Sutton Hoo helmet
|Sutton Hoo helmet|
1970–1971 (current) reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet
|Material||Iron, bronze, tin, gold, silver, garnets|
|Weight||2.5 kg (5.5 lb) (estimated)|
Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
|Discovered by||Charles Phillips|
|Present location||British Museum, London|
The Sutton Hoo helmet is a decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet discovered during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. It was buried around 625 and is widely believed to have been the helmet of King Rædwald of East Anglia, and its elaborate decoration may have given it a secondary function akin to a crown. The helmet is "the most iconic object" from "one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries ever made," and one of the most important Anglo-Saxon artefacts ever found. Its visage features eyebrows, nose, and moustache, creating the image of a man joined by a dragon's head to become a soaring dragon with outstretched wings. It has become a symbol of the Dark Ages and also "of Archaeology in general." It was excavated as hundreds of rusted fragments, and was first displayed following an initial reconstruction in 1945–46, and then in its present form after a second reconstruction in 1970–71.
The helmet and the other finds from Sutton Hoo were determined by a treasure trove inquest to be the property of Edith Pretty, who owned the site of the ship-burial. She donated all the objects to the British Museum, where they were conserved and put on display. The helmet was on view in Room 41 in 2018.
- 1 Background
- 2 Description
- 3 Context and parallels
- 4 Discovery
- 5 First reconstruction
- 6 Current reconstruction
- 7 Royal Armouries replica
- 8 In popular culture
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 External links
The helmet was buried among other regalia and instruments of power as part of a furnished ship burial, probably dating from the early 7th century. Although the man in the grave has not been identified, the contents of the grave point to its being that of a king. It is generally thought most likely that Rædwald, the ruler of the East Angles, is the person buried in the ship, due to the proximity of the royal vill of Rendlesham and as use of the site is believed to have been a time when he held power in England.
The ship had been hauled from the nearby river up the hill and lowered into a prepared trench. Inside this, the helmet was wrapped in cloths and placed to the left of the head of the body. An oval mound was constructed around the ship. Long afterwards, the chamber roof collapsed violently under the weight of the mound, compressing the ship's contents into a seam of earth.
It is thought that the helmet was shattered either by the collapse of the burial chamber or by the force of another object falling on it. However, the fact that the helmet had shattered meant that it was possible to reconstruct it. Had the helmet been crushed before the iron had fully oxidised, leaving it still pliant, the helmet would have been squashed, leaving it in a distorted shape similar to the Vendel and Valsgärde helmets.
The Sutton Hoo helmet, weighing an estimated 2.5 kg (5.5 lb), was made of iron and covered with decorated sheets of tinned bronze. Fluted strips of moulding divided the exterior into panels, each of which was stamped with one of five designs. Two depict figural scenes, another two zoophormic interlaced patterns; a fifth pattern, known only from seven small fragments and incapable of restoration, is known to occur only once on an otherwise symmetrical helmet and may have been used to replace a damaged panel. The existence of these five designs has been generally understood since the first reconstruction, published in 1947.[note 2] The succeeding three decades gave rise to an increased understanding of the designs and their parallels in contemporary imagery, allowing possible reconstructions of the full panels to be advanced, and through the second reconstruction their locations on the surface of the helmet to be redetermined. As referred to below, the designs are numbered according to Rupert Bruce-Mitford's 1978 work.
The core of the helmet was constructed of iron and consisted of a cap from which hung a face mask and cheek and neck guards. The cap was "beaten up out of a single piece of metal."[note 3] On either side of it were hung iron cheek guards, deep enough to "completely protect the side of the face" and curved inward "both longitudinally and laterally." Two hinges per side, possibly made of leather, supported these pieces, allowing them to be pulled flush with the face mask and "completely enclose" the face. A neck guard was attached to the back of the cap and made of two overlapping pieces: a shorter piece set inside the cap, over which attached a "broad fan-like portion" extending downwards, "straight from top to bottom but curved laterally to follow the line of the neck." The inset portion afforded the neck guard extra movement, and like the cheek guards was attached to the cap by leather hinges. Finally, the face mask was riveted to the cap on both sides and above the nose. Two cutouts served as eye openings, while a third opened into the hollow of the overlaid nose, thereby facilitating access to the two nostril-like holes underneath; though small, these holes would have been among the few sources of fresh air for the wearer's enclosed head.
Atop the foundational layer of iron were placed decorative sheets of tinned bronze. These sheets, divided into five figural or zoomorphic designs, were manufactured by the pressblech process. Preformed dies similar to the Torslunda plates were covered with thin metal which, through applied force, took up the design underneath; identical designs could thus be "mass-produced" from the same die, allowing for their repeated use on the helmet and other objects.[note 4] Fluted strips of white alloyed moulding—possibly of tin and copper, and possibly swaged—divided the designs into framed panels, held to the helmet by bronze rivets. The two strips running from front to back alongside the crest were gilded. The edges of the helmet were further protected by U-shaped brass tubing, fastened by swaged bronze clips and themselves further holding in place the pressblech panels that shared edges with the helmet.
A final layer of adornments added to the helmet a crest, eyebrows, nose and mouth piece, and three dragon heads. A hollow iron crest ran across the top of the cap and terminated at front and back. It was made of "D-sectioned" tubing and consisted of two parts, an inverted "U-shaped" piece into which a "flat bottom strip" was placed. As no traces of solder remain, the crest may have been either forged or shrunk on to the cap. From either end of the crest extended an iron tang, to each of which was riveted a gilded dragon head. That on the front was made of cast bronze, while the one on the rear was made of "a different alloy, and now consists largely of tin oxide." A third dragon head, also of cast bronze, faced upwards on the front of the helmet and broke the plane between face mask and cap; its neck rested on the face mask, while under its eyes it was held to the cap by "a massive rivet shank." To either side of the neck projected a hollow cast bronze eyebrow, into each of which was inlaid parallel silver wires separated by niello. Terminal boar heads were gilded, as were the undersides of the eyebrows, where individual bronze cells held square garnets. The eyebrows were riveted on, both to the cap at their outer ends and to the tang of a nose and mouth piece which extended upwards underneath the neck of the dragon head. This tang was itself riveted to the cap, one of five attachment points for the cast bronze nose and mouth piece. Both sides of the nose featured "two small round projecting plates," connected by fluted and swaged strips, and concealing rivets. An inlaid strip of wire extended the length of the nasal ridge, next to which the "background was punched down" and filled with niello, leaving "triangles in relief" that were silvered. A tracer (a "rather blunt chisel . . . used chiefly for outlining") was used to provide a grooved border on each side. Running horizontally aside the nasal bridge were three punched circles per side, inlaid with silver and surrounded by niello. Beneath these circles, also running horizontally from the center of the nose to its sides were chased "alternate rows of plain flutings and billeted strips which run obliquely between the central strip and a billeted lower edge." This same pattern is repeated in vertical fashion on the moustache. The curve along the bevelled lower lip, in turn, repeats the circled pattern used on the nasal bridge. Excepting the portions covered by the eyebrows and dragon head, or adorned with silver or niello, the nose and mouth piece was heavily gilded, which is suggested by the presence of mercury to have been "applied by the fire-gilding technique."
Breaking the symmetry of the helmet are subtle differences in the two eyebrows, and in the methods employed to fashion the cloisonné garnets. The dexter and sinister eyebrows, though at first glance identical, may have been "manufactured in different ways while being intended to look essentially the same." The dexter brow is approximately 5 millimeters shorter than the sinister, and contained 43 rather than 46 inlaid silver wires and one or two fewer garnets.[note 5] Gilding on the dexter eyebrow was "reddish in colour" against the "yellowish" hue of the sinister, while the latter contains both trace amounts of mercury and a tin corrosion product which are absent from its counterpart. Moreover, while the individual bronze cells into which the garnets are set, both on the dexter brow and on three of the four remaining dragon eyes, are underlain by small pieces of "hatched gold foil," those on the sinister side, and the sinister eye of the upper dragon head, have no such backing. The gold backing served to reflect light back through the garnets, increasing their lustre and deepening their colour. Where this backing was missing on the sinister eyebrow and one dragon eye, the luminosity of the garnets would be "substantially dimmed" by direct placement against the bronze.
Three dragon heads are represented on the helmet. Two bronze-gilt dragon heads feature on either end of the iron crest running from the front to the rear of the skull cap. The third sits at the junction between the two eyebrows, facing upward and given fuller form by the eyebrows, nose and moustache to create the impression of a dragon in flight. There it soars upwards in the "central and most dramatic feature of the entire helmet," baring its teeth at the "snake-like dragon" flying down the crest.
