Some of the most common depictions of Vikings show large warriors wearing helmets affixed with horns. But new research finds that the famed helmets discovered in Viksø, Denmark, 80 years ago actually date to about 900 B.C.E., nearly 2,000 years before the Vikings.
“For many years in popular culture, people associated the Viksø helmets with the Vikings,” Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, tells Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. “But actually, it's nonsense. The horned theme is from the Bronze Age and is traceable back to the ancient Near East.”
Viking society only developed in the 9th century C.E., and there is no sign that Vikings really wore horned helmets. According to History.com, the legend likely originated with Scandinavian artists in the 1800s, who popularized portrayals of the nomadic raiders wearing the equipment in their works.
Researchers had previously suggested that the two helmets, decorated with curved horns, originated in the Nordic Bronze Age, dated from 1700 to 500 B.C.E. Vankilde’s new study, published in the journal Praehistorische Zeitschrift, used radiocarbon dating of birch tar found on one of the horns to confirm their age more precisely.
The research also points to ties among Bronze Age civilizations across Europe and beyond. The helmets are similar to depictions of headgear found in rock art and figurines produced around the same time in western Iberia and the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The motif likely reached Europe from the East thanks to Phoenician travelers from the eastern Mediterranean coastal area, reports Sana Noor Haq for CNN.
The researchers say in the paper that the Near East and eastern Mediterranean “boast a deep history of horned-helmeted figures connected with divine rulership and with warfare.”
As Andrew Curry reports for Science magazine, people there would have been eager to get copper and tin from afar since Scandinavia had almost no metal resources at the time. The connection with southern Europe suggests that this exchange involved travel along the Atlantic coast, rather than travelers making their way overland across the Alps. Cultural exchange, such as the shared horned helmet theme, would have gone along with the trade in materials.
"These [helmets] are new indications metals were traded further than we thought,” Vandekilde tells Science. “Ideas were co-travelers.”
But Nicola Ialongo, an archaeologist at Georg August University of Göttingen, tells Science he’s skeptical about the new research. He notes that no horned helmets or related artifacts have been found in Belgium, France, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands—all places that would have been on the way for travelers headed up the Atlantic coast.
“Even if you assume seafarers went directly from Sardinia to Scandinavia, they must have stopped along the way,” he says.
Workers originally discovered the two helmets at Viksø in 1942 while harvesting peat, per the National Museum of Denmark. One of them was found placed on a wooden tray of ash, suggesting that they were offerings. In addition to the horns, the helmets were decorated with the beak and eyes of an unidentified bird of prey, and had fittings that may have been used for attaching feathers and possibly a mane of horse hair. While taking detailed photographs of one of the helmet’s horns in 2019, paper coauthor Heide Wrobel Nørgaard, an archaeologist at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, spotted the birch tar and was able to use it to date the helmets.
The paper’s authors say the decorated helmets would have been worn for symbolic reasons rather than as battle gear. At the time they were made, Scandinavian societies were moving from Sun worship to reverence for gods associated with animals.
“You have a helmet which represents all the cosmological religious powers,” Flemming Kaul, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark who was not involved in the new research, tells Science. “It’s the most impressive religious power hat of the Bronze Age.”
With powerful political elites were consolidating power in Scandinavia at the time, the helmets may have been part of an effort to legitimize new forms of leadership through religious ritual.
“The horned warriors in Scandinavia, Sardinia and Spain all associate with new political regimes backed by control of metals and new religious beliefs,” Vandkilde tells CNN.