Opinion: There are FIVE Anglo-Saxon Helmets (and the Staffordshire Helm isn’t one of them)
- A corpus review & quibbling rant by Æd Thompson
|Sutton Hoo Helmet (reconstr.) - Wikimedia Commons|
The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain spanned six centuries, and although it is unfairly reductive to characterise it purely as a time of war, it is undoubtedly true that regular clashes between well-equipped armies peppered the period and dictated the convoluted path taken from locally identifying post-Roman communities to a coherent united England. The scale of Anglo-Saxon armies continues to be debated, and it is not entirely clear how well equipped they were, but archaeological discoveries in recent decades have provided abundant examples of war-gear – especially weapons – to inform our image of Anglo-Saxon warriors. Such gear is most abundant from the early period (5-7th centuries) thanks to grave goods from the ultimately doomed furnished-burial rite, but even from these centuries, that most evocative item of war-gear, the helmet, is exquisitely rare. We just don’t have many examples. There’s a bigger problem though; we don’t even know how many examples we have. Almost all running totals are wrong.
The relatively short supply of Anglo-Saxon helmets might be disappointing to reenactors, book cover artists and historic drama costume departments, but it’s not all that surprising. Helmets are surprisingly rare in general. Even Roman helmets are unaccountably rare finds, especially considering the reach and longevity of the empire whose army peaked at around half a million, well equipped soldiers spread across Europe, western Asia and North Africa. The rarity of helmets (and other armour) in the archaeological record can for the most part be explained by the not-so-new concept of recycling; an old, broken or rusty helmet would always have represented a significant mass of valuable iron which could be reworked into new items; prior to relatively recent times with reasonably abundant supply of industrially produced metals, the recycling of such material would have always been worthwhile. As such, at least with respect to Anglo-Saxon helmets (and other large iron items) the only ones which survive for us to examine are those which were accidentally lost, hidden and never retrieved, or in most cases deliberately given-up, by the living, during funerary rites. That’s the more important and more boring matter dealt with. But I didn’t start writing this to wrestle with difficult and impactful questions concerning the availability of Anglo-Saxon military equipment; I’d much rather quibble over accounting. So let me explain why everyone’s got the count of Anglo-Saxon helmets wrong.
How Many Helmets?
Depending on which book you’re reading, there are either three, four, five, or six Anglo-Saxon helmets. This is determined by how recent the source is, and/or whether the author has bothered to verify this factoid before copying it wholesale from another publication. There are a number of other helmets which orbit these “official” ones but are typically not included because their provenance or identity cannot be verified. There’s also the murky question of what makes something “Anglo-Saxon” – and given we can’t even agree on that when it comes to the culture as a whole or any people within it, it’s a can of worms when generic items of approximately early medieval-looking iron turn up out of context. There is no “carbon-dating” for metal, and although analytical techniques (particularly X-Ray Refraction / XRF) can establish whether an item has the chemical makeup consistent with medieval (but also other) wrought irons, it is currently not possible to narrow objects down to particular time-periods or sources. The few verified examples are quite varied in construction, and there is no especially distinctive quirk to the way in which Anglo-Saxon smiths riveted pieces of iron together, compared to other cultures, so subtract the characteristically Anglo-Saxon but presumably rare decoration seen on the Sutton Hoo or Coppergate helms, and Anglo-Saxon helms sit in continuity with those of other periods and cultures. As such, context is critical.
Here’s the official corpus up to 2009, in order of their excavation (but not identification); for reasons which will be discussed further down, after 2009 things become a bit of a mess.
• The Benty Grange Helmet. Monyash, Derbyshire. 1848.
