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Rethinking the helmet from Yarm

In the 1950s, a helmet was discovered that has been circulating extensively among experts and reenactors in the last decade – the Yarm helmet. When it was published in 2020, the article surprised with a not very elaborate comparative part, which attributed the helmet to the Viking period. In the following article, the Caple’s theory of origin in the 10th century is countered (skip to the comparative part). It must be added that the author of the article tends to believe that the helmet is not a forgery: it would be the work of a genius who would have to have knowledge of parallels before their discovery and would have to have expert typological and technological knowledge. The author of the text would like to add that the helmet may seem to be of poor quality, but the reason for this is the state of preservation.

Photographs of the helmet from Yarm, taken by Matt Bunker.


Circumstances of the find, storage and publication

The helmet was found in the 1950s during earthworks in the meander of the River Tees on Chapel Yard in the town of Yarm, North Yorkshire, Britain. The excavation did not have archaeological supervision, and therefore no finding report was made, there is only a photograph taken immediately after the discovery (Caple 2020: Fig. 15). As far as we know, this is a stray find that was found alone, without accompanying objects.

Once found, the item was handed over and displayed at the local town hall as a “Norman helmet”, where it remained until 1974. At that time, the helmet moved to the Dorman Museum in Middlesbrough, sparking academic discussion in public space and the first publications (Evening Gazette 1974a-b). The discussion between the Dorman Museum, The British Museum and Royal Armories has reached the point that the helmet has no direct European parallels. Due to the helmet from GjermundbU, which was published in 1947 (Grieg 1947), it could not be ruled out that it was an imitation of this helmet.

Speculation lasted until the beginning of the 21st century. As the helmet moved to the Preston Park Museum in Preston-on-Tees (inv. no. STCMG: 2011.0150), the museum took steps to preserve and research it. These steps were performed by Chris Caple of Durham University, which changed the academic way of look at the object. In 2020, Caple published a work called The Yarm Helmet (Caple 2020), in which he described the helmet as genuine and dating from the 10th century. Part of the work is a quality conservation analysis. Caple’s conclusions were subsequently taken over by other works (eg Chiolero 2021: 62; Lopez-Robin 2021: 88-9; Meadows 2019: 59-60; Stylegar-Børsheim 2021: 105; Toplak 2021: 17-9; Vike 2020) and a plethora of interested parties from the general public.

Drawing of the helmet from Yarm. Caple 2020: Fig. 3.


Description of construction and current state

The base of the helmet is a rectangular band of relatively uniform width, forming the future circumferential band, 68 mm wide, which has been wound into an oval shape copying the head, folded at the nape of the neck and riveted. As the nape of the helmet is not preserved, it is not possible to determine how many rivets have been used and whether it the overlap has been centered or slightly shifted from the center. The lower edge of the band, except for the face area, is bent at a right angle outside the intended center of the helmet; bending is uneven and reaches a length of 6.5-10 mm. There was an unknown number of holes on the bent strip with a spacing of approximately 2-3 cm; holes represent a system of padding attachment. Inside the oval formed this way, another rectangular band, ie the vertical band of unknown width, is riveted in the places of the ears with the help of pairs of rivets. Analogically to the circumferential band, the vertical band was punched in advance along its longer sides, where the holes are formed symmetrically, in pairs. Near the center of this band (top of the helmet), there is a mushroom-shaped iron knob, which is riveted and slightly faceted. The knob is 18 mm high and 13 mm in diameter. Two shorter bands, perpendicular to longer vertical one (ie. in the line from the forehead to the nape of the neck) are riveted, which are fastened to the circumferential band and the longer vertical band by means of pairs of rivets. All vertical bands are smooth, without reinforcements. By connecting these bands, a basic skeleton is created, the advantage of which lies in the possibility of control of the result and comparison with the size of the head of the future wearer. The circumference of the helmet was 680-695 mm.

Construction scheme of the helmet from Yarm. Caple 2020: Fig. 2.

Four triangular segments, perforated in advance, were then inserted inside the skeleton, the attachment of which creates a helmet dome. The fillings are attached to the circumferential band by means of three rivets and by two rivets to the vertival bands. The corners of the vertical bands are probably attached to the circumferential band and the fillings at the same time (thus tripling the thickness of the material). The fillings are flat, without reinforcing reinforcements. The fillings of the nape of the neck are wider than the front fillings. The fillings and vertical bands are riveted with such an overlap that the doubling of the material occurs at a width of 8-26 mm.

