Millennia-Old Headgear Is One of Just Two (Almost) Intact Viking Helmets

A new study dates a piece of armor found in Britain in the 1950s to the tenth century A.D.

Yarm Viking helmet
The helmet has been on view at England's Preston Park Museum since 2012. Chris Caple / Durham University

During the 1950s, workers installing sewage pipes in Yarm, a small town in the English county of Yorkshire, uncovered a rusted iron helmet. Now, reports BBC News, a new study has identified the artifact as a rare example of tenth-century Viking armor. Per a statement, the gear is the first of its kind ever found in Britain and only the second nearly complete Viking helmet in the world. (The other was found in Gjermundbu, Norway, in 1943).

Yarm Town Council loaned the object, known by locals simply as the “Viking helmet,” to Preston Park Museum in nearby Eaglescliffe several decades ago. It has remained there, relatively unstudied despite debate over its age and provenance, ever since, writes Jo Kelly for British newspaper the Northern Echo.

Chris Caple, an emeritus archaeologist at Durham University, launched the new research project in hopes of shedding light on the mysterious artifact’s origins. Tests on the helmet’s corroded metal and evidence collected from more recent archaeological discoveries informed his analysis, according to BBC News.

Writing in the journal Medieval Archaeology, Caple notes that the Yarm helmet was made in northern England between the 9th and 11th centuries. Fashioned out of “riveted, undecorated, thin iron plates,” the head covering is “a composite construction ‘crested’ helmet.” The researcher further states that at the time of the artifact’s discovery, it was without parallel, making it virtually impossible to attribute to any particular time period or culture.

In a statement, Caple describes the project as “challenging.” Since the helmet’s thin iron is fragile and prone to further corrosion, it had to be kept and examined in very dry conditions.

“[I]t was not simply a question of showing the date at which it was created,” says Caple, “but working out how it had survived until it was unearthed in the 1950s.”

Yarm viking helmet
An X-ray scan of the Yarm helmet shows the rivets and overlapping plates of its construction. Chris Caple / Durham University

The analysis showed that the helmet was preserved in “waterlogged conditions” but later became damaged and began to rust away. Luckily, construction unearthed the armor before it could corrode entirely.

Anglo-Scandinavian artifacts dated to the tenth century are rare because by that point in history, Christianity had become the dominant religion, and the practice of burying objects in graves was largely abandoned, according to the statement. Caple says that the Yarm helmet appears to have been hidden in a pit.

Per the paper, the unadorned helmet’s “materials and construction speak to the growing pragmatism of arms and armor production, which was necessary to supply the increasing numbers of armed warriors present in this period.”

As Preston Park Museum explains, helmets were exceptionally rare between the sixth and eighth century. Only northern Europe’s rich and powerful had access to the headgear, which featured showy designs and was worn as a sign of authority rather than a form of protection. Following owners’ deaths, helmets were often interred as grave goods.

But by the ninth century, most professional warriors had a simple helmet like the one found in Yarm. Together with chainmail shirts called hauberks, helmets were “essential personal protective equipment for a warrior,” says Caple in the statement. He adds, We see almost all the combatants in the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry wearing helmets and hauberks.

The Yarm helmet is now on view at Preston Park Museum in Eaglescliffe, Stockton-on-Tees. Tickets must be booked ahead of time.

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