Discovered during excavation of a “tumulus” in the “bleak” situation of Benty Grange Farm on the ancient road between Ashbourne and Buxton, by 19th century antiquarian Thomas Bateman, the Benty Grange helmet was the greatest of a small number of extant (if highly degraded) grave-goods from what had been a high status, lone mid 7th century burial. The broad but low burial mound also yielded remains of a silver-bound cup, a mass of iron chainwork with hay-fork-like hanging attachment (most likely analogous to the elaborate hook-piece of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 cauldron-chain), and some small fragments of what had once been an Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl, of the type common in 7th century “chieftain” burials. Although excavated before the advent of modern archaeology, we know far more than other Anglo-Saxon burials excavated in the 19th century thanks to the methodical and meticulous approach employed by Bateman and his colleagues – which included David Llewelyn Jewitt, tasked with producing highly detailed watercolours of all the finds as they appeared when they came out of the ground. The assemblage of finds is highly suggestive of a high status, perhaps even “royal” burial, but this sits uncomfortably with its remote position and conspicuous lack of weapons – the context may have been robbed in antiquity.
|Thegns of Mercia reinterpretation of the Benty Grange Helmet (2018)|
The helmet itself comprised of a framework of thin iron strips riveted together, surmounted by a boar-figure which further analysis showed was built of copper-alloy beneath shaped iron shells, with gilded silver spots, and fierce lentoid cabochon garnet eyes set within gold filigree. Preserved texture on the iron was quickly identified as having come from horn plates, long rotted away, which would have spanned the framework to produce a complete dome, with the gaps between them, running along the iron frame, covered by additional horn strips in a complimentary arrangement held on by centrally-placed domed rivets with decorative double-axe-headed rivet caps. Additional silver elements included a cross on the nasal surrounded by a carefully planned arrangement of studs, and a further array of flakes of silver foil (not extant or collected, but mentioned in Bateman’s diary) providing the tantalising possibility that the helmet was further augmented with pressblech foils (as shown on our reproduction). Until the lacklustre announcement of the Shorwell helm, the Benty Grange Helmet held the title of least appreciated Anglo-Saxon helm and is grossly underrated, not least due to the sorry state of its remains. It is further affected by the mistaken assumption that a helmet that makes substantial use of organic materials must inevitably be a poorer or less expensive object. In fact, already comprised of a substantial mass of iron (as well as silver) anyway, the organic components of the helmet – perhaps up to eight full-sized ox-horns that would otherwise have made elite drinking vessels like those in Taplow, Prittelwell and Sutton Hoo, would have represented an enormous investment, far exceeding the paltry mass of iron which would be required to infill the helmet bowl with iron plates; this costly design choice cannot be accounted for by a lack of access to iron. The helmet is difficult to fit into the typology of European helmets from antiquity and the early medieval period, and is most (although very uncomfortably) comparable to the early 6th century boy’s spangenhelm from Cologne, due to its use of horn plates as infill.
• The Sutton Hoo Helmet. Mound 1, Sutton Hoo. Woodbridge, Suffolk. 1939.
|Replica of Sutton Hoo Helmet - Wikimedia Commons|
Discovered during the now legendary excavation of the intact royal ship burial, Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, by Basil Brown and others, in 1939, the Sutton Hoo helmet is now the most familiar and enduring symbol of Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Though now so familiar, in fact, the helmet was discovered smashed into many pieces, and the importance of these fragments was not immediately realised. Reconstruction of the helmet from the jigsaw-puzzle of iron and bronze were attempted by Herbert Maryon from 1945-46, with the results put on display and widely praised, except among Swedish scholars familiar with the related helms of the Vendel-culture. Additional fragments were uncovered during re-excavations in 1967, which ultimately allowed for reconstruction of the now familiar design by Nigel Williams in 1971. A reproduction of the helmet in its full glory was quickly attempted by the Royal Armouries, and the helmet became an international sensation, although contrary to widespread understanding, some unresolved design problems still remain.
