The SUTTON HOO HELMET is a decorated Anglo-Saxon helmet discovered during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial . Buried around 625, it is widely believed to have been the helmet of King Rædwald ; for whom its elaborate decoration may have given it a secondary function almost 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, with eyebrows, nose and moustache creating the image of a man who is then joined by a dragon's head to become a soaring dragon with outstretched wings, has become a symbol not only of the Dark Ages, but also "of Archaeology in general." Excavated as hundreds of rusted fragments, the helmet was first displayed following an initial reconstruction in 1945–46, and then again, in its present form, after a second reconstruction in 1970–71.
Along with all the other finds from Sutton Hoo, the helmet was
determined by a treasure trove inquest to be the property of the
landowner of the site of the ship-burial, Edith May Pretty . She
subsequently donated all the objects to the
* 1 Background
* 2 Design
* 2.1 Construction * 2.2 Dragon motifs * 2.3 Design 1: the dancing warriors * 2.4 Design 2: rider and fallen warrior * 2.5 Design 3: unidentified figural scene * 2.6 Design 4: the larger interlace * 2.7 Design 5: the smaller interlace
* 3 Context and parallels
* 3.1 Helmets
* 3.1.1 Anglo-Saxon * 3.1.2 Scandinavian
* 4 Discovery
* 5 First reconstruction
* 5.1 Criticism * 5.2 Re-excavations at Sutton Hoo, 1965–70
* 6 Current reconstruction
* 6.1 Errors
* 7 In popular culture * 8 Notes * 9 References
* 10 Bibliography
* 10.1 Other helmets
* 11 External links
* 11.1 Photographs
The ship impression during the 1939 excavation Main article: Sutton Hoo
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
Replica helmet showing designs 1, 2, 4 and 5, located (1) above the eyebrows and on the cheek guard, (2) on the skull cap, (4) on the cheek guard and skull cap, and (5) on the face mask
The Sutton Hoo helmet 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. 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." 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 (de) 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, perhaps, other objects. 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. 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.
The winged dragon motif from the front of the helmet, with eyebrows for wings and the nose and mouth piece for body and tail
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
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: THE DANCING WARRIORS
One of the four Torslunda plates, showing a horned figure similar to those in design 1. His missing left eye suggests that he is Odin.
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 "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
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 (de), 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."
DESIGN 2: RIDER AND FALLEN WARRIOR
The Pliezhausen bracteate shows a scene nearly identical to design 2.
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.
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.
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
Valsgärde 7 and 8 helmets, the
DESIGN 3: UNIDENTIFIED FIGURAL SCENE
The seven unidentified fragments
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
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."
DESIGN 4: THE 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: THE 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—joined by those found
at Benty Grange , Coppergate , Wollaston , Shorwell , and
Staffordshire —yet is closer in character to those from
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 (de). Nearly 50
helmets are so classified, although barely more than a dozen are
capable of reconstruction and a few are so degraded that it cannot be
indisputably said that they were once helmets at all. Excepting an
outlier fragment found in
Of the crested helmets the
Sutton Hoo helmet belongs to the Vendel
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
HELMET LOCATION /? COMPLETENESS REFERENCES
Benty Grange England: Derbyshire
Wollaston England: Wollaston , Northamptonshire
Icklingham England: Icklingham , Suffolk
Gevninge Denmark: Gevninge, Lejre , Sjælland
Vestre Englaug Norway: Vestre Englaug, Løten, Hedmarken
Sweden Sweden: Unknown location (possibly central)
Sweden: Prästgården, Timrå ,
Valsgärde 6 Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland
Valsgärde 7 Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland
Valsgärde 8 Sweden: Valsgärde, Uppland
Ultuna Sweden: Ultuna , Uppland
Vaksala Sweden: Vaksala, Uppland
Vallentuna Sweden: Vallentuna , Uppland
Sweden: Landshammar, Spelvik,
Benty Grange *
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, 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.
Valsgärde 5 *
Valsgärde 6 *
Valsgärde 8 *
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 either iron strips or protective mail curtains."
