The helmet from Gjermundbu

On March 30 1943, Universitetets Oldsaksamling in Oslo gained the information that a farmer named Lars Gjermundbo found and dug into a huge mound on his land near the farm of Gjermundbu, Buskerud county, southern Norway. The place was examined by archaeologists (Marstrander and Blindheim) the next month and the result was really fascinating.

gjerm1

The plan of the mound. Taken from Grieg 1947: Pl. I.

The mound was 25 meters long, 8 meters broad in the widest place and 1.8 meters high in the middle part. The most of the mound was formed by stony soil; however, the interior of the middle part was paved with large stones. Some stones were found even on the surface of the mound. In the middle part, about one meter below the surface and under the stone layer, the first grave was discovered, so called Grav I. 8 meters from Grav I, in the western part of the mound, the second grave was found, Grav II. Both graves represent cremation burials from the 2nd half of the 10th century and are catalogized under the mark C27317. Both graves were documented by Sigurd Grieg in Gjermundbufunnet : en høvdingegrav fra 900-årene fra Ringerike in 1947.

Grav I consists of dozens of objects connected to personal ownership and various activities, including fighting, archery, horse riding, playing games and cooking. Among others, the most interesting are unique objects, like the chain-mail and the helmet, which became very famous and are mentioned or depicted in every relevant publication.

Předpokládaná rekonstrukce bojovníka uloženého v Gjermundbu, 10. století. Podle

Possible reconstruction of the gear that was found in Grav I, Gjermundbu. Taken from Hjardar – Vike 2011: 155. The shape of the aventail is the weak point of the reconstruction.

© 2016 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO

The helmet is often described as being complete and being the only known Viking Age helmet we know. Unfortunately, it is not true, for at least two reasons. Firstly, the helmet is not by any means complete – it shows heavy damage and consists of only 17 fragments in the current state, which means one-fourth or one-third of the helmet. To be honest, fragments of the helmet are glued onto a plaster matrix (some of them in the wrong position) that has the rough form of the original helmet. Careless members of academia present this version as a reconstruction in the museum and in books, and this trend is then copied by reenactors and the general public. I have to agree with Elisabeth Munksgaard (Munksgaard 1984: 87), who wrote: “The Gjermundbu helmet is neither well preserved nor restored.

The current state of the helmet. Picture taken by Vegard Vike.

Secondly, there are at least 5 other published fragments of helmets spread across Scandinavia and areas with strong Scandinavian influence (see the article Scandinavian helmets of the 10th century). I am aware of several unpublished depictions and finds, whose reliability can not be proven. Especially, helmet fragments found in Tjele, Denmark, are very close to Gjermundbu helmet, since they consist of a mask and eight narrow metal bands 1 cm wide (see the article The helmet from Tjele). Based on the Gjermundbu helmet, Tjele helmet fragments and Kyiv mask (the shape of the original form of Lokrume fragment is unknown), we can clearly say that spectacle helmet type with decorated mask evolved from Vendel Period helmets and was the most dominant type of Scandinavian helmet until 1000 AD, when conical helmets with nasals became popular.

gjermbu8

An old reconstruction of the helmet, made by Erling Færgestad. Taken from Grieg 1947: Pl. VI.

To be fair, the helmet from Gjermundbu is the only spectacle type helmet of the Viking Age, whose construction is completely known. Let’s have a look at it!

gjermundbu

The scheme of the helmet. Made by Tomáš Vlasatý and Tomáš Cajthaml.

My mate Tomáš Cajthaml made a very nice scheme of the helmet, according to my instructions. The scheme is based on Grieg´s illustration, photos saved in the Unimus catalogue and observations made by researcher Vegard Vike.

The dome of the helmet is formed by four triangular-shaped plates (dark blue). Under the gap between each two plates, there is a narrow flat band, which is riveted to a somewhat curved band located above the gap between each two plates (yellow). In the nape-forehead direction, the flat band is formed by a single piece, that is extended in the middle (on the top of the helmet) and forms the base for the spike (light bluethe method of attaching the spike is not known to me). There are two flat bands in the lateral direction (green). Triangular-shaped plates are riveted to each corner of the extended part of the nape-forehead band. A broad band, with visible profiled line, is riveted to the rim of the dome (red; it is not known how the ends of this piece of metal connected to each other). Two rings were connected to the very rim of the broad band, probably remnants of the aventail. In the front, the decorated mask is riveted onto the broad band.

© 2016 Kulturhistorisk museum, UiO

Since all known dimensions are shown in the scheme, let me add some supplementary facts. Firstly, four somewhat curved bands are shown a bit differently in the scheme – they are more curved in the middle part and tapering near ends. Secondly, the spike is a very important feature and rather a matter of aesthetic than practical usage. Regarding the aventail, 5 rings were found around the brim, having the spacing of 2,4-2,7 cm. On contrary to chain-mail, rings from the helmet are very thick and probably butted, since no trace of rivets were found. It can not be said whether they represent the aventail, and if so, what it looked like and whether the aventail was hanging on rings or on a wire that was drawn through the rings (see my article about hanging devices of early medieval aventails). The maximum number of rings used around the brim is 17. Talking about the mask, X-ray showed at least 40 lines, which form eyelashes, similarly to Lokrume helmet mask (see the article The helmet from Lokrume). The lines are too shallow for inlayed wires. Instead, lead-tin alloy was applied and melted during the cremation. The mask shows a two-part construction, overlaped and forge-welded at each temple and in the nose area (according to the X-ray picture taken by Vegard Vike). There is a significant difference between the thickness of plates and bands and the mask; even the mask shows uneven thickness. Initially, the surface of the helmet could be polished, according to Vegard Vike.

I believe these notes will help to the new generation of more accurate reenactors. Not counting rings, the helmet could be formed from 14 pieces and at least 33 rivets. Such a construction is a bit surprising and seems not so solid. In my opinion, this fact will lead to the discussion of reenactors whether the helmet represents a war helmet or rather a ceremonial / symbolical helmet. I personally think there is no need to see those two functions as separated.

I am very indebted to my friends Vegard Vike, who answered all my annoying question, young artist and reenactor Tomáš Cajthaml and Samuel Collin-Latour. I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


Bibliography

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

HJARDAR, Kim – VIKE, Vegard (2011). Vikinger i krig, Oslo.

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

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; Vlasaty 2018a.

 

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; Vlasaty 2018b.

 

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. The important note is that helmets were purposely destroyed, so we find mostly their masks.

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


I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.


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/

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2018a). Přilba z Kyjeva. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [quoted 2018-11-24]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/prilba-z-kyjeva/

VLASATÝ, Tomáš (2018b). K původu „svatováclavské přilby“. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [quoted 2018-11-24]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/k-puvodu-svatovaclavske-prilby/