A full discussion of the design of the Sutton Hoo helmet could form an entire article, or even a book in and of itself, but very briefly, the helmet we now know was approximately 2.5kg, made of iron covered with decorative pressblech foils of tinned bronze, producing a mostly silvery appearance. The face-plate bore a hollow gilded bronze nose, mouth, moustache, and boar-head tipped eyebrows augmented with garnet cloisonné arranged with a toothed beast-head between so that together they form a winged beast, kissing another which terminates the silver-wire inlaid crest. The helm is a unique variant of the “northern ridge helm” design most abundantly represented by similarly constructed and decorated helmets from high status eastern Swedish graves of the 6-8th centuries (Vendel Culture) and most of the other Anglo-Saxon examples, though its bowl, formed of two halves, is lower and more close-fitting than either Pioneer/Wollaston or Coppergate. Though often overstated, the cheek-guards and particularly the neck-guard, rather more than those of the Vendel culture, can be seen to be clearly derivative of late Roman designs. It is widely accepted that the helm was well designed and highly functional. Its decoration is without any overtly Christian motifs, and comprised entirely of designs consistent with late 6th to early 7th century Anglian art and (as far as we understand) Anglian mythology.
• The Coppergate Helmet. Coppergate, York. 1982.
|Our replica of the Coppergate Helm, by White Rose Armoury (circa 1986)|
The best preserved of the five, the Coppergate Helm was discovered during excavations in preparation for the building of the Coppergate Shopping Centre in York, when a mechanical digger hit a hard object which turned out to be the helmet, causing some damage. It was in a wood-lined pit approx. 1.4m long, together with a seemingly random collection of other objects including a weaving-sword, churn dasher, and various other small pieces of various materials. From the context it seemed this highly valuable object had been hidden, in a place otherwise used to throw rubbish, with the intention of being retrieved later.
The helmet is of well-worked iron embellished with cast brass decoration, including wonderful interlace on the long outward-jutting nasal, eyebrows terminating in boar heads (more atrophied than those of Sutton Hoo) and a crossing, concave crest bearing a Latin, Christian prayer inscription, terminating in a single dragon-head between the eyebrows. The bowl is comprised of a broad rectangular nose-to-nape band supplemented by lateral pieces, and then a quartered arrangement of infill plates, unlike the half-dome arrangement of Sutton Hoo; this approach produces a somewhat higher and “squarer” dome which is shared by the remarkably similar, though earlier, Wollaston helmet. The deep cheek-pieces which would have protected the vulnerable blood vessels of the upper throat, hang from complex but undisguised iron hinges, while the neck is protected, uniquely (at least in England) by a hanging curtain of forge-welded mail. As with Sutton Hoo, the Coppergate Helm could be the subject of an entire article itself (and indeed, the seminal work on the subject (The Anglian Helmet from 16-22 Coppergate, Dominic Tweddle, 1992) remains the best starting-point for any study of early Medieval helmets).
The helmet was unquestionably a princely possession manufactured in 8th century Northumbria. The history of Northumbria in the 8th-9th centuries was extremely turbulent, and it is tempting, if fanciful, to imagine this helmet (an heirloom and badge of Northumbrian royal status) being squirreled away, out of sight, around the time of the Viking capture of York in 866.
• The Wollaston / Pioneer Helmet, Wollaston, Northamptonshire. 1997.
|Our replica of the Wollaston / Pioneer Helm, by Tim Noyes / Heron Armoury (2014).|
This helmet was discovered in March 1997 during excavations on ground adjacent to the Nene flood plain and 250m from a small group of Bronze Age barrows, where quarrying (by Pioneer Aggregates) was due to begin. What was discovered was a single burial of a young male, beneath what was probably a burial-mound long since ploughed away. The burial contained a limited set of skeletal remains, the helmet, three iron buckles, a small knife, two copper alloy clothing hooks, a bronze hanging-bowl (with inlaid millefiori escutcheon), a mysterious assortment of short iron rods and tubes, and a patternwedled sword blade with no extant hilt fittings. The sword was pattern-welded, with an interrupted twist design similar to that of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 sword. Overall the burial is comparable particularly to Benty Grange, but also to other relatively high status, late phase warrior burials.
