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The helmet from Tjele

I am very grateful to Mogens Larsen for his help.

In 1850, an extraordinary find was discovered by a young farmer in the forest called Lindum Storskov, near Tjele, Denmark. The find consisted of a set of blacksmith equipment – two anvils, five hammers, three tongs, sheet metal shears, two files, a wedge, two nail headers, casting bowls (with traces of tin and lead), a small touchstone, a set of scales, nine weights, five sickles, a key, three iron nails, an axe, two jingles, a spearhead/arrowhead, bronze wires, a lid of a box for scales, bone and bronze fragments of a casket, a mount of a drinking horn, iron fragments and pieces of a helmet (Leth-Larsen 1984; Lund 2006: 325). Thanks to local authorities, the set was sent to Copenhagen, where it was analyzed. The find was published in three major sources – in 1858 (Boye 1858), then in 1939 (Ohlhaver 1939) and finally in 1984 (Munksgaard 1984; Leth-Larsen 1984).

The helmet fragment is a very interesting object, that was originally interpreted as a saddle mount. It was Elisabeth Munksgaard, who expressed the theory about the helmet. Still, it is rather an overlooked artefact that was never studied in detail nor scientifically reconstructed. That’s the reason why this article was written.

Both sides of the mask. Photos: Arnold Mikkelsen: Nationalmuseet, Denmark. Licens: CC-BY-SA.

Munksgaard sums up several important details:

This winged-shaped object is not a saddle mounting, but the eyebrows and nose-guard of a helmet, made of iron and bronze. […] We are, unfortunately, not able to judge what the Tjele helmet looked like. There is not a trace of chain mail rest of the helmet, nor any iron plates fit for making up the rest of the helmet. But there are eight fragments of thin iron strips, about 1 cm broad and of varying length which might have been used for joining the plates together.” (Munksgaard 1984: 87)

More than detailed description, her article includes the comparison with the helmet from Gjermundbu. Since she considers the helmet from Gjermundbu to be the closest analogy, it is obvious she interprets the fragment as a part of a spectacle low-domed helmet. This type of helmets was used until 1000 AD (Munksgaard 1984: 88). The dating of the find from Tjele was corrected by Lund (2006: 325, 339), who claims the set belongs to the period between 950–970 AD. Tweddle (1992: 1126) assumed that the mask was multi-pieced; two ocular pieces were riveted to the nose-guard. The hole in the broader piece of the nose-guard could support this theory. Moreover, the mask from Kyiv shows the same feature.

The size of the mask is not convincingly given, but both Munksgaard and Tweddle suggest it is 12 × 7 cm (Munksgaard 1984: 87, fig. 4; Tweddle 1992: 1128, fig. 561). Just in the middle of eyebrows, at the base of the nose-guard, a hole for a rivet is placed. At least one decorated bronze strip was mounted on the eyebrows. However, at the time of the discovery, the mask was decorated with silver and bronze bands, as Boye suggests (1858: 197-8):

A three-armed mount of iron, which in the middle is pierced with a hole for a rivet. The one arm, which is wide and has been even wider, is broken and is on one side pierced with a hole for a rivet. The two other arms are narrower, are arc-shaped, and are on the surface covered with alternating decorated plates of silver and bronze; one of these arms is now partly broken off, but the other is somewhat more complete and 2 ¾ inches long [7,19 cm]. On its outermost end, it has been equipped with a round plate, which is broken through the middle and has been pierced with a hole for a rivet. This piece has possible been placed as a mount on the back of a saddle.

There are some important details in this quotation. The mask was originally 14-16 cm long and was attached to the dome at the level of the eyebrows with three rivets, in a manner identical to the helmet from Gjermundbu. The entire surface of the eyebrows was adorned with copper alloy and silver bands that alternated. Oculars were fastened to the nasal by rivets. Because we lack oculars, we cannot say if they were also decorated, but the Gjermundbu helmet does not rule out this possibility.

In terms of construction, the closest analogy is the helmet from Gjermundbu, Norway. Its base is a circumferential band, cut in the area of the mask, into which four equal triangular plates were riveted that make up the dome. These segments are not connected to each other and through the slits between them, rivets go that fasten the bands inside and outside the dome. The eight narrow bands that Munksgaard is talking about can be just these reinforcements.

Even though the mask from Tjele is just a fragment, we can not underestimate the meaning of this find. It broadens our vision about Viking Age protective gear, its decoration and the makers. Recently, two of my friends have tried to replicate the helmet fragment from Tjele. The reconstruction of the complete helmet is impossible, but I personally think that these both versions are decent and plausible tries that should be accepted by reenactment community.


Reconstruction

The only correct option for the reconstruction of the dome in the case of this helmet is the helmet from Gjermundbu. The band construction of the dome (Bandenhelm) is not possible due to the fact that its youngest use is recorded in the 8th century. As for the mask, information about silver ornaments was not known until recently, because Boye’s book was digitized close to the year 2020. That’s why in reenactment, we can meet helmets that lack silver decoration. The number of bands on one arm could be close to 10 pieces.

Approximate reconstruction of the mask from Tjele.

Version 1: bimetal eyebrow decoration. Production: Kvetun.

Version 2: bimetal eyebrow and ocular decoration. Production: Early Medieval Shop.


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

BOYE, V. (1858). To fund af smedeværktøi fra den sidste hedenske tid i Danmark (Thiele-Fundet og Snoldelev-Fundet). In: Annaler for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, København: 191–200.

LUND, J. (2006). Vikingetidens værktøjskister i landskab og mytologi
(Viking Period tool chests in the landscape and in mythology). Fornvännen
101, Stockholm: 323–341.

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

OHLHAVER, H. (1939). Der germanische Schmied und sein Werkzeug. Hamburger Schriften zur Vorgeschichte und Germanischen Frühgeschichte, Band 2, Leipzig.

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

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