sizov´s picture shows rather a head with beard.
Literature Fechner 1965; Sizov 1902: 91, Fig. 59, 60.

 

Gjermundbu

Object, context The only complete Viking Age helmet found in Gjermundbu mound 1, Norway. 2nd half of the 10th century.
Description The dome is made from 4 pieces connected with 4 quadrant ribs of semicircular section. There is a spike on the top and a plate connected to the rim of the dome. The mask is from one piece, is decorated with silvar inlay and is riveted to the plate. There are some traces of the rings on the plate, indicating that a kind of neck guard was used.
Literature Grieg 1947; Tweddle 1992: 1125-1128; Vlasatý 2016

 

Tjele

 

Object, context A mask fragment found among the forging equipment in Tjele, Denmark 2nd half of the 10th century.
Description Iron mask decorated with bronze plates. The nasal is broken. It is possible there were some rivets on the nasal, indicating the mask was made from several pieces.
Literature Kirpichnikov 1973Tweddle 1992. 1126, 1128; Vlasatý 2015b.

 

Kyiv

Object, context A mask from a helmet found in Desjatinna Church in Kyiv, Ukraine. 2nd half of the 10th century.
Description Iron mask decorated with silver and gold coating and silver inlay. The nasal is broken. It is sure there were some rivets on the nasal, indicating the mask was made from several pieces. Some people suggest reversed position of the mask.
Literature Kirpichnikov 1973Tweddle 1992. 1126, 1129.

 

Nasal helmets

Middleton

Object, context A Scandinavian (Anglo-Scandinavian?) warrior depicted on the Middleton Cross B, England. 10th century.
Description The head is rather schematic. The helmet has conical shape with integral nasal. No visible decoration.
Literature Graham-Campbell 1980: cat. no. 537.

 

Prague

Object, context The so-called helmet of Saint Wenceslaus. The nasal and the rim are probably of Gotlandic origin, 2nd half of the 10th century, the dome is later addition (but the original dome might be similar).
Description Both nasal and rim are decorated with silver inlay and coating. The decoration of the rim resembles the piece from Lokrume. The figure on the nasal is important example of mixing pagan religion with Christianity.
Literature Hejdová 1964.

 

Unknown types

Lokrume

Object, context A mask fragment from a helmet found in Lokrume, Gotland. 2nd half of the 10th century.
Description Iron fragment richly decorated with silver and copper inlay/overlay. The nasal is broken. It is impossible to claim whether the fragment belonged to spectacle or nasal helmets.
Literature Lindqvist 1925; Vlasatý 2015c.

 

Birka

Object, context A fragment of what could be an aventail holder. Found in the hall in Birka, 950 – 970 AD.
Description Gilded iron plate with teeth on one side. A hole for the rivet is visible. This fragment could be used as an aventail holder that can be seen on some early medieval helmets.
Literature Vlasatý 2015a.

 

Russian helmets in Scandinavia

Birka

Object, context Fragments of what could be a Russian helmet. Found in the hall of Birka. 950-970 AD.
Description Two gilded fragments decorated with birds and a flower and one tinned bronze conus. Rests of silvers and iron rivets are still present. It is impossible to claim whether these fragments belonged to one or two helmets.
Literature Holmquist Olausson – Petrovski 2007; Vlasatý 2014.

 

Conclusion

The number of the evidence is sufficient to claim there were 3 types of helmets in Scandinavia during the 10th century. Spectacle helmet was the most dominant and traditional type, nasal helmets probably represent a new Continental fashion and Russian helmets (like spectacle helmets in Gnëzdovo and Kyiv) form the evidence of close relations between Eastern Europe and Eastern Scandinavia. Spectacle helmets were used until 1000 AD, conical helmets with nasals became widespread in the 11th century (Munksgaard 1984: 88).

It has to be stressed that all examples are richly decorated – we can not find any proof of undecorated examples. Undecorated helmets used in 10th century reenactment are rather a reeenactism. Even the nasal of the Saint Wenceslaus helmet is decorated, even though there is no other proof of decorated conical helmet with a nasal. The tradition of helmet decoration has to be seen as important; it is obvious that decorated masks had been used to terrify oponents and to show exceptional status.

We can not see any cheek guards or chainmail aventails on masks – these devices were used on finds from different centuries and were not used in the 10th century.