The helmet was in fairly good condition, with a mostly intact bowl, single extant cheekpiece with iron hinge, deliberately inwardly bent but reinforced nasal, and in contrast to all other examples then known, no signs of any precious-metal fittings or embellishments. Unfortunately the back of the helm was largely disintegrated, and so little can be said with certainty about its neck-guard. Its structural construction is closely homologous to that of the Coppergate helm from approx. a century later, and it also shares a nose-to-nape and ear-to-ear crossing ridge, though this time formed convex and of iron, integrating a small and simple boar-crest like a diminutive and less costly version of the Benty Grange boar. The more utilitarian design of the Wollaston helm inevitably invites speculation that it may be representative of a more common type of helmet worn by professional Anglian warriors, as implied by the relatively uniform depictions of nasal-helms on the Pictish Aberlemno II stone. For more on the Wollaston Helm see http://thethegns.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-wollaston-pioneer-helm_1.html
• The Shorwell Helmet, Shorwell, Isle of Wight. 2004.
|Shorwell Helmet. (C) The British Museuem|
Metal-detectorists in May 2004 discovered a plough-damaged Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Shorwell on the Isle of Wight, of which only one grave was individually identifiable. Subsequent archaeological excavation recovered from this grave, the remains of a pattern-welded sword with silver pommel and gilded bronze scabbard-mouthpiece, bronze buckle, spearhead, shield boss and grip, fluted glass vessel, hanging bowl, and around 400 fragments of what was thought to be an iron cooking vessel. These fragments, from the head area of the burial, were eventually reassembled at the British Museum, and were announced as another Anglo-Saxon helmet in 2012.
This helmet is distinctive, both in being the only example to date, of a Spangenhelm (rather than ridge-helm) found in an Anglo-Saxon context, and that it comes from a context at least a century earlier than all other helmet finds – approx. early to mid 6th century. The lack of a central reinforcing ridge (justifying its classification) is obvious, though the use of a single broad nose-to-nape band (rather than multiple bands all joining at the apex) produces a less conical dome and hints at some continuity with the Wollaston and Coppergate helms. The helm lacks any decoration, and apart from some holes near the ear – probably for the attachment of a leather chin-strap, it features no extant cheek, face, or neck protection. However, the Benty Grange helmet should caution of us of the danger of not seeing beyond the metalwork, and it is possible that the badly preserved remains represent only the underlying structural ironwork of a partially organic helmet. For more on Shorwell see. http://thethegns.blogspot.com/2012/12/finally-english-spangenhelm-shorwell.html#more
The above helmets all share a crucial feature; they were all recovered from reasonably well-undetstood contexts by (at least according to the standards of the time in each case) “professional archaeologists”. This means that they all came with provenance and context, allowing them all to be dated and ascribed to early Anglo-Saxon material culture. This cannot be said, for example, of "the Yarm Helmet" – an oddity discovered in the 1950s by workers laying a new sewerage system in Yarm, North Yorkshire, and now on display in the Preston Park Museum, Stockton on Tees. This shoddily made semi-visored helmet, of ridgeless low spangenhelm construction with a small finial at its apex is unimpressive to say the least, although efforts to recreate it have yielded some more fetching results. Its resemblance to the early Viking helmet from Gjermundu has inevitably led to it being more commonly regarded as a possible Viking helmet from the North-East, though the semi-visor design is well represented in early Anglo-Saxon art (cf. 6th century button brooches) and its construction is at least equally consistent with early Anglo-Saxon smithing, though not their finest work. The dubious status of the Yarm helmet – and others without provenance or characteristically “Anglo-Saxon” features which litter private collections, auction sites, and episodes of Pawn Stars (https://youtu.be/nSdQGgRKiWI) cannot be included. However, these dubious cases are not responsible for the miscounting.
The real reason we’ve got the running total wrong is the Staffordshire Hoard.
What’s Wrong with the Staffordshire Helmet?