The helmets from Ultuna,
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
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
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
In all these decorative respects, two Scandinavian helmets, from
Valsgärde 7 and Gamla Uppsala, are uniquely similar to the Sutton Hoo
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
Valsgärde 7 version of the dancing warriors design,
however, contains "only 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
Understandings of the
Sutton Hoo ship-burial and
Helmets with boar motifs are mentioned five times in Beowulf, and
fall into two categories: those with freestanding boars and those
Gewiton him þa feran, flota stille bad, seomode on sale sidfæþmed scip, oa ancre fæst. Eoforlic scionon ofer hleorbergan gehroden golde, fah ond fyrheard, ferhwearde heold guþmod grimmon.
So they went on their way. The ship rode the water, broad-beamed, bound by its hawser and anchored fast. Boar-shapes flashed above their cheek-guards, the brightly forged work of goldsmiths, watching over those stern-faced men.
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
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
no he þære feohgyfte for sceotendum scamigan ðorfte. Ne gefrægn ic freondlicor feower madmas golde gegyrede gummanna fela in ealobence oðrum gesellan. Ymb þæs helmes hrof heafodbeorge wirum bewunden wala utan heold, þæt him fela laf frecne ne meahton scurheard sceþðan, þonne scyldfreca ongean gramum gangan scolde.
It was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts in front of the hall-troops. There haven't been many moments, I am sure, when men exchanged four such treasures at so friendly a sitting. An embossed ridge, a band lapped with wire arched over the helmet: head-protection to keep the keen-ground cutting edge from damaging it when danger threatened and the man was battling behind his shield.
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. The term is generally
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 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
the intimacy of the relationship between the archaeological material
Sutton Hoo grave and the
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. "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 in its fragmentary, unreconstructed state
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 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." The helmet fragments were neither photographed nor recorded in situ, leaving only their general location known.
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
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 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
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
Though visibly different from the current reconstruction, "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.
Criticisms of the first reconstruction noted its small size, seen by the projecting face mask; the unprotected jaw; the hole left between nose and crest; the plaster used to lengthen the crest; and the fixed neck guard.
The first reconstruction "was soon criticised, though not in print, by Swedish scholars and others." A "basic fault" 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 "cut-away" 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 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
Discovered in 1967, the fragment on the left completed a hinge on the dexter cheek guard
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 scepticism of the long plaster insertions in the original reconstruction."
The helmet while being assembled for the second time. A dragon head has been positioned facing upwards so as to create the image of a dragon in mid-flight. See also: Nigel Williams
The current reconstruction of the
Sutton Hoo helmet was completed in
1971, following eighteen months work by Nigel Williams . Williams had
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.
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 uncertainly 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
principle 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
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.
* In the 2000 film Gladiator , a replica of the
Sutton Hoo helmet
can be seen in the armoury, when the gladiators are picking which
armour to use in the Roman
* Portrayals of the
Sutton Hoo helmet are well represented on album
covers , 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),
* Marillion's singer Fish often donned a replica of the helmet for
performances of the song Grendel, inspired by the eponymous novel and
by the poem
* 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 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 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
* ^ 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 most 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.
* ^ Although the image shows the figure's right eye—i.e., that
which is furthest from the animal-like figure—as missing, it is a
mirror image of how the design would actually be seen. The Torslunda
plates are bronze dies from which "impressions were struck in sheet
bronze" and subsequently "mounted on helmets." In this final form,
the left eye would be seen to be missing.
* ^ Bruce-Mitford appears reluctant to even acknowledge fragment
(c) as part of Design 3. Despite writing in 1978 that "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
* ^ Steuer 1987 , p. 200 n.32.
* ^ Google Arts & Culture .
* ^ Davis 2013 .
* ^ Richards 1992 , p. 131.
* ^ A B Bruce-Mitford 1975 , p. xxxvii.
* ^ Bruce-Mitford 1975 , pp. 718–731.
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* Edited and republished in Bruce-Mitford 1974a , ch. 1
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* Edited and republished in Bruce-Mitford 1974a , ch. 8
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to SUTTON HOO HELMET .
* Catalogue entry at the
* Colour photo by
Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951
* Colour photo by
Larry Burrows published in LIFE magazine on 16
* Colour photo by
Larry Burrows for LIFE magazine in 1951, seen with
Sutton Hoo sword and photos of the