The dome is then fitted with a composite mask, which is placed in the face area. The mask consists of aa nasal and a pair of oculars. The nasal takes the shape of an hourglass, is provided with convex reinforcement and is riveted to the outer edge of the circumferential band with three rivets. It is equipped with small legs on the sides at the bottom edge, which serve as bases for rivets that attach the oculars. The curved oculars are fixed in two points to the nasal and to the inside of the circumferential band; they tend to widen downwards.

All parts of the helmet are made of 1-2 mm thick material, the most common thickness is 1.2-1.4 mm. The sheet is made of wrought iron with a phosphorus content. The riveting is done with large flat-head rivets. 40 rivets were needed to make the dome (not counting the unknown number of rivets that riveted the overlap on the nape of the neck). The mask could ideally be riveted with seven rivets, but the ocelars are strengthened by multiple rivets due to repairs or reinforcement at the level of the circumferential band. 35-40% of the helmet is missing, especially the left two fillings when viewed at the mask and a large part of the circumferential band in the nape. It is clear that both corrosion and the activity of an agricultural machine contributed to the destruction. The current weight of the helmet is unknown.

Diagram of rivets and holes of the helmet from Yarm. Caple 2020: Fig. 5.


Analogies and dating

Due to its dome construction, the helmet undeniably fits into the so-called Bandhelme (banded helmets), as evidenced by the overall shape, width of the bands and the number of used rivets. Variants operating with a four-segment dome and separated vertical bands are common in 6th-8th century (Miks 2009: Abb. 4), but the use of a longer band in the line from ear to ear is still an unknown variant and we know almost no parallels for it. The longer bands used in the forehead to nape line occurs in the Continent, Middle East (Vogt 2006: 283-293) and Anglo-Saxon England (Hood et al. 2012; Meadows 2019; Tweddle 1992), with a subset of helmets that have solid bands in both directions that cross at the top (Bretzenheim and Voivoda, see Vagalinski 1998; Vogt 2006: 283-6).

Construction scheme of so-called Bandhelme. Miks 2009: Abb. 4.

The reverse position of the bands can be seen in the only European banded helmet, a piece found in Bremen in northern Germany in 1924 (Grohne 1929: 73-5; Lonke 1925; 1946: 37-41; Vogt 2006: Taf. 56). In addition to the bands, the helmet is characterized by pointed rivets, which it shares with a helmet discovered in Groningen, Netherlands, in 1941 (van Griffen 1954; Kubik 2016: Fig. 16). Both of these helmets are also relevant for determining the Yarm helmet because their edge is bent outwards (but the similarities end here because the circumferential band is riveted inside the dome and the helmets lack masks). Helmets from Bremen and Groningen are perceived as the influence of late Sasanian armaments on European tradition (Kubik 2017b: 138), although it is not possible to determine whether they are helmets of Iranian origin or European copies (Kubik 2016: 100). Vogt evaluates these two helmets as unrelated to the production of banded helmets and considers them to be from High Middle Ages (Vogt 2006: 84), which is not an isolated opinion (Werner 1949: 179). Given Kubik’s new research, which dates pointed rivets in the Sasanian armament to the mid-7th to early 9th centuries (Kubik 2017a: 158), this view can be rejected, as can the idea that they were 6th century helmets (Caple 2020: 54; Hejdová 1964: 69). Based on this knowledge and iconography from present-day Jordan, helmets from Bremen and Groningen can be dated to approximately 650-800 (Kubik 2016: 99). The one of few other helmets with a slightly curved edge with with holes comes from the Bulgarian locality of Novakovo and can be dated to 5th-6th century (Biernacki 2012; Parušev 2002). As for the dome, the helmet simply cannot be dated to the horizon after 800 AD – as shows one of the latest examples, the Coppergate helmet, which dates to the 3rd quarter of the 8th century (Tweddle 1992: 1082).

Helmets from Groningen (left) and Bremen (right). Kubik 2016: Fig. 16.

The helmet from Novakovo. Parušev 2002: Обр. 2; photo taken by R. V. Sidorenko.