The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 brought with it an incredible explosion of insight, interest, and inspiration. There were so many aspects which caught imaginations, but high on the list of them was the tantalising possibility of a golden helmet. First to be identified was a “golden” (actually silver-gilt) cheek-piece; a bit on the small side, but it looked big enough on telly. Then an unusual hollow crest with a horse-head-like terminal that was a bit on the small side, but would do the job. In time the conservators got to work on the excruciatingly fiddly jigsaw puzzle of silver flakes which formed friezes of pressblech foil homologous to those on the Sutton Hoo helmet, and finally, the public was wowed when, through a flurry of activity at the conclusion of the research project, the Hoard conservators (Drakon Heritage) with the help of the Royal Armouries, Gallybagger Leather, and Birmingham City School of Jewellery, produced and unveiled with significant fanfare two replicas of the “Staffordshire Helmet”.
The media and public were impressed, and both helmets have served as excellent marketing tools for their respective museums, in the way that only shiny helmets can. The rationale behind the reproduction-cum-reconstruction (copying then putting together Hoard bits is both and neither, so for our part we sometimes resort to the made-up term “reassemblage”) was laid out in heroic detail in the magnum opus “The Staffordshire Hoard; an Anglo Saxon Treasure” (Fern et al. 2019) which is still being digested, but among those well-versed in Anglo-Saxon and associated-culture helmet archaeology and reproduction, already sceptical of the identification of some key elements of the Hoard as helmet parts, the reception for the helmets was muted. The strongly magpie-ish tendency, competitiveness, substantial resources and privileged access to world-leading historic craftsmanship, of some members of this community, should have surely meant a feeding-frenzy to be the first to have a golden Hoard helmet when the news hit in 2009, or when further pieces emerged in 2012, or when the cleaning and conservation was completed and the Hoard was revealed in full in 2014, but nobody went for it – perhaps nobody could make it work, and so, quite unexpectedly it was left to the Hoard team themselves to grasp this gilded nettle first.
|More complete of two alleged "cheekpieces" from Staffordshire Hoard - Wikimedia Commons.|
We are certainly not the first to observe that these diminutive and weakly attached, precious-metal face-flaps would be more likely to cause injury than prevent it. Compare this to the ergonomic elegance of the Sutton Hoo helmet which is now believed to have been a product of the same royal East Anglian workshop; is it plausible that such armourers would compromise the function of a helm in this way, simply for added visual flair?
|Staffordshire Hoard alleged "cheekpiece" with silver tabs and beaded wire matched to it - Wikimedia Commons|
|One half of the Staffordshire Hoard alleged "helmet crest" - Wikimedia Commons|
If this criticism sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, we should remember the infamous first attempt at re-assembly of the Sutton Hoo helmet, and compare it to the splendid item we know today. This first attempt – and likely all future attempts – can only ever be approximations, which through iterative integration of new insights from analysis, re-evaluation, and experimentation, hopefully nudge ever closer towards the true original helmet’s form.
Reconstructions are dangerous things; they can communicate a false degree of certainty; decisions must be made once and for all – one must literally rivet one’s colours to the mast, while the error bars, other possibilities and interpretations fall away. I will never forget a conversation with a lady at a public event in Tamworth in 2012 who, enthusing about the glittering Anglo-Saxon helmet that had been found there and was on display, was considerably disappointed to be told that it (the “Tamworth Castle Helm”) was a beautifully crafted but speculative reconstruction designed to show how the Staffordshire Hoard helmet foils worked. We are not in the same position, of having our reproductions behind museum glass and being mistaken for being “real” but can always be more mindful of articulating uncertainties. Navigating uncertainty is the hardest part of the job; it’s a joy to reproduce a specific and well-preserved find in its entirety, but to reconstruct the Hoard is to "play Anglo-Saxon on hard-mode", and within the Hoard, the ultimate challenge is the helmet. Drakon Heritage and associates deserve credit for even trying. In future years, undoubtably, others will attempt speculative reconstructions of elements of the Hoard helmet, approaching the challenge from the opposite direction by working readily understood fragments into existing designs, and unconstrained by the need to make use of, and explain, every fragment.