To the extent that the helmet is jewelled, such decoration is largely confined to the elements associated with the dragons. Convex garnets sunk into the heads give the dragons red eyes. The eyebrows are likewise inlaid with square garnets on their under edges, continuing outwards on each side to where they terminate in gilded boars' heads; in addition to their secondary decorative function as wings, the eyebrows may therefore take on a tertiary form as boars' bodies. The subtle differences between the eyebrows, the sinister of which lacks the gold foil backing employed on the dexter, may suggest an allusion to the one-eyed god Odin; seen in low light, with the garnets of only one eye reflecting light, the helmet may have itself seemed to have only one eye.[note 6]
More gold covers the eyebrows, nose and mouth piece, and dragon heads, as it does the two fluted strips that flank the crest. The crest and eyebrows are further inlaid with silver wires. Combined with the silvery colour of the tinned bronze, the effect was "an object of burnished silvery metal, set in a trelliswork of gold, surmounted by a crest of massive silver, and embellished with gilded ornaments, garnets and niello—in its way a magnificent thing and one of the outstanding masterpieces of barbaric art."
Design 1: Dancing warriors
The dancing warriors scene is known from six fragments and occurs four times on the helmet. It is seen on the two panels immediately above the eyebrows, accounting for five of the fragments. The sixth fragment is placed in the middle row of the dexter cheek guard, on the panel closest to the face mask; the generally symmetrical nature of the helmet thus implies the design's position on the opposite side as well. None of the six pieces show both warriors, although the "key fragment" depicts their crossed wrists. A full reconstruction of the scene was inferred after the first reconstruction, when Rupert Bruce-Mitford spent six weeks in Sweden and was shown a nearly identical design on the then unpublished Valsgärde 7 helmet.
Design 1 pictures two men "in civilian or ceremonial dress" perhaps engaged in a spear or sword dance "associated with the cult of Odin, the war-god." Their outer hands each hold two spears, pointed towards their feet, while their crossed hands grip swords. The depiction suggests "intricate measures," "rhythm," and an "elasticity of . . . dance steps." Their trailing outer legs and curved hips imply movement towards each other, and they may be in the climax of the dance. The prevalence of dance scenes with a "similarity of the presentation of the scheme of movement" in contemporary Scandinavian and Northern art suggests that ritual dances "were well-known phenomena." Sword dances in particular were recorded among the Germanic tribes as early as the first century AD, when Tacitus wrote of "[n]aked youths who practice the sport bound in the dance amid swords and lances," a "spectacle" which was "always performed at every gathering." Whatever the meaning conveyed by the Sutton Hoo example, the "ritual dance was evidently no freak of fashion confined to a particular epoch, but was practised for centuries in a more or less unchanged form."
While many contemporary designs portray ritual dances, at least three examples show scenes exceptionally similar to that on the Sutton Hoo helmet and contribute to the understanding of the depicted sword dance. The same design—identical but for a different type of spears held in hand, a different pattern of dress, and a lack of crossed spears behind the two men—is found on the Valsgärde 7 helmet, while a small fragment of stamped foil from the eastern mound at Gamla Uppsala is "so close in every respect to the corresponding warrior on the Sutton Hoo helmet as to appear at first glance to be from the same die," and may even have been "cut by the same man." The third similar design is one of the four Torslunda plates, discovered in Öland, Sweden, in 1870. This plate, which is complete and depicts a figure with the same attributes as on design 1, suggests the association of the men in the Sutton Hoo example with "the cult of Odin." The Torslunda figure is missing an eye, which laser scanning revealed to have been removed by a "sharp cut, probably in the original model used for the mould." Odin too lost an eye, thus evidencing the identification of the Torslunda figure as him, and the Sutton Hoo figures as devotees of him.
Design 2: Rider and fallen warrior
Eight fragments represent all known instances of the second design, accounting for its placement on a like number of panels. It is surmised to have originally appeared twelve times on the helmet, although this theory assumes that the unidentified third design, which occupies one of the twelve panels, was a replacement for a damaged panel. Assuming so, the pattern occupied eight spaces on the lowest row of the skull cap (i.e., all but the two showing design 1), and two panels, one atop the other rising towards the crest, in the centre of each side. All panels showing design 2 appear to have been struck from the same die. The horse and rider thus move in a clockwise direction around the helmet, facing towards the rear of the helmet on the dexter side, and towards the front on the sinister side.
As substantial sections of design 2 are missing, particularly from the "central area," reconstruction relies in part on continental versions of the same scene. In particular, similar scenes are seen on the Valsgärde 7 and 8 helmets, the Vendel 1 helmet, and on the Pliezhausen bracteate. The latter piece, in particular, is both complete and nearly identical to the Sutton Hoo design. Although a mirror image, and lacking in certain details depicted in design 2 such as the sword carried by the rider and the scabbard worn by the fallen warrior, it suggests other details such as the small shield held by the kneeling figure.
Design 2 shows a mounted warrior, spear held overhead, trampling an enemy on the ground. The latter leans upwards and, grasping the reins in his left hand, uses his right hand to thrust a sword into the chest of the horse. Atop the horse's rump kneels a "diminutive human, or at least anthropomorphic figure." The figure is stylistically similar to the horseman. Its arms and legs are positioned identically, and, together with the rider, it clutches the spear with its right hand.
The iconographic meaning of design 2 is unknown. It may derive from Roman models, which frequently depicted images of warriors trampling vanquished enemies. The subsequent development of the design, which has been found in England, Sweden, and Germany, suggests that it carried a unique meaning broadly understood in Germanic tradition. Whereas the Roman examples show riders in moments of unqualified victory, in Germanic representations the scene is ambiguous. The symbolism is unclear, and elements of victory are combined with elements of defeat: the rider directs his spear straight forward at an invisible enemy, not down at the visible enemy on the ground; though the enemy is trampled, the rider's horse is dealt a fatal wound; and a small and possibly divine figure hovers behind the rider, its body taking the form of a victorious swastika[note 8] while it seemingly guides the spear. An overarching theme of the design may therefore be that of fate. In this understanding the divine figure, possibly Odin, guides the warrior in battle, but does not completely free him from the deadly threats he faces. The gods are themselves subject to the whims of fate, and can provide only limited help against the rider's enemies.
Design 3: Unidentified figural scene
Seven small fragments suggest a third figural scene somewhere on the Sutton Hoo helmet. They are nevertheless too small and ambiguous to allow for the reconstruction of the scene. Its presence is suggested "not more than four times, and perhaps only once"; because other fragments demonstrate the occurrence of design 1 or design 2 on all seven available panels on the sinister side of the helmet, and on the forwardmost two panels on the dexter side (in addition to on the highest dexter panel), placement of design 3 "must have occurred towards the rear of the helmet" on the dexter side.
That which remains of design 3 may suggest that a "variant rider scene" was employed to fix damage to a design 2 panel, similar to how a unique pressblech design on the Valsgärde 6 helmet was likely used in repair. Fragment (a) for example shows groups of parallel raised lines running in correspondence "with changes of angle or direction in the modelled surface, which on the analogy of the Sutton Hoo and other rider scenes in Vendel art, strongly suggest the body of a horse." Though smaller, fragment (d) shows similar patterns and suggests a similar interpretation. Fragment (b), meanwhile, shows "two concentric raised lines two millimetres apart," and "appears to be a segment of the rim of a shield which would be of the same diameter as that held by the rider in design 2."
The theory of design 3 as a replacement panel gains some support from damage towards the back of the helmet, yet is contradicted by the placement of fragment (c). The crest, complete for 25.5 cm (10.0 in) from front to back, is missing 2 cm (0.79 in) above the rear dragon head. This head is itself mostly missing, and was entirely omitted from the 1945–46 reconstruction. These missing portions are offered by Bruce-Mitford as a possible indication that the helmet at one time suffered damage necessitating the restoration of at least one design 2 panel with a new equestrian scene. This theory does not explain why the rear crest and dragon head would not have been themselves repaired, however, and it is not helped by fragment (c). This fragment is an edge piece placed in the 1970–71 reconstruction on the dexter rear of the helmet at the bottom left of a panel where either design 2 or design 3 is expected, yet is "an isolated element quite out of context with any other surviving fragment and with what appears to be the subject matter of the design 3 panel." Bruce-Mitford suggests that as it is an edge piece it may have originally been a scrap placed under another piece to fill a gap, for it is "otherwise inexplicable."[note 9]
Design 4: Larger interlace
Occurring on the cheek guards, the neck guard and the skull cap, the larger interlace pattern was capable of a complete reconstruction. Unlike the two identified figural scenes, partial die impressions of design 4 were used in addition to full die impressions. Blank spaces on the skull cap and neck guard, devoid of decorative designs, allowed for impressions of design 4 "that are either complete or nearly so." On the cheek guards, by contrast, which are irregularly shaped and fully decorated, "the interlace designs are trimmed and sometimes turned on edge to fill awkward spaces."