The mask is perceived by Caple and others as a reason for dating to the Viking period, although spectacle masks of similar shapes have appeared repeatedly since the Vendel era (Arwidsson 1942: 26-35; 1954: 22-8; 1977: 21-33; Lindqvist 1931; 1950; Nerman 1969: Taf. 66; Stolpe 1912: Pl. V, XXXVI) to the High Middle Ages (Plavinski 2003; 2013: 80-3 and numerous iconography). The multipart nature of the mask is a good indication that we are dealing with a mask from the Vendel or Viking period, as evidenced by the masks of helmets from graves 5, 6, 7, 8 from Valsgärde and masks from Tjele and Kyiv (Tweddle 1992: Figs. 546, 555, 561-2). In terms of construction and not decoration, the mask from the grave of Valsgärde 6 is the closest parallel, as it consists of a similar nasal part and two riveted oculars. The finds from Tjele and Kyiv are also similar in that they have extended bases for attaching eyepieces. The graves from Valsgärde can be dated to the period 550-720, with grave 6 falling in absolute dating between 620-720 (Kyhlberg 2013: 111).

Construction diagram of the helmet from grave 6 of Valsgärde. Arwidsson 1942: Abb. 19; Tweddle 1992: Fig. 555a.

The hourglass nasal is a common feature of early medieval helmets, but the raised nose reinforcement is unusual, and the Yarm helmet has the only analogy in this regard – a helmet from the Dutch part of the Maas River, which was discovered in 1981 at the latest (Waurick-Böhme 1992: 100, 104). The helmet is dated by various authors to 11th or 12th century (e.g. Bravermanová et al. 2019: 268, 284-5; Riemer 2020). The reinforcement must be understood as a practical feature that strengthens the susceptible part of the helmet, not as a chronologically significant element.

Helmet from the river Maas. Waurick – Böhme 1992: 104.
Photo taken by the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz.

The mushroom-shaped knob on the top of the helmet should also be marked as chronologically unimportant. It is true that Bandhelme lack this feature, however, similar can be found in a number of Spangenhelme (Vogt 2006: Abb. 16) and also in helmets from 10th-13th century (eg Asaris 2003: Fig. 5; Gessler 1929: Taf. VI; Grieg 1947: Pl. VI; Schneider 1967: Abb 13). Therefore, the knobs do not contribute to a narrower dating.

Knobs on the tops of so-called Spangenhelme. Vogt 2006: Abb. 16.

The closest analogy is a piece that was allegedly found in the Somme River near the town of Abbeville, France (Robert 1890: 167; Viollet-le-Duc 1875: 104-5) and was handed by the archaeologist Boucher de Perthes (1788 – 1868) to Musée d’artillerie in Paris, present-day Musée de l’Armée. The object still exists, but is considered a forgery (personal discussion with Nicolas Philippe Baptiste). Before republishing, we can point to a similar construction that operates with bands and fillings, a bent and perforated edge, and a separate nasal with reinforcement. In addition to these, we can find small cheekguards on the helmet, which are bent at the upper edge and attached to the bent edge of the helmet, and a strip covering the nape of the neck. The helmet has similarities to the helmets from Yarm and grave Vendel XIV, and therefore should be placed in a similar period if it is the original.

Helmet from Somma river. Viollet-le-Duc 1875: 104.

Taking all the data presented, the Yarm helmet seems to be a development of the banded helmet, or a combination of it and spectacle helmet. By analogies, it dates between the mid-6th and late 8th centuries. If we can elaborate, the 7th and 8th centuries seem more probable, due to the dating of the helmets from Bremen and Valsgärde 6. The helmet’s production area can be described as a belt from today’s Great Britain to Sweden, including the Netherlands and northern Germany. The resemblance to the Gjermundbu helmet (late 10th century, see Stylegar – Børsheim 2021), with which the Yarm helmet is compared, is not accidental, because the Yarm helmet is an evolutionary precursor, but not chronologically identical, as Caple thought. It is not possible to say whether the helmet is an intermediate stage between the helmets from Valsgärde and Gjermundbu, because we lack the Scandinavian material of the 8th and 9th centuries.

Helmets from the North Sea area, which are mentioned in the text.
The helmet from Yarm is marked orange.


Conclusion and acknowledgment

The helmet, like many other artifacts in the past, has been hastily accepted by the academic community as a 10th century Viking helmet, due to a certain resemblance to a helmet from Gjermundbu, Norway. Compared to the wider archaeological corpus, this assumption is not confirmed and the Yarm helmet appears chronologically older, made with a high degree of certainty between 550 and 800 AD. Helmet production seems to be potentially linked to the North Sea area. In the very end, we would like to warmly thank Chris Caple, who willingly sent us the manuscript of his work and provided answers to our questions. We are also grateful to Matt Bunker (who can be supported at buymeacoffee.com/medicusmatt) for permission to post photos of the Yarm helmet.

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.

Reproduction of the helmet, made by Dmitrij Chramcov (aka Truin Stenja).


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