The Sutton Hoo Helmet: An Iron Face of the Vendel Period

Sutton Hoo is a burial hill in the English county of Suffolk. It was found at the end of 1930, and probably the most significant archeological finds through the whole history of Great Britain were made there. Among these was a ship burial that dates back to the edge of the VI and VII centuries.
This is considered to be the place where King Rædwald of East Anglia was buried. His personal belongings were buried together with him. These included the Sutton Hoo helmet we are talking about.

An Unexpected Treasure

Great Britain has gained this treasure (like many others, by the way) due to a woman; her name was Edith May Pretty. It happened that just 500 yards from her house, 18 burial hills were found. She heard a lot of stories from local old-timers about the gold hidden there and decided to study the place.
She was a quite wealthy and enthusiastic woman. When she was young, she participated in archeological excavations, and she was interested in spiritualism. So, it is no surprise that she decided to perform excavations of these burial hills near her house.

She turned to Basil Brown, a self-taught archeologist, who worked in the Ipswich museum and participated in excavations of Roman (villa rustica) ruins in Suffolk. Edith Pretty offered him accommodation and a wage of 30 shillings per week. In June 1938, Brown started his work.

He started his excavations from the largest burial hill, which is now known as the 1st hill. But then he found signs of the underground passage and decided that the burial hill contents had been stolen already. Then, after consulting with Edith Pretty, he switched to hills two, three, and four.
Unfortunately, these were a disappointment as well. Tomb raiders were the first to come there, and the archeologist found only some fragments of the artifacts.

However, even these fragments attracted the attention of society. So, representatives of the Ipswich museum started to participate in the excavation process as well.But when excavations of the large burial hill began in 1938, the results surpassed all expectations.

Inside the hill, they found a ship, though a completely rotten one. According to British laws, the finds belong to the landowner. But Mary was so generous that she decided to leave them to the British Museum as her bequest. Therefore, as a sign of thankfulness and appreciation, the prime-minister Winston Churchill offered her an Order of the British Empire, which she refused to accept.

What did they find in the burial hill?

In the large ship burial, which used to sail centuries ago, the archeologists found various armor, a shield, a helmet, gold coins, silver utensils from Byzantine Empire and Egypt, and many other relics. This hoard, along with Staffordshire one, is considered to be the richest in the history of England. The difference between them is that Staffordshire Hoard was found by a metal detecting fan, while the ship burial was a result of archeological excavations.

We should mention that at that time, it wasn’t a common thing to bury ordinary warriors (and even not ordinary ones) in personal ships.
After the treasure hunter died in 1942, all jewels, relics, and treasure found in the large burial hill were given to the British museum according to her will.

As for the less precious objects found in other burial hills during further excavations, they are now exhibited in the Ipswich Museum.
The British Museum estimated the finds as ‘one of the most important archeological discoveries of all times.’ Moreover, most of them didn’t have (and they don’t have nowadays!) any comparable counterparts on the British Isles.

However, it seems that the helmet was the most intriguing treasure of them all.

Dating of the helmet

The fact that there were no bones found made the specialists think that this burial could have been a cenotaph, one without a body, a false burial. Though we can’t exclude that as a possibility, we must also remember that, over the years, the bones could have dissolved in the soil that has high acidity. However, this idea is supported by the newest analysis of microelements from the excavation area.

The specialists assumed that the process of farewell with the deceased took a long time, and the body spent a long time in the open. Since the bones of killed animals preserved quite well, while the bodies of buried people smoldered to ashes completely.

Who was buried in Sutton Hoo is not clear till now. Though, there is an assumption that this is the tomb of King Rædwald of East Anglia.
Whoever it was, the Sutton Hoo helmet dates back to 600 — 650 CE. By the time the helmet was found, it had broken into many pieces; however, it has since been successfully restored.

Nowadays, the helmet is exhibited in the museum, and the rest of its pieces are put on its mount.

Description of the Helmet

Studies of the helmet fragments show that its cupola was most likely to be a one-piece forged. But there were two cheek guards and a one-piece forged neck-flap attached to it. The eye-slits were not as deep as those of most helmets. There was an iron mask attached to the helmet in the front. It resembled the face of a man with a mustache. The mask connected to the helmet cupola at three points – in the center and on the edges. The nose and the mustache are separate items made of bronze.

The nose is a pronounced one, and it has two holes for breathing in the bottom. The whole mask is covered with plates made from tinned bronze, which formed a beard at the bottom of the mask.

The mask’s superciliary arches have a triangle shape in section, and they are decorated with silver wire. At the bottom, the mask was decorated with a line of andradites in the shape of a rectangle. At the end of the superciliary arches, there are animal heads – specialists consider that these are wild boars made of gilt bronze.

The whole helmet, including its protection components, was partially covered with stamped decorated sheets made from the tinned bronze of five different types. Both the sheets themselves and the way they were fixed to the helmet completely matched those used for helmets from the Vendel period. Although, the scientists didn’t succeed in finding out exactly which sheets should go where on the helmet.

The time and effort spent on the helmet reconstruction were rather significant because only the mask, the helmet-crest, and both superciliary arches were found in a satisfactory condition. Nevertheless, the helmet was almost completely reconstructed. Namely, the shape of the helmet cupola was defined due to its curved helmet-crest.

A bird and a dragon

The helmet mask and its forehead deserve a separate story. In the middle of the mask, there is a relief picture of a bird with wings displayed. Its body forms the mask nose, the tail is a mustache, and the wings are superciliary arches on the mask.

The bird rising in the sky can be seen with the dragon’s jaws, and the dragon looks down. Its large iron body is decorated with a silver wire that goes winding along the whole helmet-crest. The whole bird and dragon’s heads are made from gilt bronze. The superciliary arches of the helmet have a triangle shape; they are decorated with silver and andradites at the bottom.

Where was the Sutton Hoo helmet made?

Interestingly, the andradites used to decorate the helmet could have been brought from Sri Lanka or India. The presence of the good trade connections of the helmet’s manufacturer is also proved by the other objects buried together with the helmet: gold coins from France, silver cups from the Byzantine Empire, silver spoons with Greek signs.

But where the helmet was made?

This could be England, where Scandinavian helmets from Vendel inspired armorers. At the same time, it could have been Scandinavia, where some traditions from Rome could have come as well. We hope that to find the answer to this question in the future.

Protection of iron and magic

In conclusion, we can summarise that a warrior’s head when wearing Sutton Hoo Helmet is protected from all sides. Not only physically, but also at a magical level:

  • The wings are ending with wild boar’s jaws that cover the face from sides
  • The dragon’s head bares its teeth even from behind.
  • The bird’s and dragon’s eyes are made from shiny polished andradites – this is an additional way to see things besides the warrior’s eyes. The stones shine from their holes and scare the enemy

A dragon, a wild boar, and a predatory bird are symbolic in Anglo-Saxon culture in West England, where the helmet was found. Pay attention that all the heads demonstrate sharp teeth, since this is a perfect way to scare off evil spirits.

The author – Peter Harrington, Hobbies – historical reenactment, especially England of the 15th century; archery, medieval swordcraft, participation in the tournaments, metal detecting.

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