Thursday, 6 December 2012

Finally an English Spangenhelm (Shorwell)

Finally an English Spangenhelm

Recently a new Anglo-Saxon helmet has come to light. It is presently being reconstructed by the British Museum. It was acquired way back in 2006 but was originally thought to be an iron cooking pot (as was the late-Roman Burgh Castle helm!). To be fair, the helmet is in numerous small fragments but it appears to be a so-called ‘spangenhelm’ dating to the 6th century CE and comparable with numerous examples from continental Europe. Other than some fragments of gold foil found in Dumfriesshire which just may be part of the brow-band of a spangenhelm, evidence for the use of this common type of Migration-Age helmet in Britain has been lacking until now. It is thus well worth while reviewing this type of helmet.

This successful design is thought to be of Middle-Eastern origin rather than Roman. The earliest evidence for the design comes from the Eurasian steppes, having been adopted by Iranian tribes such as the Sarmatians. A Sassanian example dating to the fourth century CE was found at the site of the Ishtar Temple in Nineveh (and now resides in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad). Another two examples reside in the British Museum. In 175 CE, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, after defeating the Sarmatians during the Marcomannic Wars, took 8,000 Sarmatians into Roman military service, and by the 3rd century CE, the spangenhelm was being worn by Roman infantry, as evidenced by Trajan’s Column. By the fifth century the use of the Spangenhelm was widespread from the Middle East to Europe.

Sarmatian battle-gear depicted on Trajan's Column.

The Spangenhelm was certainly the most common type of helmet in use in continental Europe during the 6-7th century CE. At least a couple of dozen have been found, mainly in Frankish areas such as modern France and Germany but also in Ostragothic and Langobard areas such as Italy and the Balkans. Some speculate that these helmets were made in or around Ravenna, the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy, and given as diplomatic gifts to neighbouring rulers.

Presumably Ostrogothic helms from North Italy Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The design of these helmets are fairly uniform; being composed of an iron brow-band to which are attached four to six curved iron plates riveted together by vertical metal (often copper-alloy) bands to form a cone. These clasping bands are called spangen in German, hence the name. The spangen often took the form of inverted ‘T’ shapes, which sometimes were decorated with punch-work. At the apex of the cone, many spangenhelms had a metal disc, sometimes with a central knob to which a horse-hair plume could be attached. These helmets were often gilded or silvered - for rust-proofing as much as for its decorative effect. Pressblech foils were used to decorate the brow-band.

Some spangenhelms had a nasal but most examples found do not. Many did have cheek-pieces and mail neck protection, however. Cheek-pieces and lower rim often show regular perforations, suggesting either leather edging, lining or both. The cheek-plates seem to have been attached to the helmet by the leather lining, with no evidence of hinges.
6th Century spangenhelm from Krefeld Gellep, Germany
This design must have been so popular due to its being simple to manufacture. In an age when it was difficult to produce other than small bars of iron, such a composite design would have had significant advantages. They would last until late into the 9th century, when they would be replaced by nasal-helms of very similar shape but hammered out from a single piece of iron.

The Shorwell Helm

The fragmentary remains are of an entirely ferrous-metal helmet with a basically classic spangenhelm design. It is a simple bowl and appears to lack nose, cheek or neck protection. The helm is composed of a simple 6cm wide brow-band to which is fixed two bands crossing at right-angles. The spaces between the spangen are filled by leaf-shaped dished iron plates. The helmet-bowl is ovoid rather than round in cross-section and the appearance is rather more hemispherical than conical. This gives it a more Frankish than Ostragothic appearance although the lower dome could equally be an insular feature. More information on the helm can be found on the British Museum website  (click here).
Fragments of the Shorwell Helm (British Museum)

Illustration of the Shorwell Helm's construction (British Museum) (click to expand)


The modern German term ‘spangenhelm’ might well not have been out of place in 6th century England. In Old English gespannan means join together. Spann and spang mean ‘clasp’. The term spanghelm might thus be quite appropriate for this helmet. As it lacks any copper-alloy features, it could also be described as eallĂ­ren (all-iron).


It has always been assumed that spangenhelms were in use in early Anglo-Saxon England but the appearance of the Shorwell Helm will make those of us who have replica spangenhelms a little happier that their use in an Anglo-Saxon living history context rests on a secure evidence base. Replicas of this helmet will, I have no doubt, soon be seen in early Anglo-Saxon re-enactment. Lacking any decoration, these helmets should today be relatively cheap to acquire. It is a good ergonomic design and could easily be worn under a hat, like a cervelliere.

It makes one wonder, though, how many more historically important fragmentary iron Anglo-Saxon military artefacts have been misinterpreted by archaeologists!

Thegn Matt wearing an earlier conjectural Anglo-Saxon spangenhelm replica

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