I would like to present this article about a yet undocumented find of a helmet from the Viking age, which is a fragment from Kyiv. This object, currently deposited in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine under inventory label ДРА 1065, has eluded researchers’ attention for a long time and for that reason it is not very known. It is surrounded by several queries which are described below. The article aims to present the synthesis of all existing sources and a more detailed description to facilitate a reconstruction.
Placement of the fragment within a permanent exposition in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.
Author: Ihor Dyrda.
As far as I know, the helmet fragment first appears in literature at the beginning of the 20th century, specifically in the monumental series called Dnieperian Antiquities (Древности Приднепровья) created by collector Bogdan I. Chanenko and his wife Barbara. The helmet is hereby introduced in this manner (Ханенко 1907: 43):
„No. 1133. A piece of an iron helmet, covering eyes and nose, coated with silver areas. Found in Kyiv, Church of the Tithes area.“
Aside from a sketchy description and the find’s location it offers a relatively detailed photograph (Ханенко 1907: Tab. XXXVI) showing a well-preserved embellishment, which is important for us. All the younger versions are not nearly as complete.
Another author mentioning the helmet was Mikhail K. Karger. In his book Ancient Kyiv (Древний Киев) from 1958 we can find this (Каргер 1958: 200):
„Aside from helmets found in the aforementioned graves it is needed to mention some random finds from the Kyiv region which probably come from destroyed graves. Among these there is a helmet mask with silver and golden inlay found in the area of Church of the Tithes (…).“
The helmet fragment from Kyiv was included to the work of Anatolij N. Kirpichnikov, legendary Russian expert on Early Medieval militaria. Kirpichnikov connected the fragment with Norse helmets of the Gjermundbu type while explicitly marking it as a 10th century object. In exact words he wrote this (Кирпичников 1971: 24):
„It is obvious that two helmet mask fragments belong to this type, namely the fragment from Lokrume on Gotland (the 2nd half of the 10th century) with a braided ornament (…) and the one from the area of Church of the Tithes in Kyiv with a silver inlay of geometrical pattern.“
After the collapse of communism this object became known even in the West where it was introduced by Dominic Tweddle. This British researcher described the fragment as 14 cm long, unpublished and deposited in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv (Tweddle 1992: 1083). He also mentions elsewhere that the mask is decorated by inlay and that it is very similar to a helmet fragment from Tjele by being composed of a brow and a nose-guard with a facet at its end providing evidence of standalone oculars being riveted to it (Tweddle 1992: 1125-6). In this case as well the author classifies it as a Scandinavian spectacle helmet. For the record we can add that according to Tweddle the mask was found in the grave together with a belt and a Scandinavian buckle (Tweddle 1992: 1129), which seems to be rather mistaken information. The description is accompanied by a colour photograph.
Other interesting information is provided by Bezkorovaynaya, which, in addition to the approximate time of discovery, also provides the best colour photograph published in the press (Безкоровайная 2012):
„Helmet mask fragment
Iron, silver, forged, plated, gilded.
Height 11.2 cm, width 11.6 cm.
Ukraine, Kiev, estate of the Church of the Tithes (Volodymyrska St. 2), a random find of the end of the 19th century (…).“
The most up to date and detailed information can be found in the Scandinavian Antiquities of Southern Rus (Скандинавские древности Южной Руси) catalogue issued by Fedir Androshchuk and Vladimir Zocenko in 2012. It is the only source with a more elaborated description of dimensions and weight. The authors deem the previous position as inaccurate and in their opinion the fragment represents a lower part of the mask which corresponds with the description. Let us cite this source in full (Андрощук – Зоценко 2012: 73):
„The face part of a composite helmet (a random find, Church of the Tithes, Kyiv)
The face part of a composite helmet (mask for face protection) consisting of individually manufactured parts [Gjermundbu type]. Nose-guard 112 × 10 mm, side tabs 10–26 × 116 mm, remains of the helmet rim 14 × 35 mm. Weight 24,0 g, purity [of silver] 800. The mask consists of a narrow nose-guard elegantly placed in the middle area and lined with flattened lower part and convex upper part. The lower part consists of two symmetrically placed crescent-shaped facets. The surface of the nose-guard and protective side tabs is covered with a silver foil and two side lines filled with a sloped inlay band. In the middle of the tabs in the lower part of the mask there are ornamental figures copying the crescent shape. The upper part represents the helmet part with a preserved rivet on the right. A random find that was deposited in the collection of B. N. and B. I. Chanenko. Information regarding circumstances and exact position of the find have been lost.
Dating: 10th century.
