Why Did the Ancient Illyrians Place Helmets in Their Burial Mounds?

A 2,500-year-old helmet found in Croatia may have been a funerary offering. It offers insights into the rituals of a lesser-known culture that once occupied the Balkan Peninsula

The helmet could date to as far back as the sixth century B.C.E. Marta Kalebota / Dubrovnik Museums

Archaeologists in Croatia have unearthed a 2,500-year-old helmet that once belonged to the Illyrians, a group of northern “barbarians” who lived on the periphery of ancient Greece and Rome. The rare artifact is the second Illyrian helmet found at a specific burial site, and its state of preservation has stunned researchers.

Archaeologist Marta Kalebota is part of the excavation team that discovered the helmets in an ancient graveyard in Peljesac, a southern Croatian peninsula. The researchers found the first piece of armor in 2020 and the second this spring, when Kalebota’s colleague picked up a stone and started shouting that he had found another helmet, she tells Dora Lozica of the Croatian newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija.

The discovery left Kalebota feeling “phenomenal,” she says. It was an incredible find, particularly because it was the second of its kind at the site.

first helmet
In 2020, the team unearthed a different Illyrian helmet at the same site. Dubrovnik Museums

According to a statement from Dubrovnik Museums, which was also involved in the excavation, the helmet was buried in a walled structure next to the cemetery’s graves. It was almost certainly a votive offering. The previous helmet dates back to the fourth century B.C.E. This one could be as old as the sixth century B.C.E., excavation leader Hrvoje Potrebica tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus.

The team excavated the helmets at the archaeological site of Gomile, which includes multiple burial mounds, each containing more than one multiperson grave, Potrebica says. At the time of the burials, the region was home to a people whom the Greeks dubbed the Illyrians.

Split into various tribes and kingdoms, the Illyrians flourished in the western Balkan Peninsula, on a swath of land now occupied by Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. The group was slowly conquered by the Romans in the third and second centuries B.C.E., becoming part of the Roman Empire by 168 B.C.E.

If the Illyrians did use the newly discovered helmet in battle, it would have made an impression, Domagoj Perkić, director of Dubrovnik Museums’ Archaeological Museum, tells Live Science.

“Just try to imagine a warrior with a shiny [helmet] on his head, in the sun, on the eve of a battle,” he says. “That moment alone causes awe in the enemy.”

The helmet is in seemingly “perfect condition,” Potrebica adds. The individual stone grave where it was found is separate from the burial mound’s other interments, suggesting it was offered “to deceased ancestors, or [as] part of some cult practice related to the whole mound and not [a] particular individual or a grave.”

According to the statement, the helmets aren’t the only grave goods archaeologists have found at the Gomile burial ground. They’ve also unearthed jewelry, costumes and accessories. As Live Science reports, both of the helmets were buried separately from individual remains, indicating this specific type of gift was communal rather than intended for a specific person.

Peljesac is one of the most significant archaeological zones on the East Adriatic coast, the statement notes, and the helmets add to researchers’ understanding of Illyrian funeral rituals in the second half of the last millennium B.C.E.

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