A rusty, corroded helmet dug up by workers in 1950’s Britain, on display at a Yorkshire museum for years, has been revealed as only the second near-complete Viking helmet ever found.
Discovered by workers digging sewage trenches in Yarm in Stockton-on-Tees in the northeast of England, the Yarm helmet has been on loan to Preston Park Museum for decades. It's long been known locally as the “Viking helmet” but it’s only now a study in Medieval Archaeology has confirmed it is indeed a rare example of Viking armor. Only one other mostly intact Viking helmet has ever been found.
Popular depictions of Vikings have them wearing the iconic two-horned round helmet, but no Viking ever wore such a thing. This style of helmet was in fact created by a 19th-century opera costume designer for a performance of Wagner’s classic Norse saga Der Ring des Nibelungen.
The style of the Yarm helmet is 10th-century, but its real age and whether or not it was a replica or a genuine article has been much debated. Genuine Viking helmets are a rare find because after the Anglo-Scandinavians and Saxons in Britain became Christians in the 10th century, they stopped being buried in graves with their helmets, which preserves them.
When the helmet was first discovered, there was virtually nothing to compare it to, making it nearly impossible to attribute to a time or culture. However, the project led by Dr Chris Caples, an emeritus reader at Durham University, has shown that it is a genuine 9th-11th century helmet made in the north of England, and comparable to the only other confirmed intact Viking helmet ever found in Gjermundbu in Norway.
The helmet is made up of iron bands and plates riveted together in a domed shape, with a circular browband, nose plate, and spectacle (eye) mask. This style, known as Spangenehelme, was a popular medieval European combat helmet design, but the spectacle mask and regular circular holes that suggest it once featured a mail curtain, are similar to Viking (and earlier) helmets found in Valsgärde, Sweden.
Analyzing the helmet was difficult because it was made of thin iron, making it fragile and susceptible to corrosion. It had to be examined in very dry conditions as well as X-rayed. They used the analysis of the metal and evidence from other recent archaeological discoveries to date it to between the 9th and 11th centuries. However, “it was not simply a question of showing the date at which it was created but working out how it had survived until it was unearthed in the 1950s,” Caples said.
“Our analysis showed that it was initially preserved in waterlogged conditions, only later becoming damaged and starting to corrode. Fortunately, it was discovered before it corroded away completely.”
Although other medieval helmets have been found in Britain, including the 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Coppergate helmet and the 7th-century Sutton Hoo helmet, this is the first confirmed Anglo-Scandinavian helmet ever found in Britain, and consequentially, the second only Viking helmet ever found in the world.