Place of deposit: National Museum of the History of Ukraine (ДРА 1065).
Literature: Ханенко 1907: 43, Tab. XXXVI; Каргер 1958: 200, Tab. XXVI; Кирпичников 1971: 24, Рис. 24a.“
If we are to summarize what we can learn from the literature, then we can say that the mask fragment was found in the area of Church of the Tithes probably at the end of the 19th century. It is very likely that it comes from a destroyed grave. Church of the Tithes (or Church of the Dormition of the Virgin) was the first stone church in Kievan Rus built on the initiative of Prince Vladimir in 986–996, which would correspond with the object’s datation as it could have been made in the 10th century (analogies are dated to the 2nd half of this century). According to the authors this mask pertains to the Scandinavian helmet type. The iron base with 126 × 116 mm is decorated by “inlay” or “plating” silver and gold. The periphery lines are made of twisted wire. The overall weight today is 24 grams. Opinions about the mask’s correct placement are not unambiguous as evidenced by diverse ways of placement at the exhibitions. The fragment has been deposited in Chanenko’s collection for a long time and today the helmet is exhibited in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine under inventory denomination ДРА 1065.
As implied in the previous chapter, there are two different theories about how the mask was placed on the helmet. It could be placed in the way that the arches represented eyebrows or the other way round, where the arcs would represent spectacles. Both the theories have its upholders and there is never a definite verdict. Let us recapitulate both of these options.
Variant 1 : the fragment is the upper part of the mask
As we could notice, this theory is more established and being supported by many researches for more than a hundred years. Even in 2006, when the Kyiv fragment was studied by Peter Beatson, a famous Australian reenactor, it was exhibited at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in this way. Although the mask is usable in this position and provides sufficient protection, in reenactment it has a rather minor representation. That is caused by the illustration of variant 2 from 2008 by Belarusian reenactor Makar Babenko, which is currently dominating in Eastern Europe. This trend could have influenced Androshchuk and Zocenko as well as the form of exhibiting in the museum. If we were to examine the anatomy, we can say that this variant requires subsequently riveted spectacles. The mask would therefore have to be multi-part, like the mask of the Tjele helmet, which would mean a simpler process of making the iron base but also the necessity to rivet all the parts together well and aesthetically. The mask’s profile corresponds with both the variants. The arced brow shape is strongly similar to the helmet mask from Lokrume. Even the thickness of 2-2,5 mm at the brow plate, as stated by Peter Beatson, resembles this Gotland helmet. The plate around the preserved rivet is thinner, around 2 mm, so it is less probable that it would be placed on the brow. Under the gold arcs we can find a gradual transition with an offset, which is a constructional trait that would be more probably expected namely in this variant. Although we do not know how the rest of the helmet was decorated, the preserved decoration copying and emphasizing eyebrows is more probable in this variant. The brow then blends into the nose-guard in an arc, making this variant more similar to the masks of the helmets from Gjermundbu, Lokrume and Tjele and leaving the visors smaller which can be practical.
Variant 2 : the fragment is the lower part of the mask
This way of looking at the mask is quite new and as we said, it can be dated approximately to 2008 when Makar’s illustration appeared on discussion forums. Then in 2012 Androshchuk and Zocenko published their catalogue using this variant, which probably influenced the museum presentation. The mask in this variant is one-piece and employs four rivets to attach it on the rim of the helmet. The way of attaching to the base is therefore a less complicated one in this variant. As suggested, the mask’s profile complies with this variant. Its shape is symmetrical in this case, however it does not have any analogy among the period helmets. The brow blends into the nose-guard in more or less a right angle which is has not been seen in any other preserved helmet. Visors are larger than in the aforementioned variant. The offset and decoration placed on the lower side of the mask are less probable if compared to the masks mentioned above. Possible brow decoration cannot be disproved because of the rosette motive in the middle of the forehead.
If we are to favor one of these variants, it is Variant 1 as it fits the preserved corpus of Scandiavian helmets better. A mask constructed in this manner complies with both anatomical and aesthetical demands. Variant 2 can be the result of reenactors’ tendency to make one-piece helmets as similar as possible to the Gjermundbu helmet (I remember to have adviced my colleagues not to make multi-piece masks myself more than five years ago). That was until recent research suggested that original masks may be composite as well. Variant 2 can also be a reflection of distrust in composite masks which, from a beginner’s view, may not endure the heat of battle as well as a solid one-piece mask.
Equipped with this knowledge, reenactors’ advices and detailed photographs we can try to pronounce several conclusions and assumptions regarding the present state and probable original appearance.
