These Ancient Greek Helmets Tell of a Naval Battle 2,500 Years Ago

Archaeologists in southern Italy discovered the headgear along with pottery, fragments and a shield near the likely remains of a temple to goddess Athena

A view of a blue-green oxidized metal helmet, with sharp curved cheek plates that extend past the face, lying on the ground in the dirt
Chalcidian helmets such as this one were often worn by ancient Greek warriors. Courtesy of the Parco Archeologico di Paestum & Velia

Archaeologists in southern Italy announced last week that they unearthed two helmets, fragments of weapons and armor, bits of pottery and the remains of a possible temple to Athena at an archaeological excavation of the ancient Greek city of Velia, reports Frances D’Emilio for the Associated Press (AP).

Researchers, who have been working the site since last July, announced in a translated statement that they believe that these artifacts are linked to a major maritime battle that changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean nearly 2,500 years ago.

Ancient Greeks may have left the items behind after the Battle of Alalia. Between 541 and 535 BCE, a fleet of Phocaean ships—who had set up a colony, Alalia, on the island of Corsica—set sail on the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea to fend off attacks from neighboring Etruscan and Carthaginian forces, per the statement.

An archaeologist bends over the helmet, which is half-excavated and appears green due to oxidation
An archaeologist works to free one of the helmets from the dig site. Courtesy of the Parco Archeologico di Paestum & Velia

Though the Greeks emerged victorious, the costly sea battle ultimately spurred the Phocaean colonists to leave Alalia and establish a colony closer to other Greek settlements along the southern coast of Italy. Settlers from Phocaea sailed for the mainland and purchased a plot of land that would eventually become Velia, according to the Guardian.

Initial studies of the helmets reveal that one was designed in the Greek Chalcidian style, while the other helmet resembles the Negua headpieces typically worn by Etruscan warriors, per ANSA. The archaeologists suggest Greek soldiers might have stolen these helmets from conquered Etruscan troops during the Battle of Alalia, per the statement.

An aerial photo of a green hillside with a tower and an archaeological dig in progress
An aerial view of the dig site at the acropolis of Velia, an ancient Greek colony in present-day southern Italy that was founded shortly after the Battle of Alalia. Courtesy of the Parco Archeologico di Paestum & Velia

In another major find, researchers also unearthed several brick walls that date to Velia’s founding in 540 B.C.E. and may have once formed a temple to the mythical Greek goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, as Angela Giuffrida reports for the Guardian.

Measuring about 60 feet long by 23 feet wide, the walls were likely constructed in the years just following the Battle of Alalia, says Massimo Osanna, the archaeological park director and head of Italian state museums, per Italian news agency ANSA. The archaeologists say the Phocaeans may have offered the enemy armor as a tribute to the goddess.

A helmet covered in lumpy brown dirt
Archaeologists unearthed two helmets including one, pictured here, that appears to be created in the Etruscan "Negua" style. Experts suggest that Greek soldiers might have stolen this piece of armor from Etruscan forces during the Battle of Alalia.  Courtesy of the Parco Archeologico di Paestum & Velia

“It is therefore possible that the [Phocaeans] fleeing from Alalia raised [the temple] immediately after their arrival, as was their custom, after purchasing from the locals the land necessary to settle and resume the flourishing trade for which they were famous,” says Osanna in the translated statement. “And to the relics offered to their goddess to propitiate her benevolence, they added the weapons snatched from the enemies in that epic battle at sea.”

Located near the structure, the team found fragments of pottery inscribed with the Greek word for “sacred,” several pieces of bronze and metal weapons and bits of what appear to be a large, decorated shield.

Researchers plan to clean and analyze the artifacts in a laboratory for further study, where the director says they hope to find more information, particularly on the helmets.

She says in that statement that there may be inscriptions inside of them, something common in ancient armor, that could help trace the armor’s history, such as the identity of the warriors who wore them.