Design 4 depicts "a single quadruped in ribbon style."
Design 5: Smaller interlace
The smaller interlace pattern covered the face mask, was used prominently on the neck guard, and filled in several empty spaces on the cheek guards. It is a zoomorphic design, like the larger interlace, and shows "two animals, upside down and reversed in relation to each other, whose backward-turning heads lie towards the centre of the panel."
Context and parallels
Unique in many respects, the Sutton Hoo helmet is nevertheless inextricably linked to its Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian contexts. It is one of only six known Anglo-Saxon helmets, along with those found at Benty Grange, Coppergate, Wollaston, Shorwell and Staffordshire, yet is closer in character to those from Vendel and Valsgärde. At the same time, the helmet shares "consistent and intimate" parallels with those characterised in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, and, like the Sutton Hoo ship-burial as a whole, has had a profound impact on modern understandings of the poem.
Within the corpus of sixth and seventh century helmets, the Sutton Hoo helmet is broadly classified as a "crested helmet," distinct from the continental spangenhelm and lamellenhelm. 50 helmets are so classified,[note 10] although barely more than a dozen can be reconstructed and a few are so degraded that they are not indisputably from helmets. Excepting an outlier fragment found in Kiev; all crested helmets originate from England or Scandinavia.
Of the crested helmets the Sutton Hoo helmet belongs to the Vendel and Valsgärde class, which themselves derive from the Roman infantry and cavalry helmets of the fourth and fifth century Constantinian workshops. Helmets were found in graves 1, 12 and 14 at Vendel (in addition to partial helmets in graves 10 and 11), and in graves 5, 6, 7 and 8 at Valsgärde. The Sutton Hoo example shares similarities in design, yet "is richer and of higher quality" than its Scandinavian analogues; its differences may reflect its manufacture for someone of higher social status, or its closer temporal proximity to the antecedent Roman helmets.
|Sutton Hoo||England: Sutton Hoo, Suffolk||Helmet|
|Benty Grange||England: Derbyshire||Helmet|
|Wollaston||England: Wollaston, Northamptonshire||Helmet|||
|Guilden Morden||England: Guilden Morden, Cambridgeshire||Fragment (boar)|||
|Caenby||England: Caenby, Lincolnshire||?||Fragment (foil)|||
|Rempstone||England: Rempstone, Nottinghamshire||Fragment (crest)|||
|Asthall||England: Asthall, Oxfordshire||?||Fragments (foil)|||
|Icklingham||England: Icklingham, Suffolk||Fragment (crest)|||
|Horncastle||England: Horncastle, Lincolnshire||Fragment (crest)|||
|Tjele||Denmark: Tjele, Jutland||Fragment (eyebrows/nose)|||
|Gevninge||Denmark: Gevninge, Lejre, Sjælland||Fragment (eye)|||
|Gjermundbu||Norway: Norderhov, Buskerud||Helmet|||
|Øvre Stabu||Norway: Øvre Stabu, Toten, Oppland||?||Fragment (crest)|||
|By||Norway: By, Løten, Hedmarken||Fragment|||
|Vestre Englaug||Norway: Vestre Englaug, Løten, Hedmarken||Fragment|||
|Nes||Norway: Nes, Kvelde, Vestfold||Fragment|||
|Sweden||Sweden: Unknown location (possibly central)||Fragment (crest)|||
|Solberga||Sweden: Askeby, Östergötland|
|Gunnerstad||Sweden: Gamleby, Småland||Fragments|
|Prästgården||Sweden: Prästgården, Timrå, Medelpad||Fragments (crest)|||
|Vendel I||Sweden: Vendel, Uppland||Helmet|
|Vendel X||Sweden: Vendel, Uppland||Fragments (crest/camail)|||
|Vendel XI||Sweden: Vendel, Uppland||Fragments|||
|Vendel XII||Sweden: Vendel, Uppland||Helmet|
|Vendel XIV||Sweden: Vendel, Uppland||Helmet|
|Valsgärde 5||Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland||Helmet|
|Valsgärde 6||Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland||Helmet|
|Valsgärde 7||Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland||Helmet|
|Valsgärde 8||Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland||Helmet|
|Gamla Uppsala||Sweden: Gamla Uppsala, Uppland||Fragments (foil)|||
|Ultuna||Sweden: Ultuna, Uppland||Helmet|
|Vaksala||Sweden: Vaksala, Uppland||Fragments|||
|Vallentuna||Sweden: Vallentuna, Uppland||Fragments|||
|Landshammar||Sweden: Landshammar, Spelvik, Södermanland||Fragments|
|Gotland (1)||Sweden: Lokrume, Gotland||Fragment|||
|Gotland (2)||Sweden: Hög Broa, Halla, Gotland||Fragment|
|Gotland (3)||Sweden: Endrebacke, Endre, Gotland||Fragment|
|Gotland (4)||Sweden: Barshaldershed, Grötlingbo, Gotland||Fragment (crest?)|||
|Gotland (5)||Sweden: Hellvi, Gotland||Fragment|||
|Gotland (6)||Sweden: Unknown, Gotland||Fragment|
|Gotland (7)||Sweden: Hallbjens, Lau, Gotland||Fragments|||
|Gotland (8)||Sweden: Unknown, Gotland||?||Fragment (crest)|||
|Gotland (9)||Sweden: Grötlingbo(?), Gotland||?||Fragment (crest)|||
|Gotland (10)||Sweden: Gudings, Vallstena, Gotland||?||Fragment (crest)|||
|Gotland (11)||Sweden: Kvie and Allekiva, Endre, Gotland||?||Fragment (crest)|||
|Uppåkra||Sweden: Uppåkra, Scania||Fragment (eyebrow/boars)|||
|Desjatinna||Ukraine: Kiev||Fragment (eyebrows/nose)|||
Although the Staffordshire helmet, currently undergoing research and reconstruction, may prove to be more closely related, the four other known Anglo-Saxon helmets share only minor details in decoration and few similarities in construction with the example from Sutton Hoo. In construction its cheek guards and crest link it to its Anglo-Saxon contemporaries, yet it remains the only helmet to have a face mask, fixed neck guard, or cap raised from a single piece of metal. Decoratively it is linked by its elaborate eyebrows, boar motifs, and wire inlays. but is unparalleled in its extensive ornamentation and pressblech patterns. The similarities likely reflect "a set of traditional decorative motifs which are more or less stable over a long period of time"; the differences may simply highlight the disparity between royal and patrician helmets, or may indicate that the Sutton Hoo helmet was more a product of its Roman progenitors than its Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
The primary structural similarity between the Sutton Hoo and other Anglo-Saxon helmets lies in the presence of cheek guards, a feature shared by the Coppergate, Wollaston and Staffordshire helmets, yet generally missing from their Scandinavian counterparts. The construction of the Sutton Hoo helmet is otherwise largely distinguished from all other Anglo-Saxon examples. Its cap is unique in having been raised from a single piece of iron. The caps of the other helmets were each composed of at least eight pieces. On the iron Coppergate, Shorwell and Wollaston helmets, a brow band was joined by a nose-to-nape band, two lateral bands, and four infill plates, while the Benty Grange helmet was constructed from both iron and horn. A brow band was joined both by nose-to-nape and ear-to-ear bands and by four strips subdividing the resultant quadrants into eighths. Eight pieces of horn infilled the eight open spaces, with the eight joins each covered by an additional strip of horn. The Sutton Hoo helmet is also the only known Anglo-Saxon helmet to have either a face mark or a fixed neck guard; the Coppergate and Benty Grange helmets, the only others to have any surviving form of neck protection,[note 11] used camail and horn, respectively, and together with the Wollaston helmet protected the face by use of nose-to-nape bands elongated to form nasals.