As we stated before, an iron framework is the base. Its most massive part is a nose-guard, being approximately 5 mm thick. There are tabs on both sides of the nose-guard. If the mask was compliant to Variant 1, the lower tab was a simple and slightly curved rectangle flattened to approximately 2 mm of thickness. The crescent-shaped brow part consists of a slightly more massive metal sheet. The whole brow seems to be profiled in a way that the rear (inner) space is hollow. That enables it to be lightweight. Moreover we can see that the nose-guard line, going through the whole mask, forms an exposed ridge or an expanding profile. The brow seems to be slightly curved to make the profile more distinct and to enable better fitting of this part onto the edge of a round helmet. There are no signs of rivets on the brow – it is possible that they were visible while looking at the rear side, while on the front side they were covered by decorative elements. There can be no opinion about the spectacles’ appearance, however it can be assumed that they were attached to the lower widened tab and then fitted to the helmet by the same rivet as the edge of the brow. Nowadays state of the helmet mask suggests intentional damage being violently torn out of the helmet, which is a possible reason for nose-guard being curved as well as missing spectacles and rivets on brow’s sides.
While the aforementioned authors speak of “inlay”, “incrustation” or “plating”, it is evident that the object was decorated by a combination of inlay and overlay. There are angled grid-like furrows cut into the entire object’s surface. Then a deeper circumferential furrow had been cut and a twisted silver wire was hammered into it to the shape of crescents and a triangle. The remaining space was filled with a thin silver wire. It can be reasonably assumed that the whole brow and the nose-guard was decorated in the same manner, however the decoration is absent on the nose-guard tab and replaced with a rosette. This method is evidenced by occasional grid shining through and flattened wires protruding from the surface. It is necessary to mention that this way of decorating was a popular technique used for decorating swords, spears, axes, stirrups and helmets in the 10th and 11th century.
In the first phase of researching we stopped at a cross-like motive which can be found in the middle of the brow and which goes down to the nose-guard. We originately thought it is a decoration deliberately made from a different metal, however then we checked the contemporary state with the state from 1907 where nothing like that can be noticed – on the contrary, the whole silver surface is strangely shiny. This apparent cross is therefore more likely an accidental effect. The surrounding silver is darkened. It can be a result of faulty treatment or partial conservation. We can also see that in this exact place some of the silver has fallen out, giving as an opportunity to see how the crafter had worked – he hammered the wires in a way so they copy the long and flat areas (a twisted wire in this case).
At the end of the nose-guard, in the middle of the rectangular tab, we can find four barely visible sockets placed opposite to each other. Here I would like to borrow the thought of Makar Babenko who assumes the existence of a fifth socket, then forming a rosette. This assumed reconstruction can be seen on the previous image with variants 1 and 2.
Although some reenactors consider the Kyiv mask a bizarrely long one, the stated size rather gives evidence of exactly copying its owner’s face. It can well be assumed that the mask was custom made. As it is the most expensively decorated helmet of Scandinavian origin, the owner must have belonged to a peak of the society. The mask shows a masterful level of crafting apparent both in anatomy and decoration. Thanks to it we can admire its elegance even more than a thousand years later.
Firstly I would like to thank my colleague and friend Petr Kavan for renewing my interest in this item. This article would not come to existence without the extraordinary ingeniousness of Tomáš Cajthaml who accompanied it with his skillful graphics. Work of Makar Babenko, Peter Beatson and Fedir Androschchuk were also a great help which I could build upon and for which I am immensely grateful. I also thank Ihor Dyrda for altruistically visiting the museum and photographing the mask in detail for this blog. Finally I give my thanks to Roman Král and Ždan Zabašta who willingly offered their consultation.
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.
Андрощук, Ф. O. – Зоценко, В. (2012). Скандинавские древности Южной Руси: каталог, Paris.
Безкоровайная, Ю. Г. (2012). 247, Фрагмент маски схлема // Меч и златник. К 1150-летию зарождения древнерусского государства. Каталог выставки. Ред.-сост. Д.В. Журавлев, В.В. Мурашева, Москва, 97.
Кирпичников, А. Н. (1971). Древнерусское оружие. Вып. 3. Доспех, комплекс боевых средств IX—XIII вв, Москва.
Ханенко, В. И. (1907). Древности Приднепровья. Вып. VI, Киев.
Каргер, М. К. (1958). Древний Киев. Очерки по истории материальной культуры древнерусского города. Том 1, Москва – Ленинград.
Tweddle, Dominic (1992). The Anglian Helmet from 16-22 Coppergate, The Archaeology of York. The Small Finds AY 17/8, York.28. září 2020
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