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Sutton Hoo ship-burial helmet

600/650

British Museum

British Museum

This extraordinary helmet is very rare. Only four complete helmets are known from Anglo-Saxon England: at Sutton Hoo, Benty Grange, Wollaston and York.

The helmet was badly damaged when the burial chamber collapsed. By precisely locating the remaining fragments and assembling them as if in a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, conservators have reconstructed the helmet. A complete replica made by the Royal Armouries shows how the original would have looked.

The helmet comprised an iron cap, neck guard, cheek pieces and face mask. Its form derives from Late Roman cavalry helmets. The helmet’s surfaces were covered with tinned copper alloy panels that gave it a bright, silvery appearance. Many of these panels were decorated with interlacing animal ornament (‘Style II’) and heroic scenes of warriors. One scene shows two men wearing horned head-gear, holding swords and spears. The other shows a mounted warrior trampling a fallen enemy, who in turn stabs the horse. The rider carries a spear which is supported by a curious small figure, standing on the rump of his horse – perhaps a supernatural helper. Similar scenes were popular in the Germanic world at this time.

The face-mask is the helmet’s most remarkable feature. It works as a visual puzzle, with two possible ‘solutions’. The first is of a human face, comprising eye-sockets, eyebrows, moustache, mouth and a nose with two small holes so that the wearer could breathe. The copper alloy eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire and tiny garnets. Each ends in a gilded boar’s head – a symbol of strength and courage appropriate for a warrior. The second ‘solution’ is of a bird or dragon flying upwards. Its tail is formed by the moustache, its body by the nose, and its wings by the eyebrows. Its head extends from between the wings, and lays nose-to-nose with another animal head at the end of a low iron crest that runs over the helmet’s cap.

A precious survival, the Sutton Hoo helmet has become an icon of the early medieval period.

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Details

  • Title: Sutton Hoo ship-burial helmet
  • Date Created: 600/650
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 31.80cm (as restored); Circumference: 74.60cm (as restored, at eyebrow level); Width: 21.50cm (as restored, at rim level); Length: 25.50cm (as restored, at rim level); Weight: 2.50kg (of original, estimated)
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: gilded; engraved; cloisonn
  • Subject: warrior; mammal; dance
  • Registration number: 1939,1010.93
  • Production place: Made in Sweden. Made in England
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Sutton Hoo
  • Period/culture: Germanic; Early Anglo-Saxon
  • Material: iron; copper alloy; gold; tin; garnet; silver
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Pretty, Edith M

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