Confirmation of Britain’s first Viking helmet

2 mins read

After extensive research, Dr Chris Caple from Durham University has determined that the Yarm helmet – discovered in the 1950s by workmen digging trenches for new sewerage pipes at Yarm in North Yorkshire – is of Anglo-Scandinavian origin. This makes it the first, and only, example to be found in Britain. While it had been previously speculated that the helmet was Viking or Norman, its age had not been proven before now.

Surviving helmets from the early medieval period in Britain are rare. Only seven others are known, six of which are thought to be Anglo-Saxon, with the other being of Continental Frankish design (see CA 354). At the time of the Yarm helmet’s discovery, only those from Sutton Hoo and Benty Grange in Derbyshire had been identified, both of them visually very different. So at first it was assumed the Yarm specimen might be of Norman manufacture. It was not until the Coppergate and Wollaston helmets were unearthed that it began to be thought that the Yarm find could have early medieval origins. But without any contextual evidence available from its excavation, the helmet remained unauthenticated for decades. To rectify this and finally establish its age, Dr Caple and his colleagues undertook morphological, historical, and chemical analyses.

Unlike other early medieval helmets found in Britain, the Yarm helmet has a spectacle mask, which is more commonly found on helmets in Scandinavia. CREDIT: Durham University

Using digital X-radiographs, Dr Caple was able to determine the nature of the helmet’s construction. He found that it is composed of a bounded cross band with four infill plates, which is virtually identical to the crested Anglo- Saxon helmets mentioned above. Unlike these helmets, however, the Yarm specimen lacks a crest or cheek guards. Instead, it has a spectacle mask – a feature that is seen on helmets in Scandinavia from the late 6th-8th centuries, with a later example at Gjermundbu (Norway) dating from the 10th century. Intriguingly, a recently recovered 10th-century stone sculpture, as well as part of a hogback stone from the 12th-century church at Pickhill in North Yorkshire, depict a warrior wearing a spectacle mask helmet, suggesting that this type of helmet may have been particularly long-lived in north-eastern England.

Metallurgical analysis confirmed that the helmet was medieval in date, and hence unlikely to be a modern replica as has at times been suggested. Four small samples were taken from the helmet and analysed using SEM-EDS (see CA 366 and CA 367). This analysis demonstrated that it was made from early wrought iron using a bloomery production method, which was common in Britain during the medieval period. No traces of carburised metal or significant amounts of low-carbon steel were detected, which would have indicated a more-recent manufacture date.

Dr Caple also assessed the conditions of the helmet’s survival. He found high concentrations of vivianite, siderite, and possibly iron sulphides, indicating burial in waterlogged conditions – which would explain why it was able to survive for so long. Interestingly, few of these minerals were found inside the helmet, suggesting that it had either been stuffed with something that has since decomposed, leaving no trace, or that it was placed upright in the ground and covered with soil. In all, it appears to have been deliberately buried, but for what purpose remains unknown.

This news article appears in issue 368 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.