The decorative similarities between the Sutton Hoo helmet and its Anglo-Saxon contemporaries are peripheral, if not substantial. The helmets from Wollaston and Shorwell were designed for use rather than display; the latter was almost entirely utilitarian, while the former, "a sparsely decorated 'fighting helmet,'" contained only a boar crest and sets of incised lines along its bands as decoration. Its boar crest finds parallel with that atop the Benty Grange helmet, the eyes on which are made of garnets "set in gold sockets edged with filigree wire . . . and having hollow gold shanks . . . which were sunk into a hole" in the head. Though superficially similar to the garnets and wire inlays on the Sutton Hoo helmet, the techniques employed to combine garnet, gold and filigree work are of a higher complexity more indicative of Germanic work. A helmet sharing more distinct similarities with the Sutton Hoo example is the one from Coppergate. It features a crest and eyebrows, both hatched in a manner that may reflect "reminiscences or imitations of actual wire inlays" akin to those on the Sutton Hoo helmet. The eyebrows and crests on both helmets further terminate in animal heads, though in a less intricate manner on the Coppergate helmet, where they take a more two-dimensional form. These similarities are likely indicative of "a set of traditional decorative motifs which are more or less stable over a long period of rime," rather than of a significant relationship between the two helmets. Compared with the "almost austere brass against iron of the Coppergate helmet," the Sutton Hoo helmet, covered in tinned pressblech designs and further adorned with garnets, gilding, and inlaid silver wires, radiates "a rich polychromatic effect." Its appearance is substantially more similar to the Staffordshire helmet, which, while still undergoing conservation, has "a pair of cheek pieces cast with intricate gilded interlaced designs along with a possible gold crest and associated terminals." Like the Sutton Hoo helmet it was covered in pressblech foils, including a horseman and warrior motif so similar to design 3 as to have been initially taken for the same design.
Significant differences in the construction of the Sutton Hoo and Scandinavian helmets belie significant similarities in their designs. The Scandinavian helmets that are capable of restoration were constructed more simply than the Sutton Hoo helmet. None has a face mask, solid neck guard, or cap made from one piece of metal, and only two have distinct cheek guards. The neck guards "seem without exception to have [been] either iron strips or protective mail curtains." The helmets from Ultuna, Vendel 14 and Valsgärde 5 all used iron strips as neck protection; five strips hung from the rear of the Vendel 14 and Valsgärde 5 brow bands, and though only two strips survive from the Ultuna helmet, others would have hung alongside them. Camail was used on the remaining helmets, from Valsgärde 6, 7 and 8, and from Vendel 1 and 12. Fragmentary remains from Vendel 10 and 11, and from Solberga, likewise suggest camail. In terms of cheek protection, only two helmets had something other than continuations of the camail or iron strips used to protect the neck. The Vendel 14 helmet had cheek guards, but of "a differing version well forward on the face" of those on the Sutton Hoo helmet. Though "difficult to reconstruct," fragments from the Broa helmet suggest a configuration similar to those on the Vendel 14 helmet. Finally, the widely varying caps on each Scandinavian helmet all share one feature: None is similar to the cap on the Sutton Hoo helmet. The basic form of the helmets from Vendel, Valsgärde, Ultuna and Broa all started with a brow band and nose-to-nape band. The Ultuna helmet had its sides filled in with latticed iron strips, while each side on the Valsgärde 8 helmet was filled in with six parallel strips running from the brow band to the nose-to-nape brand. The remaining four helmets—excepting those from Vendel 1 and 10, and Broa, which are too fragmentary to determine their exact construction—all employed two lateral bands and sectional infills. The Vendel 14 helmet had eight infill plates, one rectangular and one triangular per quadrant; that from Valsgärde 7 helmet used four infill plates, one for each quadrant; the one from Valsgärde 6 also used identical infills for each quadrant, but with "elaborate" Y-shaped iron strips creating a latticed effect; and the Valsgärde 5 example filled in the back two quadrants with latticed iron strips, and the front two quadrants each with a rectangular section of lattice work and a triangular plate.
The decorative and iconographic similarities between the Sutton Hoo and Scandinavian helmets are remarkable; they are so pronounced as to have helped in the reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet's own imagery, and to have fostered the idea that the helmet was made in Sweden, not Anglo-Saxon England. Its ornate crest and eyebrows are paralleled by the Scandinavian designs, some of which replicate or imitate its silver wire inlays; garnets adorn the helmets from Sutton Hoo and Valsgärde 7; and the pressblech designs covering the Sutton Hoo and Scandinavian helmets are both ubiquitous and iconographically intertwined. Although the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian helmets almost universally have crests, hence their general classification as "crested helmets," the wire inlays in the Sutton Hoo crest find their closest parallel in the "Veldel-type helmet-crests in which such wire-inlay patterns are imitated in casting or engraving." Thus the crests from the Vendel 1 and 12 helmets both have chevrons mimicking the Sutton Hoo inlays, as does the Ultuna helmet and all those from Valsgärde—as well as fragments from Vendel 11 and from central Sweden. The eyebrows of Scandinavian helmets are yet more closely linked, for those on the Broa helmet are also inlaid with silver wires, while the Lokrume helmet fragment is either inlaid or overlaid with silver. Even those eyebrows without silver tend to be ornate. The Valsgärde 8, Vendel 1 and Vendel 10 eyebrows have chevrons following the same pattern as their crests, and though it lacks such an elaborate crest, the Vendel 14 helmet likewise has sets of parallel lines engraved longitudinally into the eyebrows; the lone eyebrow found at Hellvi is similarly decorated. Those that lack chevrons—singular finds from Uppåkra and Gevninge in addition to the helmets from Valsgärde 5, 6, and 7—are still highly decorated, with the garnet-encrusted Valsgärde 7 eyebrows being the only known parallel to those from Sutton Hoo.
In all these decorative respects, two Scandinavian helmets, from Valsgärde 7 and Gamla Uppsala, are uniquely similar to the Sutton Hoo example. The Valsgärde 7 crest has a "cast chevron ornament"; the helmet "is 'jeweled', like the Sutton Hoo helmet, but showing a greater use of garnets"; and it contains figural and interlace pressblech patterns, including versions of the two figural designs used on the Sutton Hoo helmet. Unlike on the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Valsgärde 7 rider and fallen warrior design was made with two dies, so that those on both dexter and sinister sides are seen moving towards the front, and they contain some "differing and additional elements." The Valsgärde 7 version of the dancing warriors design, however, contains "only [one] major iconographic difference," the absence of two crossed spears behind the two men. The scenes are so similar that it was only with the Valsgärde 7 design in hand that the Sutton Hoo design could be reconstructed. The Gamla Uppsala version of this scene is even more similar. It was at first thought to have been struck from the same die, and required precise measurement of the original fragments to prove otherwise. Though the angles of the forearms and between the spears are slightly different, the Gamla Uppsala fragment nonetheless provides "the closest possible parallel" to the Sutton Hoo design. Taken as a whole, the Valsgärde 7 helmet serves "better than any of the other helmets of its type to make explicit the East Scandinavian context of the Sutton Hoo helmet." Its differences, perhaps, are explained by the fact that it was in the grave of a "yeoman-farmer," not royalty. "Royal graves strictly contemporary with [it] have not yet been excavated in Sweden, but no doubt the helmets and shields such graves contained would be nearer in quality to the examples from Sutton Hoo." It is for this reason that the Gamla Uppsala fragment is particularly interesting; coming from a Swedish royal cremation and with "the dies seemingly cut by the same hand," the helmet "may have been very similar to the Sutton Hoo helmet."
Whatever its Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian origins, the Sutton Hoo helmet is descended from the Roman helmets of the fourth and fifth century Constantinian workshops. Its construction—featuring a distinctive crest, solid cap and neck and cheek guards, face mask, and leather lining—bears clear similarities to these earlier helmets. Numerous examples have a crest similar to that on the Sutton Hoo helmet, such as those from Deurne, Concești, Augsburg-Pfersee, and Augst, and the Berkasovo 1 and 2 and Intercisa 2 and 4 helmets. Meanwhile, the one-piece cap underneath, unique in this respect among the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian helmets, represents the end of a Greek and Roman technique. Primarily used in first and second century helmets of the early Roman Empire before being replaced by helmets with a bipartite construction—hence the role of the crest in holding the two halves together—the practice is thought to have finally been forgotten around 500 AD. The solid iron cheek guards of the Sutton Hoo helmet, likewise, derive from the Constantinian style, which was also marked by cutouts towards the back. The current reconstruction partly assumes the Roman influence of the cheek guards; Roman practice reinforced the belief that leather hinges were employed, while the sinister and dexter cheek guards were swapped after an expert on arms and armour suggested that the cutouts should be at the back. The neck guard similarly assumes leather hinges,[note 12] and with its solid iron construction—like the one-piece cap, unique among Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian helmets—is even more closely aligned with the Roman examples, if longer than was typical. The Witcham Gravel helmet from the first century AD has such a broad and deep neck guard, and solid projecting guards are found on the Deurne and Berkasovo 2 helmets. Another feature of the Sutton Hoo helmet unparalleled by its contemporaries—its face mask—is matched by Roman examples. Among others the Ribchester helmet from the turn of the first century AD, and the Emesa helmet from the early first century AD,[note 13] each include an anthropomorphic face mask; the latter is more similar to the Sutton Hoo helmet, being affixed to the cap by a single hinge rather than entirely surrounding the face. Finally, the suggestion of a leather lining in the Sutton Hoo helmet, largely unsupported by positive evidence other than the odd texture of the interior of the helmet, gained further traction by the prevalence of similar linings in late Roman helmets.[note 14]
Several of the decorative aspects of the Sutton Hoo helmet, particularly its white appearance, inlaid garnets, and prominent rivets, also derive from Roman practice. Its tinned surface compares with the Berkasovo 1 and 2 helmets and those from Concești, Augsburg-Pfersee, and Deurne. The Berkasovo 1 and Budapest helmets are further adorned with precious or semi-precious stones, a possible origin for the garnets on the Sutton Hoo and Valsgärde 7 helmets. Finally, the prominent rivets seen on some of the crested helmets, such as those from Valsgärde 8 and Sutton Hoo, may have been inspired by the similar decorative effect achieved by the rivets on Roman helmets like the Berkasovo 2 and Duerne examples.
