Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Saxon Helmet Restored Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Jessica E. Saraceni

[image] Helmet found in the grave of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princeling (Courtesy Ian Meadows) [LARGER IMAGE]

A Saxon princeling's iron helmet has been reassembled from pieces found in a seventh-century A.D. grave in Northamptonshire, England. The helmet, only the fourth example of such warrior gear ever found, is being called the Pioneer Helmet, after Pioneer Aggregates, which paid for the excavation and conservation of the artifacts. The other three helmets were recovered from Benty Grange, Derbyshire, in 1861, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in 1939, and Coppergate, York, in 1982.

Rolly Read, former antiquities conservator for Newarke Houses Museums in Leicester, first examined a CT scan of the helmet's remains, which had been removed from the grave in a block of soil. Organic materials inside the helmet may be the remains of a leather lining. Traces of feathers and textiles on the outside suggest that the princeling rested on a mattress or bolster. The top of the helmet is decorated with a boar, as is the Benty Grange helmet. The epic Beowulf refers to warriors with figures of boars on the crests of their helmets, intended to invoke the Germanic deity Freyr for protection in combat. "This was a good quality fighting helmet," says Read. "The nosepiece and figure of a boar on the crest are plain." Once the pieces of the helmet were freed from the soil block, they fit together perfectly to form a high rounded dome. Site director Ian Meadows of the Northamptonshire Council Archaeology Unit believes the helmet was probably secured with a leather chin strap fastened to its crescent-shaped cheek pieces.

The grave also contained an iron sword, a large piece of a bronze hanging bowl, and skeletal remains including teeth, a six-inch piece of leg bone, and a skull fragment. The bowl, embellished with an inlaid millefiori escutcheon, may have been incomplete when deposited in the grave. The sword blade, made of four bundles of iron rods woven and forged together to increase its strength, is about three feet long; the sword was probably worn over the shoulder. It may have had a horn handle with a gold pommel cap that was removed before burial. Traces of a leather-covered wooden scabbard lined with fleece were also found.

"His teeth show no evidence of illness or deformity, and the leg and skull fragments suggest he was of slight build," says Meadows. "He was probably 25 years old when he died. Fly pupae cases on the helmet indicate that he may have been reburied, or buried after being transported to his home area. We know from Anglo-Saxon literature that sometimes burial was delayed for preparation of the grave." The helmet and other artifacts are now at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, where they will soon be displayed.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America