Old Norse literature, mainly skaldic poetry, can bring some interesting facts as well. For example, Norwegian king Hákon the Good († 961 AD) was buried with his “gilded” helmet and another pieces of gear and his skald Eyvindr praises his arrival to Valhǫll, where he refuses to hand off his equipment.

Many authors claimed there is almost no evidence because of the weight of helmets. However, the true reason of this is that helmets were very expensive and were worn only by nobles and their retinues.

In case of deeper interest, I reccomend my further work, Grafnir hjálmar : A Comment on the Viking Age Helmets, Their Developement and Usage (in Czech).

Bibliography

FECHNER, Maria V. (1965). О ≪скрамасаксе≫ из Гнёздова // Новое в советской археологии, Москва, 260–262.

GRAHAM-CAMPBELL, James (1980). Viking Artefacts: A Select Catalogue, London.

GRIEG, Sigurd (1947). Gjermundbufunnet : en høvdingegrav fra 900-årene fra Ringerike, Oslo.

HEJDOVÁ, Dagmar (1964). Přilba zvaná „svatováclavská“. Sborník Národního muzea v Praze, A 18, č. 1–2, Praha.

HOLMQUIST OLAUSSON, Lena – PETROVSKI, Slavica (2007). Curious birds – two helmet (?) mounts with a christian motif from Birka’s Garrison. In: FRANSSON, Ulf (ed). Cultural interaction between east and west, Stockholm, 231–238.

KALMRING, Sven (2014). A conical bronze boss and Hedeby´s Eastern connection. In: Fornvännen 109, 1–11, Stockholm. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/6845231/A_conical_bronze_boss_and_Hedebys_Eastern_connection

KIRPIČNIKOV, Anatolij N. (1971). Древнерусское оружие: Вып. 3. Доспех, комплекс боевых средств, IX–XIII вв.// АН СССР, Москва.

LINDQVIST, Sune (1925). Vendelhjälmarnas ursprung. In: Fornvännen 20, Stockholm, 181–207. Available at: http://samla.raa.se/xmlui/bitstream/handle/raa/796/1925_181.pdf?sequence=1

MUNKSGAARD, Elisabeth (1984). A Viking Age smith, his tools and his stock-in-trade. In: Offa 41, Neumünster, 85–89.

SIZOV, Vladimír I. (1902). Курганы Смоленской губернии I. Гнездовский могильник близ Смоленска. Материалы по археологии России 28, Санкт-Петербург.

TWEDDLE, Dominic (1992). The Anglian Helmet from 16-22 Coppergate, The Archaeology of York. The Small Finds AY 17/8, York.

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2014). Fragmenty přilby z Birky. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2016-01-03]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/fragmenty-prilby-z-birky/

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2015a). Další fragment přilby z Birky. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2016-01-03]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/dalsi-fragment-prilby-z-birky/

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2015b). The helmet from Tjele. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2016-01-03]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/the-helmet-from-tjele/

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2015c). The helmet from Lokrume. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [quoted 2016-11-21]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/the-helmet-from-lokrume-gotland/

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2016). The helmet from Gjermundbu. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [quoted 2016-11-21]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/the-helmet-from-gjermundbu/

11 Comments

  1. the article says decoration was used to terrorize, what evidence is there for that? Decoration of helmet was to show rank/wealth among the men. the same with the golden axes and other gear that was plated and decorated.

    • Hello John!

      In my article “Grafnir hjálmar” (http://sagy.vikingove.cz/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Vlasat%C3%BD-2015-Grafnir-hj%C3%A1lmar.pdf), I have suggested a connection between some decoration (eyelashes: Gjermundbu, Lokrume, Tjele; furious Christ: St Wenceslas helmet) and skaldic stanzas containing “Ægishjálmr” formula. Stanzas and some other literary sources show it was desirable to rulers to behave like sovereigns with no equals. This was achieved by a grim look (indicating the mind of the person). We do not see this symbolism behind masks; helmets are not parts of our living reality, what we see is just a helmet, but we cannot imagine what it meant if a king looked at his enemy with his royal helmet. I highly reccomend to read Egils saga – the part when Egill meets king Eiríkr one more time in England – and Egill´s Arinbjarnarkviða (mainly stanzad 4-5).

      I hope I made it clear, a little bit.

      Best regards,
      Tomáš

  2. Thanks for the info. Is there anyone who can cast me a copy of the tjele spectacle? I love the reconstruction you did and would like to make my own interpretation.

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