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Evaluation of potential helmets from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

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As part of the preparation of the Catalog of European helmets of 9th-12th century, in 2022 we approached the employees of the State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) from Schwerin, who documented the finds from the Schwerinsburg and Schulzenwerder near Babke to our request. These objects are interpreted in the literature as fragments of helmets. Our publication brings previously unpublished details, the reading of which prevents traditional interpretation. Each of the artifacts will be described separately. All creations are created with the consent of the said museum and its staff.


The find from the stronghold of Schwerinsburg

The exact circumstances of the find are unknown. The find was taken over by the museum in Anklam in 1964, today it is stored in the State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) in Schwerin under inventory number IV/65/82. The origin from the area of site 1 (Fundplatz 1) of the Slavic stronghold of Schwerinsburg can be considered certain.

Location of Schwerinsburg on the map of Europe.

This site has been subjected to a series of new investigations in the last twenty years, which have yielded 1,100 metal finds, including 29 coins, 19 weights, 5 scales, 2 spurs, 27 pieces of jewellery, 7 arrows, 1 spear, 92 knives, 28 tools and 135 pieces of copper alloy sheet metal (Ruchhöft – Schirren 2013: 218). The coins were minted in the 6th-12th century period. One of the finds is a gilded Carolingian sword scabbard mount from the turn of the 8th and 9th century (see Robak 2018: 70, 95). More than 1,700 ceramic sherds from vessels of the Felberg, Teterow, Vipperow, Menkendorf, Gars and Bobzin types are known from the area of the fort, which can be dated to the period of the 8th – end of the 12th century. The remains of bone paneling from a chest, found in the mid-1990s, are also dated to the Early Middle Ages (Schoknecht 1996). Ruchhöft assumes intensive use of the stronghold from the beginning of the 9th century until around 1200 (Ruchhöft – Schirren 2013: 217).

Stronghold Schwerinsburg, site 1 and distribution of finds from 2008-2011.
Source: Ruchhöft – Schirren 2013: Abb. 6-7.

The find was first reflected by Herrmann (1968: 99), who states in a footnote:

Among the surface finds from the Young Slavic Period stronhgold of Schwerinsburg in the Anklam district were the remains of an iron segmented helmet (Museum Waren, no inv. no. – new addition). Two segments with base widths of 9.8 and 7.3 cm are preserved, joined by welding and reinforced at the lower edge with riveted iron strips.

About the decade later, this small and easily overlooked note was followed up by Schoknecht (Schoknecht 1978: 233, Abb. 10), who limited himself to a mere mention of a “so far barely noticed fragment of a segmented helmet” from Schwerinsburg and a quality drawing. Another publication is the second volume of the Corpus of Archaeological Sources for Early History in the German Democratic Republic (Berlekamp et al. 1979: 354-5, Cat. 49/158), which processed the finds from the stronghold known up to that time, suggests their dating and finally mentions and “fragment of segmented helmet” and its inventory number. A misleading drawing of the outline of the find is included. Information and illustrations from the Corpus were subsequently taken over and popularized by Babij, who used them for the experimental production of the helmet (Babij 2011; 2022) and who subsequently used identical information in his book (Babij 2021: 103-4). Babij’s interpretation was also used by Górewicz (Górewicz 2020: 468-9). The helmet fragment was also mentioned by Biermann (2018: 348), Ruchhöft (Ruchhöft – Schirren 2013: 215) and Ulrich (2016: 39).

Previous published drawings of the find.
Source: Schoknecht 1978: Abb 10; Berlekamp et al. 1979: Cat. 49/158.