The enormous challenge of reconstructing the Staffordshire Hoard helmet stems from one key fact, however, which is also the reason that arguably disqualifies it from consideration in our list of Anglo-Saxon helmets; there is actually no helmet present, to study.
There is no Staffordshire Helmet
Well… not really. There was, as evidenced by the abundant array of fragments of helmet decoration in the Staffordshire Hoard (some of which definitely did come from a helmet). But, as described by lead conservator and project-manager for the reconstruction, Pieta Greaves, reconstructing the Staffordshire Hoard helmet is like trying to reconstruct an old house when all you have are scraps of wallpaper. To be clear this is not a criticism of the fragmentary nature of the helmet; both the Sutton Hoo and Showell helmets were in tiny fragments on discovery and took years to reassemble. The problem is that with the Hoard helm there are no surviving structural elements; no parts of the helmet bowl, no iron cheek-pieces or hinges, part of a nasal, face-plate or reinforcing ridge. Even the chunkier though disputed parts, including the silver-gilt cheek-piece elements and crest are decorative pieces of finely worked, soft precious metals, and are of little physically protective value. Attempts to infer, from the two “crest” pieces, the dimensions and curvature of the helmet-bowl are somewhat scuppered by the fact that these pieces do not actually fit together, and are shaped so that they can’t even neatly abut, necessitating that they be spaced at an unknowable distance and angle apart, and so even the preserved “memory” of the underlying helmet offered by these pieces is cast into doubt. All extant parts are simply the torn up “wallpaper” of a probably functional iron helmet that was re-forged into a ploughshare over 1200 years ago. And just as the many fittings from swords in the Staffordshire Hoard do not mean it can be described as “a hoard of over 100 Anglo-Saxon swords”, lacking even a single blade, so we cannot claim that the Hoard is a helmet-find.
The lack of structural (as opposed to decorative) elements disqualifies the Staffordshire Hoard helmet as a helmet find, however, not purely as a matter of semantics, or because of the terrible implications this has for interpretation, but rather, because of the precedent which its inclusion would set.
|Reassembled die-impressed sheet (pressblech) - long zoomorphic frieze from Staffordshire Hoard. Wikimedia Commons|
|Guilden Morden Boar. (C) The British Museum|
It may seem absurd to count these stray pieces of decoration as helmet finds, yet that is what we do when we call the Staffordshire Hoard the 6th Anglo-Saxon helmet. If the notion of a helmet-find is to mean anything at all, it must surely be restricted to those finds where actual structural, rather than purely decorative, elements are represented.
ConclusionOf course, you're welcome to count helmets how ever you chose; but I would suggest, applying the simple rule described above, there have been five Anglo-Saxon helmets discovered, of verifiable provenance and context, at the time of writing. It should go without saying that this is a tiny (and probably heavily skewed) sample of what existed in the period, and we have further evidence of more helmets, from a number of other finds of detached helmet decoration, including the Staffordshire Hoard. Such trace evidence of non-extant helmets is proof, if any was needed, that such expensive battle-gear was more widespread than the few true helmet finds imply, and exploring these additional pieces of helmet evidence, including through attempts to integrate such pieces into appropriate existing helmet structures, is a worthwhile and valid exercise. However, efforts to reconstruct the “Guilden Morden Helm”, “Horncastle Helm”, "Scremby helm", “Staffordshire Helm”, or others, must still be regarded as speculative exercises. Conjecural helmet "re-assemblages" can offer much in contextualising stray fragments, and add texture and "authentic" variety to our image of early Anglo-Saxon warriors, but we should always recognise and effectively communicate the distinction between helmet finds, helmet traces, and speculative reconstructions; flakes of wallpaper, however numerous, cannot be called a house.
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