Understandings of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial and Beowulf have been intertwined ever since the 1939 discovery of the former. "By the late 1950s, Beowulf and Sutton Hoo were so inseparable that, in study after study, the appearance of one inevitably and automatically evoked the other. If Beowulf came on stage first, Sutton Hoo was swiftly brought in to illustrate how closely seventh-century reality resembled what the poet depicted; if Sutton Hoo performed first, Beowulf followed close behind to give voice to the former's dumb evidence." Although "each monument sheds light on the other," the connection between the two "has almost certainly been made too specific." Yet "[h]elmets are described in greater detail than any other item of war-equipment in the poem," and some specific connections can be drawn. The boar imagery, crest and visor all find parallels in Beowulf, as does the helmet's gleaming white and jeweled appearance. Though the Sutton Hoo helmet cannot be said to fully mirror any one helmet in Beowulf, the many isolated similarities help ensure that "despite the limited archaeological evidence no feature of the poetic descriptions is inexplicable and without archaeological parallel."
Helmets with boar motifs are mentioned five times in Beowulf, and fall into two categories: those with freestanding boars and those without. As Beowulf and his fourteen men disembark their ship and are led to see King Hrothgar, they leave the boat anchored in the water:
Gewiton him þa feran, flota stille bad,
So they went on their way. The ship rode the water,
Such boar-shapes may have been like those on the Sutton Hoo helmet, terminating at the ends of the eyebrows and looking out over the cheek guards. Beowulf himself dons a helmet "set around with boar images" (besette swin-licum) before his fight with Grendel's mother; further described as "the white helmet . . . enhanced by treasure" (ac se hwita helm . . . since geweorðad), a similar description could have been applied to the tinned Sutton Hoo example. (The two helmets would not have been identical, however; Beowulf's was further described as "encircled in lordly links"—befongen frea-wrasnum—a possible reference to the type of chain mail on the Valsgärde 6 and 8 helmets that provided neck and face protection.) The other style of boar adornment, mentioned three times in the poem, appears to refer to helmets with a freestanding boar atop the crest. When Hrothgar laments the death of his close friend Æschere, he recalls how Æschere was "my right hand man when the ranks clashed and our boar-crests had to take a battering in the line of action." These crests were probably more similar to those on the Benty Grange and Wollaston helmets, a detached boar found in Guilden Morden, and those seen in contemporary imagery on the Vendel 1 and Valsgärde 7 helmets and on the Torslunda plates.
Alongside the boar imagery on the eyebrows, the silver inlays of the crest on the Sutton Hoo helmet find linguistic support in Beowulf. The helmet presented to Beowulf as a "victory gift" following his defeat of Grendel is described with identical features:
no he þære feohgyfte
It was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts
This portion of the poem was thought "probably corrupt" until the helmet was discovered, with the suggestion that "the scribe himself does not appear to have understood it"; the meaning of "the notorious wala," in particular, was only guessed at.[note 15] The term is generally used in Old English to refer to a ridge of land, not the crest of a helmet; metaphorically termed wala in the poem, the crest is furthermore wirum bewunden, literally "bound with wires." It therefore parallels the silver inlays along the crest of the Sutton Hoo helmet. Such a crest would, as described in Beowulf, provide protection from a falling sword. "A quick turn of the head as the blow fell would enable the wearer to take it across the 'comb' and avoid its falling parallel with the comb and splitting the cap." The discovery has led many Old English dictionaries to define wala within the "immediate context" of Beowulf, including as a "ridge or comb inlaid with wires running on top of helmet from front to back," although doing so "iron[s] out the figurative language" intended in the poem. The specific meaning of the term as used within the poem is nevertheless explicated by the Sutton Hoo helmet, in turn "illustrat[ing] the intimacy of the relationship between the archaeological material in the Sutton Hoo grave and the Beowulf poem."
A final parallel between the Sutton Hoo helmet and those in Beowulf is the presence of face masks, a feature which makes the former unique among its Anglo-Saxon and East Scandinavian counterparts. The uniqueness may reflect that, as part of a royal burial, the helmet is "richer and of higher quality than any other helmet yet found." In Beowulf, "a poem about kings and nobles, in which the common people hardly appear," compounds such as "battle-mask" (beadogriman), "war-mask" (heregriman), "mask-helm" (grimhelmas), and "war-head" (wigheafolan) indicate the use of visored helmets. The term "war-head" is particularly apt for the anthropomorphic Sutton Hoo helmet. "[T]he word does indeed describe a helmet realistically. Wigheafola: complete head-covering, forehead, eyebrows, eye-holes, cheeks, nose, mouth, chin, even a moustache!"
The Sutton Hoo helmet was discovered over three days in July and August 1939, with only three weeks remaining in the excavation of the ship-burial. It was found in more than 500 pieces, which would prove to account for less than half of the original surface area. The discovery was recorded in the diary of C. W. Phillips as follows:
Friday, 28 July 1939: "The crushed remains of an iron helmet were found four feet [1.2 m] east of the shield boss on the north side of the central deposit. The remains consisted of many fragments of iron covered with embossed ornament of an interlace with which were also associated gold leaf, textiles, an anthropomorphic face-piece consisting of a nose, mouth, and moustache cast as a whole (bronze), and bronze zoomorphic mountings and enrichments."
Saturday, 29 July: "A few more fragments of the iron helmet came to light and were boxed with the rest found the day before."
Tuesday, 1 August: "The day was spent in clearing out the excavated stern part of the ship and preparing it for study. Before this a final glean and sift in the burial area had produced a few fragments which are probably to be associated with the helmet and the chain mail respectively."
Although the helmet is now considered to be one of the most important artefacts ever found on British soil, its shattered state caused it to go at first unnoticed. No photographs were taken of the fragments in situ, nor were their relative positions recorded, as the importance of the discovery had not yet been realised. The only contemporary record of the helmet's location was a circle on the excavation diagram marked "nucleus of helmet remains." When reconstruction of the helmet commenced years later, it would thus become "a jigsaw puzzle without any sort of picture on the lid of the box," not to mention a jigsaw puzzle missing half its pieces.
Overlooked at first, the helmet quickly gained notice. Even before all the fragments had been excavated, the Daily Mail spoke of "a gold helmet encrusted with precious stones." A few days later it would more accurately describe the helmet as having "elaborate interlaced ornaments in silver and gold leaf." Despite scant time to examine the fragments, they were termed "elaborate" and "magnificent"; "crushed and rotted" and "sadly broken" such that it "may never make such an imposing exhibit as it ought to do," it was nonetheless thought the helmet "may be one of the most exciting finds." The stag found in the burial—later placed atop the sceptre—was even thought at first to adorn the crest of the helmet, in parallel to the boar-crested Benty Grange helmet. This theory would gain no traction, however, and the helmet would have to wait out World War II before reconstruction could begin.
Excavations at Sutton Hoo came to an end on 24 August 1939, and all items were shipped out the following day. Nine days later, Britain declared war on Germany. The intervening time allowed "first-aid treatment of fragile objects and perishables," and for "the finds to be deposited in security." Throughout World War II the Sutton Hoo artefacts, along with other treasures from the British Museum such as the Elgin Marbles, were stored in Aldwych tube station. Only at the end of 1944 were preparations made to unpack, conserve and restore the finds from Sutton Hoo.
The helmet was first reconstructed by Herbert Maryon from 1945 to 1946. A retired professor of sculpture and authority on early metalwork, Maryon was specially employed as a Technical Attaché at the British Museum on 11 November 1944. His job was to restore and conserve the finds from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, including "the real headaches – notably the crushed shield, helmet and drinking horns." Maryon's work on the Sutton Hoo objects continued until 1950, of which six months "full-time and continuous" work was spent reconstructing the helmet. Stalled for years by World War II and still in the fragmentary state in which it had entered the war, by the time it reached Maryon's workbench the "task of restoration was thus reduced to a jigsaw puzzle without any sort of picture on the lid of the box," and, "as it proved, a great many of the pieces missing."