A critical point of the interpretation as a helmet is the fact that of all the authors listed, Joachim Herrmann and Ulrich Schoknecht were apparently the only authors who knew the object from close inspection. The drawing published in the Corpus appears to be a redrawing of Schoknecht’s drawing. Babij and Górewicz are based on a redrawing and disregard Schoknecht’s drawing and Herrmann’s description. Schoknecht’s drawing is not flawless either, as he suggests that the fragment represents a single triangular segment. For this reason, the helmet reconstructed by Babij has a four-part dome. By clicking on the button below, you can explore and download photos of the finds that were kindly provided to us by the staff of the State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern:

The photographs paint a somewhat different picture that favours Herrmann’s description. The fragment consists of two originally triangular segments with base lengths of 9.8 and 7.3 cm, which are attached to each other in a way that is not easily recognizable. We do not observe any rivets or significant overlapping of segments. Herrmann suggests that the segments may be welded, which may not be far from the truth. There are rivets on the edges of both segments at a height of about 4 cm above the edge. The tops of the segments are missing. After joining the segments, the sheet metal fragment is roughly 16 cm wide and about 8.5 cm high. The outer edge of the segments is reinforced in places where the segments meet with thick plates that are fixed with pairs of rivets. The plates are 4-5 cm long and about 1.5 cm high. The heads of the rivets are mushroom-shaped, the shafts are hammered flat on the inside. In both directions, the object is bent and suggests an origin from a closed object that had a larger number of segments. The overlapping method of the missing segments is very difficult to determine. Judging by the slightly protruding rivet on the right segment, it seems that this edge was covered by the adjacent segment.

Photos of the front and back of the fragment.
Author: Andreas Paasch, State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schwerin.

Let us now look at the general starting points that the find offers for interpretation. If our assumption about the closure of the original product is correct, we can conclude, given the size, that the find represents something between a quarter and a sixth of the original object. In other words, the original artefact was composed of eight to twelve segments. With a regular circular arrangement, which is unlikely for a helmet, the diameter can be estimated at about 23 cm for an eight-piece construction and about 32 cm for a twelve-piece construction. With an irregular oval arrangement, an eight-part construction with a dimension of the longer side of around 23 cm could be considered more likely. The segments taper upwards rather quickly, which means that the product was not too tall and conical. The reconstructed height is approximately 18 cm (see diagram). Joining of segments by means of riveting and welding is applied (see schematic design of welding).

A diagram showing the approximate shape and breakdown of the original object.

The current line of thinking on high-end 6th-12th century Continental helmets moves in the direction of defining two traditions – Western and Eastern. The Western tradition is represented by a strategy where the fillings are connected by external bands and ribs. The domes of the older helmets were multi-part and the number of parts of the younger helmets was reduced. In 6th-7th century, four fillings connected by outer bands and ribs are applied (see Vogt 2006), in the 9th-10th century, the number of fillings is reduced to two halves of connected bands (see Vlasatý et al. 2023), and since the end of the 10th century, one-piece domes have been demonstrably used (Bravermanová et al. 2019). The Eastern tradition, which manifests itself in Central and Eastern Europe and Asia, represents a procedure where individual parts are riveted together and bands or ribs are usually absent (see Kubik 2017). The domes of the Eastern tradition follow a similar reduction as the domes of the Western pieces: if we leave aside the lamellar helmets of the 6th-7th century, which can be made up of 64 parts tied together (Burkert 2010: 291; Paulsen 1967: 133-9), older helmets are usually made up of eight segments, which are around the turn of the 8th-9th century replaced by four-part domes and reduced to two-part domes around the turn of the 11th and 12th century (Kainov 2022). It follows that if we are to consider the find as a remnant of a multi-piece helmet from the Early Middle Ages, we must ask ourselves the question to which tradition the object should belong and whether it corresponds to its typical features.

