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Thursday, 26 January 2012

Golden Helmet of the Staffordshire Hoard?

The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in the parish of Hammerwich in the heart of Mercia in 2009 was an extremely exciting time; never before had so many, ornate finds from the Anglo-Saxon period been found. The mysterious context of the finds encouraged public fascination, but my own personal interest was focused on one item; k453, the largest item in the hoard; something that must surely have been the shining golden cheekpiece of the most ornate helmet that had ever been.

We quickly visited the hoard on two occasions, obtained measurements and tried to come up with a means of incorporating such a cheek-piece into helmet designs of the age, to put together a working hypothesis of what this most magnificent of helmets could have looked like.
This article lays out some thoughts on piece K453, and the 5th Anglo-Saxon helm to be discovered.
(nb. This article is intended to encourage debate, as interpretation of the finds of the Staffordshire Hoard remains far from complete. Inferences about the hoard, and items within it remain uncertain.)

The item in question, K453, is silver-gilt, and exquisitely decorated with Style-2 beasts. It is not solid, but rather a "shell" with a sharp fold at one side (supported by a transition in the decoration).
K453: Side
Cheek-pieces with roughly the shape of the piece from the view shown above are well precedented; all Saxon helmet finds but the Benty-Grange have such cheekpieces which echo Roman designs, and are accompanied by other examples from the continent. The most stunning example of such a helm, from Sutton Hoo, had highly decorated cheekpieces, though arguably not in the same league as the piece from the hoard.
Looking at the measurements of the piece (approximately 100mm long, 80 mm wide and 19 mm deep) the first problem with it's identification as a helmet cheek-piece is identified.
The piece on its own is simply not large enough, particularly in length, to offer any meaningful degree of protection when mounted on a conventional Anglo-Saxon helmet cap, barely reaching below the top of the cheekbones.
Either this piece is merely half of the casing of a much larger cheek-piece (as is later discussed), or would have to be mounted on an extension of the cap, solid and continuous to the headband, down to half-way down the face, where a hinge could then attach the Hoard piece. Such an arrangement is unprecedented, and arguably places the hinge in a rather redundant position.

But what hinge? No evidence of attachment had been found, until recently when conservator Deborah L Magnoler (Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Team, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery) made the connection between K453 and a number of small "tabs", which seem to have been torn from the piece. In addition, a piece matching the folded edge of K453 was found, confirming that this came as part of a pair.
Tab K1507 matched up
However, while the tabs that have been matched to the piece indicate its attachment to something, they certainly do not indicate any kind of hinge. In fact, their holes appear to be intended to accommodate rivets, holding the piece fast. Whilst immovable cheek-pieces are not unthinkable (although unprecedented in this period) the flimsy tabs in the hoard seem not to be sufficiently strong to hold a cheek-piece in place, and would likely break at the slightest impact. That said, if only a covering, no hinge would be expected. 

The folded edge of the piece, and it's counterpart k97, pose yet another problem for the "cheek-piece hypothesis". When placed in the context of a helmet it becomes clear the tip of this folded edge would slice into the cheek of the wearer should anything impact it. The obvious explanation for this folded edge is that the silver-gilt piece in the hoard must've been a decorative shell that encapsulated an iron core. However, as the folded edge is 19mm wide, the cavity to be filled must have been at least 15mm thick. A cheek-piece over a centimetre-and-a-half thick is, in the context of all we know about the period, absurd. With such thickness, each cheek-piece would contain at least a kilogram of iron. Furthermore, there is no feasible mechanical way to attach this shell to an iron core; the tabs found, on their own don't seem sufficient, only in evidence on one side of the piece.
K97; matches K453's side
Whilst it is possible that the space was filled, in part, by padding, compression would risk exposing the sharp edge of the decorative plate. A compression-resistant material such as bulls hide could serve this purpose well, with sufficient thickness to fill the cavity, but how would this attach? It will be interesting to find out whether the inside of the shell shows evidence of rivets beneath, that could have served this purpose.

If we are to assume K453 is indeed part of a helmet, it would most likely have been the covering to the lower part of a cheek-piece of a similar length to other Anglo-Saxon helms, with the attachment tabs covered over by another piece of silver-gilt decoration or decorative foils. However, as discussed, explanations must then be made for the depth of the cavity implied by the folded edge, and how such a piece could have been held securely onto the cheek-piece core beyond just the one-side of rather flimsy-looking attachment tabs. Extrapolating from the curves of K453, the cheek-piece implied also seems rather on the narrow side, especially in comparison to Sutton Hoo, though further investigation is needed here.

On balance however, the problems identified cast doubt on weather K453 was indeed part of a cheek-piece; other proposals include part of an ornately decorated horses bridle, of a kind mentioned in Beowulf.
Heht ðá eorla hléo eahta méaras
Faétedhléore on flet téön
in under eoderas þára ánum stód
sadol searwum fáh  since gewurþad

with decorated head-gear,  led onto the hall-floor

saddle skilfully adorned,  ennobled with jewels;

The defender of earls then ordered eight horses,
in under the ramparts;  one of them stood,
But what of the Staffordshire Helmet?
Whilst there is doubt over the so-called "cheek-piece", other, small items from the hoard are very likely to have been stripped from a helmet. In particular, silver pressblech foils of the kind which adorned the Sutton Hoo helm, and many of the Vendel Period in Sweeden have been found in tiny fragments and when reassembled, can clearly be seen to depict ranks of warriors wearing animal-crested helms. Other pieces include what may be a hollow helmet crest, and a horses head terminal that could, potentially, take the role of stylised dragons found on Sutton Hoo and the Vendel-period helms.

Sutton Hoo Helm; Perhaps the closest comparison?
None of these finds tell us much about the structure of the helm itself. We can, however, make educated guesses based on the precedent set by other finds. Almost all Anglo-Saxon helms had a nasal rather than a visor, and almost all found had large, hinged cheek-pieces, so a good guess at the Staffs Helm's structure would follow these conventions. We know it was decorated with embossed silver foils, and would likely have followed the typical "Northern Ridge Helm" construction seen on its contemporaries. Other finds offers no hints at what neck protection was favoured, as they vary widely in this regard.
However, these are guesses; no reliable statistical inference can be gained from a sample size of 4. In addition, in the messy context of a gold hoard, even the idea that all helmet-related items came from the same helm could be questioned.

It is unlikely we will ever know the true story of the hoard, know for certain what the Staffordshire Helm looked like, or be certain of the function of the mysterious piece K453. However, through further discussion, and utilising the invaluable tool of re-constructive archaeology, hope remains that we might catch a glimpse of what once must have been a magnificent helm, and uncover more of the hoard's mysteries. 
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References
Dociu, D. Crowning Glory; An artist's vision of a helmet from the time of the treasure (National Geographic). [Online] Available from: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/gold-hoard/clark-photography#/10-artist-rendition-soldier-helmet-670.jpg .
Magnoler, D. L. (2011) K453 and the ‘Cheek piece’ Group. [Online] Available from: http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/k453 .

1 comment:

Stephanie Ann said...

I love the knotwork on that!