Efforts on the first reconstruction began with a "process of familiarisation" with the various fragments; each piece was traced and detailed on a "piece of stiff card", until after "a long while" reconstruction could commence. For this, Maryon sculpted "a head of normal size" from plaster, then "padded the head out above the brows to allow for the thickness of the lining which a metal helmet would naturally require." The fragments of the skull cap were then initially stuck to the head with Plasticine, or, if thicker, placed into spaces cut into the head. Finally, "strong white plaster" was used to permanently affix the fragments, and, mixed with brown umber, fill in the gaps between pieces. Meanwhile, the fragments of the cheek guards, neck guard, and visor were placed onto shaped, plaster-covered wire mesh, then affixed with more plaster and joined to the cap.
Though visibly different from the current reconstruction, "[m]uch of Maryon's work is valid. The general character of the helmet was made plain." The 1946 reconstruction identified the designs recognised today, and similarly arranged them in a panelled configuration. Both reconstructions composed the visor and neck guards with the same designs: the visor with the smaller interlace (design 5), the neck guard with a top row of the larger interlace (design 4) above two rows of the smaller interlace. The layout of the cheek guards is also similar in both reconstructions; the main differences are the added length provided by a third row in the second reconstruction, the replacement of a design 4 panel with the dancing warriors (design 1) in the middle row, and the switching of sides.
Reception and criticism
The first reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet was met with worldwide acclaim and was both academically and culturally influential. It stayed on display for more than 20 years, during which time it became an iconic object of the Middle Ages. In 1951 the helmet was displayed at the Festival of Britain, where an exhibit on Sutton Hoo was curated by Rupert Bruce-Mitford. That same year Life dispatched a 25-year-old Larry Burrows to the British Museum, resulting in a full-page photograph of the helmet alongside a photograph of Maryon; five years later, on the strength of his restorations, Maryon was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Images of the helmet made their way into television programmes, books, and newspapers, even as the second reconstruction was worked on. Though the lasting impact of the first reconstruction is as a first, reversible, attempt from which problems could be identified and solutions could be found, for two decades Maryon's reconstruction was an icon in its own right.
With the helmet on public display and as greater knowledge of contemporary helmets became available, the first reconstruction "was soon criticised, though not in print, by Swedish scholars and others."[note 16] An underlying issue was the decision to arrange the fragments around the mould of an average man's head, possibly inadvertently predetermining the reconstruction's size. Particular criticisms also noted its exposed areas, and a neck guard that was fixed rather than movable. Though envisioned as similar to a "crash helmet of a motor cyclist" with padding of about 3⁄8 inch (9.5 mm) between head and helmet, its size allowed for little such cushioning; one with a larger head would have had difficulty just getting it on. The missing portion at the front of each cheek piece left the jaw exposed, there was a hole between eyebrows and nose, and the "eye holes were so large" as to "allow a sword to pass through." Meanwhile, as noted early on by Sune Lindqvist, the "angle of the face mask looked strange, not least because it rendered the wearer's nose vulnerable in the event of a blow to the face."
A final issue raised by Maryon's construction was the use of plaster to elongate the crest by approximately 4 1⁄2 inches (110 mm). The crest had largely survived its millennium of interment, perhaps given durability by the inlaid silver wires. The need to replace missing portions was thus questioned; it was thought that either Maryon had reconstructed the crest "to an undue length", or that original portions had been overlooked during the 1939 excavation. When the ship-burial was re-excavated in the 1960s, one of the objectives was thus to search for more fragments, the absence of which could be treated as evidence that the crest had originally been shorter.
Re-excavations at Sutton Hoo, 1965–70
Numerous questions were left unanswered by the 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo, and in 1965 a second excavation began. Among other objectives were to survey the burial mound and its surrounding environment, to relocate the ship impression (from which a plaster cast was ultimately taken) and excavate underneath, and to search the strata from the 1939 dumps for any fragments that may have been originally missed. The first excavation had been effectively "rescue dig" under the threat of impending war, creating the danger that fragments of objects might have been inadvertently discarded; a gold mount from the burial was already known to have nearly met that fate. Additional fragments of the helmet could hopefully shed light on the unidentified third figural design, or buttress Maryon's belief that 4 inches (100 mm) of the crest were missing. To this end, the excavation sought "both positive and negative evidence." New crest fragments could go where Maryon had placed plaster, while their absence could be used to suggest that the crest on the first reconstruction was too long.
Four new helmet fragments were discovered during re-excavation. The three 1939 dumps were located during the 1967 season, and "almost at once" yielded "fragments of helmet and of the large hanging bowl ... as well as fragments of shield ornaments and a tine from the stag." The finds were so plentiful that a single three foot by one foot section of the first dump contained sixty cauldron fragments. The four pieces of the helmet came from the second dump, which contained only items from the ship's burial chamber. They included a hinge piece from the dexter cheek guard, a "surface flake" from the crest, a small piece of iron with fluted lines, and a small piece of iron edging showing part of the larger interlace design.
The most important helmet finds from the re-excavation at Sutton Hoo were the piece from cheek guard, and the lack of any substantial crest piece. The fragment of the cheek guard joined another found in 1939, together completing "a hinge plate for one of the moving parts of the helmet, which could not be done previously." Meanwhile, although a "surface flake" from the crest was discovered, its placement did not affect the overall length of the crest. The lack of significant crest finds instead "reinforce[d] scepticism of the long plaster insertions in the original reconstruction."
The current reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet was completed in 1971, following eighteen months work by Nigel Williams. Williams had joined the British Museum in his teens after studying at the same Central School of Arts and Crafts as Maryon, yet in contrast to Maryon, who completed the first restoration in his 70s and "with the use of only one eye," Williams reconstructed the helmet while in his mid-20s.
In 1968, with problems evident in the first reconstruction that were left unresolved by the re-excavations at Sutton Hoo, the decision was made to reexamine the evidence. "After several months' consideration" it was decided to disassemble the helmet and construct it anew. The cheek guards, face mask and neck guard were first removed from the helmet and x-rayed, revealing the wire mesh covered in plaster and overlaid by fragments. The wire was then "rolled back like a carpet", and a saw used to separate each fragment. The remaining plaster was chipped away with a scalpel and needles. The final piece of the helmet, the skull cap, was next cut in half by pushing off the crest with "long pins" inserted through the bottom of the plaster head and then slicing through the middle of the head. The "central core of plaster" was then removed, and the remaining "thin skin of plaster and iron" separated into individual fragments "in the same way as the ear flaps, neck guard and face mask." This process of separation took four months and left the helmet in more than 500 fragments. The result was "terrifying" to Williams. "One of only two known Anglo-Saxon helmets, an object illustrated in almost every book on the early medieval period, lay in pieces."
After four months of disassembly, work began on a new construction of the helmet. This work was advanced largely by the discovery of new joins, marked by several breakthroughs in understanding. "Almost all" of the new joins were found by looking at the backs of the fragments, which retained "a unique blackened, rippled and bubbly nature," "wrinkled like screwed up paper and very black in colour." The distinctive nature is thought to result from a "disintegrated leather lining permeated with iron oxide"—indeed, this is the evidence substantiating the leather lining in the Royal Armouries replica—and allowed for the fragments' wrinkles to be matched under a microscope. In this manner the skull cap was built out from the crest, aided by the discovery that only the two fluted strips bordering the crest were gilded; the six fragments with gilded moulding were consequently found to attach to the crest. The cheek guards, meanwhile, were shaped and substantially lengthened by joining three fragments from the sinister side of the first reconstruction with two fragments from the dexter side. The exposed areas by the jaw left by the first reconstruction were only eliminated near the end of the second, when an expert on arms and armour advised that the cheek guards should simply switch sides.
When a "reasonable picture of the original helmet" was in view, more than nine months of work into the second reconstruction, the repositioned fragments were placed against a "featureless plaster dome." This dome was itself built outwards with "oil-free plasticine" to match the original dimensions of the helmet. The fragments were held in place with "long pins" until a mixture of jute and adhesive was molded to the shape of the missing areas, and adhered to the fragments. The edges of the fragments were then coated with water-resistant resin, and plaster was spread atop the jute to level and smooth the helmet's surface. The plaster was painted light brown to resemble the colour of the fragments while allowing the fragments themselves to stand out; lines were then drawn to indicate the edges of the panels. The result was a hollow helmet in which the backs of the fragments remain visible. On 2 November 1971, after eighteen months of time and a full year of work by Williams, the second and current reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet was put on display.