The fact that the individual segments are riveted together and do not use ribs or bands clearly speaks in favour of helmets of the Eastern tradition. However, there are pressing problems related to overall anatomy, construction, chronology, and geography. Domes built in the Eastern tradition tend to be medium tall to tall, spheroconical in shape, around 20-30 cm high, which is not indicated by Schwerinsburg segments. The segments of the helmets are significantly wider (around 12 cm) and the overlapping parts are relatively long (around 1.5 cm), which is different from the Schwerinsburg find. We do not find segment welding in helmets of this tradition at all; the only conceivable welding appears in the younger helmets of the Western tradition with a one-piece dome and a nasal (see Rajewski 1973; Shchedrina – Kainov 2021). The short reinforcing strips to strengthen the joints are unknown in the group of helmets riveted from the segments; the only reinforcing method is a continuous rim that surrounds the edge. The classic method of overlapping segments in eight-piece helmets is that four segments serve as covering parts, four segments as overlapped parts, with the covering and overlapped parts alternating. The segments of the Schwerinsburg find deviate from this scheme. Another discrepancy is caused by the location in northern Germany, which is too far from the classic distribution of multi-segment helmets. The westernmost specimens of non-lamellar helmets with four or more segments are known from the Czech Republic (Pavlišta – Vlasatý 2022) and Poland (Papakin et al. 2017). We usually date the well-known eight-piece helmets, such as Stolbišče, Lagerevo or Kazazovo, to the 7th-8th century, which is also represented in Schwerinsburg, but is not the focal point of the use of this stronghold. Overall, the discussed find does not correspond to the classical understanding of early medieval helmets.

The question therefore arises as to whether there is a more accurate alternative theory. The most common plate product of the Early Middle Ages that reaches a circular cross-section with a diameter of around 20-30 cm and is made of more than 4 parts is a cauldron. The technological limits of the Early Middle Ages prevented production from one piece, so cauldrons were always made from multiple pieces. There was no uniform template, each cauldron is somewhat different. Typologisation is therefore difficult, and European iron cauldrons can broadly be divided into two wide groups:

  • cauldrons formed from vertically long placed strips that are riveted to each other and are riveted to a circular bottom. The resulting cauldron has a shape close to a hemisphere. This practice was particularly widespread in Norway.

  • cauldrons formed from horizontally oriented strips and plates that are riveted together. The bottom is folded over the edge of the lowest strip and riveted. The resulting cauldron has a cone shape, sometimes even a rectangular shape. It is a widespread and universal variant that can be found at least from Scandinavia (Munktell 2013: 41) to Great Moravia (Dostál 1975: 228-9, Taf. 59).

Variants of European early medieval cauldrons.

Even though the size and multi-part construction could indicate that the find originally belonged to a cauldron, it needs to be emphasized that we also do not know the welding of period cauldrons. The only other aspect that would point to a utilitarian function close to cauldrons is the use of plates to fix the edges of the segments. With cauldrons, suspension fittings are commonly used for this and are placed at the joints to make them stronger.

All in all, we evaluate the find from Schwerinsburg as the probable remains of a utility object with a circular or oval base with a diameter of around 20-30 cm. In terms of the difficulty of interpretation, the find ranks alongside the Slavic “breastplate” from Arkona (Berlekamp 1974: 239; Ruchhöft 2018: 112). Based on a comparison with all published helmets of the Early Middle Ages, we can state that the find does not show similarities with any existing piece or group. If it is a helmet part, it is an unrecognized evolution line. We cannot completely rule out that it is a remnant of a medieval or modern object of unrecognized function.


The find from Schulzenwerder Island near Babke

In November 2010 at the latest, two decorated finds, interpreted as helmet fragments, were found during archaeological research on the Schulzenwerder Island on Lake Jäthensee near Babke. Today they are stored in the State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) from Schwerin under inventory numbers ALM 2010/1500,47-8.

Location of Schulzenwerder on the map of Europe.

Schulzenwerder Island, with an area of 5 ha, has received increased interest from archaeologists in the last two decades, resulting in three academic publications (Ulrich – Sobietzky 2009; Ulrich 2016; Biermann et al. 2020). It is believed that there was a Slavic stronghold on the island, but no ramparts have survived. To date, two bridges have been found, the first of which was built after 800 and the second after 1020. The Slavic settlement was abandoned around 1070. The period 1020-1070 is considered to be the focal point of the use of the island stronghold, which is testified by a number of preserved coins, military objects, jewellery and pottery. Fragments believed to be the remains of a helmet were found at site 2 (Fundplatz 2) in the lower part of a 30 cm thick settlement layer that contained Young Slavic Period sherds, so the dating to 1020-1070 can be considered almost certain.