The 1971 reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet was widely celebrated, and in the five decades since it has come to symbolise the Middle Ages, archaeology, and England. It is depicted on the covers of novels, textbooks, and scholarly publications, such as The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell and The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell, and has influenced artists, filmmakers and designers. At the same time, the helmet has become the face of a time once known as the Dark Ages, but now recognised for its sophistication—in part because of the finds from Sutton Hoo—and referred to as the Middle Ages. It gives truth to a period of time known from depictions of warriors and mead halls in Beowulf, once thought fanciful, and personifies the Anglo-Saxons in post-Roman Britain. Considered "the most iconic object" from an archaeological find hailed as the "British Tutankhamen," in 2006 it was voted one of the 100 cultural icons of England alongside the Queen's head stamp, the double-decker bus, and a cup of tea.
Although "universally acclaimed," the current reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet left "a number of minor problems unsolved" and contains several slight inaccuracies. These are primarily confined to the neck guard, where "very little indeed of the original substance . . . survives that can be positioned with any certainty." Two blocks of fragments on the bottom edge, and four blocks of fragments in the middle, are only speculatively placed, leaving some uncertainty about their correct locations. The resulting uncertainties relate to the placement of the individual fragments within the larger space, rather than to a problem with the proposed shape of the neck guard.
As currently reconstructed, the Sutton Hoo neck guard has three principal problems. Several fragments of design 5 are placed too high on the neck guard, which "shows more space below the lengths of transverse fluted strips than above them. The space left below is greater than the length of the die, while the space above is less than the length of the die." Corrected on the Royal Armouries replica, the configuration should allow for two full impressions of design 5, of equal length, joined vertically at their ends. Furthermore, the lack of fragments from the neck guard leaves open the question of how many vertical strips of design 5 were used. Although seven strips were suggested in the reconstruction, "[t]here is no evidence to indicate that there were seven vertical ornamental strips on the lower portion of the neck-guard, and the suggestion . . . that the number should be cut to five is equally possible." Even if seven is the accurate number, the current reconstruction shows an "implausible inward tilt" by the two strips flanking the central one; straightening the strips "would have the effect of allowing the ornamental strips to fan out naturally, leaving evenly-expanding wedges of plain surface between them." Finally, the neck guard hangs lower on the current reconstruction than it would have when made, for the top of the neck guard originally fitted inside the cap. This leaves the abutting edges of the dexter cheek and neck guards at different levels, and was corrected on the Royal Armouries replica.
Royal Armouries replica
In 1973 the Royal Armouries collaborated with the British Museum to create a replica of the newly restored Sutton Hoo helmet. The museum provided a general blueprint of the design along with electrotypes of the decorative elements—nose and mouth piece, eyebrows, dragon heads, and pressblech foils—leaving the Master of the Armouries A. R. Duffy, along with his assistant H. Russell Robinson and senior conservation officer armourers E. H. Smith and A. Davis to complete the task. A number of differences in construction were observed, such as a solid crest, lead solder used to back the decorative effects, and the technique employed to inlay the silver, although the helmet hewed closely to the original design. The differences led to the replica's weight of 3.74 kg (8.2 lb), or 1.24 kg (2.7 lb) heavier than the estimated weight of the original. The finished replica was unveiled before an address at the Sachsensymposion in September 1973 with theatrical flair: the lights were dimmed; down the aisle came Nigel Williams holding a replica of the Sutton Hoo whetstone; and behind him followed Rupert Bruce-Mitford, wearing a carriage rug and with hands hieratically crossed, wearing the Royal Armouries helmet and reciting the opening lines of Beowulf.
The Royal Armouries replica clarified a number of details of the original helmet, and provided an example of what it looked like when new. It could also be worn and subjected to experimentation in a way the original could not. In particular the reproduction showed that the neck guard would have originally been set inside the cap, allowing it to move with more freedom and ride up, and thereby demonstrated an inaccuracy in the 1971 reconstruction, where the neck guard and the dexter cheek guard are misaligned. The replica also corrected a second error in the reconstruction of the neck guard by affording an equal length to both the lower and upper instances of design 5, although it probably introduced an error by placing a visible billeted border on all four sides of each design 5 impression. That the replica could be worn also evinced several attributes of the original. It demonstrated the ranges of motion and vision that a wearer would have, and that with adequate padding in addition to the leather lining, people with heads of different sizes could comfortably wear the helmet. It also showed that the helmet, while stifling, could realistically be worn in battle, and that it would bestow upon its wearer a commanding and sonorous voice. Finally, and most strikingly, the Royal Armouries replica simply showed how the Sutton Hoo helmet originally appeared. It showed the helmet as a shining white object rather than a rusted brown relic, and in doing so illustrated the lines in Beowulf referring to "the white helmet . . . enhanced by treasure" (ac se hwita helm . . . since geweorðad).
The replica is displayed in the British Museum alongside the original helmet in Room 41. It has also been exhibited worldwide, including stops in the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
In popular culture
- The second edition of the 1966 Ordnance Survey Map of Britain in the Dark Ages, produced under the direction of C. W. Phillips, featured a drawn replica of the 1946 reconstruction of the helmet.
- A drawing of the Sutton Hoo helmet appears on the cover and loading screen of the 1983 video game Valhalla, and was featured prominently in related advertising.
- Replicas of the helmet are frequently seen in film and television, such as in Gladiator (2000), where a replica can be seen in the armoury when the gladiators are selecting armour to use in the Roman Colosseum, in Merlin, where one is shown in the bedroom of Arthur, in the British Museum in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016), in the New York Sanctum Sanctorum in Doctor Strange (2016), and as a Meccano construction in Detectorists (2017).
- Suspended from the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo since March 2002 is a 1.8 m (5.9 ft) tall sculpture by Rick Kirby entitled Sutton Hoo Helmet.
- A set of six postage stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2003 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the British Museum featured the helmet alongside other Museum objects such as Hoa Hakananai'a and a mask of Xiuhtecuhtli.
- In 2006 the helmet was voted one of the 100 cultural icons of England as part of a project commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
- A 2009 series of manga drawings by Yukinobu Hoshino included depictions of objects from the British Museum such as the Sutton Hoo helmet and Rosetta Stone.
- The sixth episode of Relic: Guardians of the Museum, aired in 2010, required the contestants to answer questions about the Sutton Hoo ship-burial and helmet.
- Portrayals of the Sutton Hoo helmet are well represented on album covers,[note 17] including those by the bands Warrior (For Europe Only, 1983), Marillion (Grendel/The Web, 1984), Enslaved (Vikingligr Veldi, 1994), Solstice & Twisted Tower Dire (Solstice / Twisted Tower Dire, 1997), Amon Amarth (The Avenger, 1999), Saxon (Killing Ground, 2001), Hrossharsgrani (fr) (Schattenkrieger, 2003), Isen Torr (Mighty & Superior, 2004 [EP], 2008 [single]), Forefather (Steadfast, 2008; Curse of the Cwelled, 2015), Celtachor (In the Halls of Our Ancient Fathers, 2010), and Ancient Rites (Laguz, 2015).
- The Erik den Röde brand of surströmming, a Swedish fermented herring dish, shows the helmet with "a gentle smile, presumably in anticipation of the delicacies inside."
- The 2015 strategy game Total War: Attila features the leader of the Saxons, Gewis, wearing a Sutton Hoo helmet.
- The impression of design 4 on the top left corner of the replica cheek guard is actually upside down.
- With that said, the evidence for the unidentified design has changed over time, from one piece which later turned out to be part of design 2, to the seven pieces recognised today. Maryon suggested an unidentified design because of a single piece showing "a solitary leg, from knee to foot, about 1⁄2 inch [13 mm] high." Williams's reconstruction moved this piece "from the bottom edge of the cap at the rear up to a position against the crest at top centre," where it was revealed to be a part of the second design after all. The existence of an unidentified pattern was thus putatively eliminated when Bruce-Mitford claimed in his 1972 article on the new reconstruction that there were only four designs. Even in the first volume of The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, published in 1975, he referred to the unidentified scene in the past tense, stating that "at the time of the re-excavation  it was believed that there was a third figural scene on the helmet." Indications of a third scene did not return until volume two of the same work, published in 1978, where seven small fragments were discussed as being incapable of placement within the four known designs.
- There is nothing to suggest that the cap was made from more than one piece of metal, although "the extreme deterioration of the fragments has not allowed this to be confirmed beyond doubt." Radiographs show no "welded, forged or riveted join," while the "joining of certain fragments at the crown of the helmet demonstrates that the iron sheeting of the cap ran continuously through under the crest." Based on this evidence it seems likely that the cap was made from a single piece of metal.
- This technique is distinguished from repoussé work, a much more labor intensive process. Repoussé work uses small punches to raise individual details from behind a metal sheet, which are then refined from the front by chasing, whereas pressblech work raises a design in one operation from a single die. Permutations of pressblech work involving multiple operations do, however, exist. The die used for design 5 on the Sutton Hoo helmet, for example, appears to have had a billeted border on only one each of its long and short sides, while on the neck guard the design is seen with borders along both long sides. "If the die was applied not one impression at a time but as seen on the face-mask, as a continuous series of impressions carefully juxtaposed, on a large sheet of foil, this could be cut in such a way as to leave the pattern with double borders down each side. It seems that this was the method used on the neck-guard."
- Bruce-Mitford suggests there were 23 garnets in the dexter eyebrow and 25 in the sinister, but a technical report appending the chapter posits 21 and 22 respectively.
- An alternative theory suggests that the discrepancy between eyebrows is the result of a repair job. "That the absence of foils might result from a repair," however, "and presumably therefore a shortage of gold, seems unlikely in view of the minute quantities needed. Additionally, given the evident skill required to shape the gold cell walls and cut the garnets so precisely, the decision to omit the gold foils on the left eyebrow appears all the more deliberate." The repair theory also fails to account for the absence of gold foil behind one of the garnet dragon eyes. On the other hand, a repair could explain the other subtle differences between the eyebrows, such as their slightly different lengths and colours, which are not addressed by the theorized allusion to Odin.
- The image appears as it would once mounted on a helmet. The eye that was struck from the plate is the leftmost eye from the perspective of one viewing the plate—i.e., that which is furthest from the animal-like figure—but the right eye from the perspective of the possible Odin figure.
- Assuming that this figure, which is only partly preserved on the Sutton Hoo helmet, takes the form of the like figure on the Pliezhausen bracteate.
- Bruce-Mitford appears reluctant to even acknowledge fragment (c) as part of Design 3. Despite writing in 1978 that "[t]he fragment is mounted in the present helmet reconstruction on the right side towards the back," in 1982 he wrote that "none of the fragments that show portions of Design 3 are mounted in the helmet. Since we know neither what this scene depicted, nor how many times it was employed, to place such fragments in the reconstructed helmet could give a false impression both of the subject and of the position it may have occupied in the decorative layout of the helmet." These contradictory statements would be reconciled by accepting Bruce-Mitford's theory that fragment (c) was a scrap, and not meant to be seen.
- This number consolidates the work of multiple scholars. Steuer numbers the helmets from 1 through 30, although he groups the five Vendel examples—three whole, two fragmentary—as #13, and the four Valsgärde examples as #15. His list thus truly encompasses 37 helmets. Tweddle adds six to Steuer's list—a seventh turned out not to be the 10th century helmet that he suggested, but rather a World War II SSK 90 Luftwaffe helmet manufactured by Siemens—but makes no mention of the fact that Steuer grouped nine helmets into two spots on his list. Tweddle's addition therefore makes 44 (37+6)—not the 37 (30+7) that he claimed. To these may be added the subsequent discoveries from Wollaston, Staffordshire, Horncastle, Uppåkra, Inhåleskullen, and Gevninge, along with the boar from Guilden Morden, for a total of 50 known crested helmets.
- The Wollaston helmet, which was designed similarly to the Coppergate helmet, may have originally had some form of neck protection. Ploughing of the field in which it was buried, however, destroyed much of the helmet, including most of the dexter side. "The rear edge of the helmet's brow band is almost entirely lost through ploughing but the short section that did survive, when x-rayed, appeared to have part of at least 2 possible perforations on its damaged edge. The purpose of perforations in this position could only be to fix a neck guard of some type." The remaining section of the rear edge of the brow band is only 26 mm long, however, rendering "[t]he purpose, and on such a small length the existence, of the perforations . . . uncertain."
- In contrast to the Constantinian group, however, the cheek and neck guards on the Sutton Hoo helmet were affixed directly to the bowl. Late Roman helmets tended to have an iron band along the bottom of the cap to which the lower pieces were attached, as is seen on the Duerne, Augsburg-Pfersee, and Berkasovo 1 and 2 helmets.
- The Emesa helmet was also restored by Herbert Maryon, who carried out the first reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo helmet. An account of the restoration was published by H. J. Plenderleith in 1956.
- Indeed, H. Russell Robinson, an expert on Roman armour who worked at the Royal Armouries and helped with its replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet, was the one who suggested the leather lining used in the replica.
- In 1882, for instance, wala was defined as "some part of a helmet," with the particular lines in Beowulf only partially translated as "about the helm's top a 'wal' wire-girt guarded on the outside the head's defense (i.e. the helmet)." By 1916 it was termed a "rib, comb (of helmet)," and in 1922 it was said that "[t]he exact nature of a wala, which seems to be an ornamental as well as useful part of the helmet, is not known." This confusion led to incorrect or speculative translations of the relevant lines, such as (1837) "[a]bout the crest of the helm, the defense of the head, it held an amulet fastened without with wires"; (1855) "[a]round the helmet's roof, the head-guard, with wires bound round"; (1914) "[r]ound the crown of the helm, as guard for the head, without, ran a rib to which plates were made fast"; (1921) "[a]bout the roof of that helmet / his head's safety, With wires ywounden, / a wreath guarded without"; and, by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1926, "[r]ound the helmet's crown the wale wound about with wire kept guard without over the head." Despite the many mistranslations, a correct interpretation of the use of the word wala was theorized at least twice before the discovery of the Sutton Hoo helmet. With the Vendel 1 helmet, which had a crest with "reminiscences or imitations of actual wire inlays on earlier or richer helmets," as his inspiration, Knut Stjerna suggested in 1912 that the "helmet had a rib or comb running up to it to its whole height and down again at the back, and this must have been the part of the helmet which is spoken of as the walu." Elizabeth Martin-Clarke posed a similar idea during a 1945 lecture, stating that "probably here we may have a reference to a special part of the helmet also which resists the sword cut . . . well represented in the picture of a reconstructed helmet from Vendel ."
- The only published criticism may have been that of Sune Lindqvist, who wrote that the reconstruction "needs revision in certain respects." Lindqvist's only specific criticism, however, was that the face mask was "set somewhat awry in the reconstruction." Bruce-Mitford was undoubtedly aware of Lindqvist's criticism when he wrote that the first reconstruction was not criticised in print, for he was the English translator of Lindqvist's article. He was thus likely referring to the more substantial criticisms of the reconstruction, such as its gaps in afforded protection, which indeed do not seem to have been published.
- These are primarily limited to metal albums, and include some anachronistic depictions on Viking Metal album covers. If viking metallers have "read extensively" they have often done so "uncritically," eliding several centuries to join the Sutton Hoo helmet with the Viking Age.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sutton Hoo helmet.|
- Catalogue entry at the British Museum
- Catalogue entry at the British Museum for the Royal Armouries replica
- Helmet from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo at the Google Cultural Institute (brief description and details)
- Sutton Hoo: Anglo-Saxon ship burial at the Google Cultural Institute (includes brief description and several photos of the helmet)
- The Sutton Hoo helmet at the Khan Academy (description and colour photographs of both reconstructions)
- Scanned pages of the Beowulf manuscript in the Nowell Codex held by the British Library
- Colour photo by Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951
- Colour photo by Larry Burrows published in LIFE magazine on 16 July 1951
- Colour photo by Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951, seen with the Sutton Hoo sword and photos of the Vendel 14 helmet and Valsgärde 6 sword hilt
- Colour photo by Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951, seen with Herbert Maryon and photos of the Vendel 14 (right) Valsgärde 6 (left) helmets
- Colour photo by Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951, seen with Herbert Maryon and photos of the Vendel 14 (right) Valsgärde 6 (left) helmets
- Colour photo by Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951, seen with much of the rest of the Sutton Hoo treasure
- Colour photo by the British Museum, available here upon request in high resolution with a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- Colour photo by the British Museum, available here upon request in high resolution with a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- B&W photo by the British Museum, front view
- B&W photo by the British Museum, profile (dexter) view
- B&W photo by the British Museum, profile (sinister) view
- 32 photos by the British Museum, available upon request in high resolution with a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- B&W photo by the British Museum showing the three dragon heads, available here upon request in high resolution with a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- B&W photo by the British Museum showing the back of the helmet during reconstruction, available here upon request in high resolution with a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- Colour photo by the British Museum showing the placement of the upwards-facing dragon, available here upon request in high resolution with a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
Royal Armouries replica