Stronghold Schulzenwerder, site 2 and distribution of selected finds.
Source: Ulrich 2016: 8, 40.

By clicking on the button below, you can explore and download photos of both finds that were kindly provided to us by the staff of the State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern:

The first fragment (ALM 2010/1500.48) is the torso of a larger iron object in the shape of the letter T, which is equipped with a single central rivet hole of approximately 0.5 cm in diameter. The existing length of the horizontal beam is 3 cm, and a vertical beam of 1.5 cm extends from it, so the height of the object is 2.5 cm. Before conservation, the object was about 3.5 cm long and 2.7 cm high. The arms are roughly 1 cm wide and have a semicircular cross-section with a thickness of about 0.5 cm. The back of the object is flat and undecorated, the front is covered with plating, which uses alternating silver and copper alloy wires. The decoration is placed vertically on the longer beam, horizontally on the shorter one.

Photos of the front and back of the fragment.
Author: Andreas Paasch, State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schwerin.

The second object (ALM 2010/1500,47) is a roughly 13 cm long tongue-shaped iron sheet, which is 1.8 cm wide at its widest point. The thickness is uniform and close to 0.3 cm. The front side is decorated with silver wire plating. There are two holes in the find that are filled with rivets that cover the decoration. On the back, one rivet has a copper alloy washer. The object is slightly bent.

Photos of the front and back of the fragment.
Author: Andreas Paasch, State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schwerin.

The current interpretation understands this find as the remains of a helmet close to the St. Wenceslas helmet (Ulrich 2016: 33, 39; Babij 2021: 105). The use of silver plating really indicates the origin of an elite item, among which helmets definitely belong. The rivets then indicate that it is the application of another object. In reality, however, we do not find any similarly shaped components in the St. Wenceslas helmet (see Bravermanová et al. 2019; Hejdová 1964). A much closer comparison is offered by the helmet from Trnčina, Bosnia, which is reinforced in the forehead area with a T-shaped reinforcement with a central rivet (Shchedrina – Kainov 2021). The arms of this reinforcement are similarly wide. The helmet, which is dated to the 10th century, was apparently modified in the 11th century, which is also a comparable detail.

The problem we face with both fragments is the absence of the curvature that indicates riveting to a flat object. We have attempted unsuccessfully to match the T-shaped find with a range of elite military objects and equestrian equipment, however we are of the opinion that it is too fragmentary in nature to be definitively identified. The tongue-shaped object with a length of 13 cm does not correspond in length to the helmet crests as is usually suggested; not to mention the fact that we do not know of 11th century crested helmets as mentioned in the previous chapter. This piece is visually close to a long strap-end. From the location of Schulzenwerder near Babke, we know a whole series of silver-plated parts of riding harness (a pair of stirrups, a pair of spurs, at least one side of the bit, cruciform fittings), from which we can conclude that both finds could have supplemented this set in an unknown way.

Hypothetical combination of the helmet from Trnčina and a fragment from Schulzenwerder.


Acknowledgment

We express our gratitude to the State Office for Culture and Heritage Care Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schwerin (Landesamt für Kultur und Denkmalpflege Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), who kindly answered our questions and took photographs from the required angles, namely Detlef Jantzen, Andreas Paasch and Jens Ulrich. The following researchers and craftsmen helped with consultation and advice: Paweł Babij (State Archives, Wroclaw), Roman Král (King’s Craft), Sergej Kainov (State Historical Museum, Moscow) and Jakub Zbránek (Dílna kováře Jakuba). We must also mention Diego Flores Cartes, who is the author of diagrams.

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