The farmer and and amateur archaeologist Johannes Dorn discovered a unique grave in 1902. Both the quantity and the quality of the contents of the grave were exceptional. Alongside many other grave goods, it contained an iron chainmail shirt and a splendid gold ornamented helmet.
The occupant of the grave was male and lived in the middle of the 6th century, But who was the man with the golden helmet? And why was he given such a rich burial?
The Golden Helmet
A particularly impressive object from the grave is the originally completely gilded spangenhelm or strap helmet. These helmets originated in the Byzantine cultural area (Eastern Mediterranean), where they were part of the equipment of high ranking military commanders. It is possible that either the deceased from Gammertingen or his father had served as a commander in the Byzantine army and were allowed to keep their equipment after the end of their service.
Bow helmet Bow helmet (570 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg
The name of these helmets derives from their construction, in which copper or iron plates are held together by "straps".
The helmet is decorated with various ornamental motifs.
Bow helmet Helmet ornamentationLandesmuseum Württemberg
The rim of the helmet body shows Christian motifs, such as birds in vine leaves, or a human face between two lions on the browband and deer on the helmet calotte.
A Face from the Past?
Only the skull has survived from the skeleton of the deceased. An analysis of the teeth revealed an age at death of 31-33 years. The pronounced neck muscles of the deceased could indicate that he had regularly worn the heavy helmet over a long period of time. In addition, a facial reconstruction was undertaken. However, this image is hypothetical, since no information about eye and hair color is available from the methods used.
Facial reconstruction of the deceased of the Gammertingen Grave (2016) by Storz Medienfabrik GmbHLandesmuseum Württemberg
The personal attire of the man was enhanced by gold accessories. His belt buckle, two rivets on his belt, as well as his shoe buckles were made of gold. This also made the elevated social position of the deceased of Gammertingen immediately apparent to his contemporaries.
The Chainmail Shirt
The almost perfectly preserved chain mail shirt is among the most outstanding objects found in the grave. The example from Gammertingen is unique with regard to its state of preservation. It is a short-sleeved chain mail shirt that reaches to the thighs and probably had a hooded or high collar on the upper part.
The chain mail shirt consists of around 45,000 individual rings, which were “braided” together. Through this construction the chain mail shirt was flexible but also capable of effectively protecting its wearer.
It is composed of two different types of iron rings; four stamped rings were always held together by a riveted ring. The technique of manufacture could be digitally reconstructed in the course of an investigation of early medieval chain mail.
Many Weapons for one Man
A variety of weapons were also found in the grave. Alongside a shield and long sword a second sword, an axe, bow and arrow, a lance, as well as an "angon" were given to the deceased. The angon is a special weapon: originally probably about 3m long, this barbed spear served to render the enemy's shield useless and thus leave him defenseless. This weapon is rare in southern Germany and seems to have been a status symbol of the rich Frankish elite.
Weaponry from the Gammertingen Grave (570 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg
The Spatha - Weapon and Status Symbol
The most important and frequently found weapon in the graves of wealthy men was the double-edged long sword, the spatha.
Due to technical high quality of their blades, these swords were the absolute high tech product of their age.
The Gammertingen spatha still has remnants of a wooden scabbard on its surface. This consisted of two hollowed-out pieces of wood lined with goatskin. The hide prevented the sword from slipping out. The two halves of the scabbard were wrapped together with leather.
A Splendidly Decorated Horse
The splendor of the riding accoutrements also stands out. In addition to the silver studded snaffle and the iron buckles of the various harnesses and straps, the gilded bridle especially catches the eye.
The strap distributors, fittings, and strap ends of the bridle are all made of silver and largely gilded. The elements are decorated either with intertwined ornamentation in what is known as the "Germanic animal style," such as the two fittings in the center, or with very finely executed stamped patterns, such as on the two large strap ends on the outside.
Not only Weapons and Valuable Objects
In addition to the valuable grave goods, which underline the status of the deceased, everyday objects, such as scissors, a silver sewing needle, or an awl were also found in the grave.
The silver strainer spoon is particularly noteworthy as these are normally only found in the graves of wealthy women. Spoons like this were probably used to fish spices and other substances out of drinks. These were, for example, added to wine to make it keep longer.
Vessels from Gammertingen Grave (570 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg
Provisions for the Journey to the Afterlife
Vessels with gifts of food and drink for the journey into the afterlife were common in the early Middle Ages. This grave contained a jug, a drinking glass, and a shallow bronze basin, which was probably used for handwashing at table. This also testifies to the fine way of living enjoyed by the deceased.
The cauldron is another indication of the prominent position of the deceased, as pottery vessels are found in the graves of simpler individuals.
Who was the Man with the Golden Helmet?
The so-called "princely" grave of Gammertingen is one of the richest burials from the 6th century in Central Europe. The different regions of origin of the grave goods suggest an extensive network and a high degree of political influence for the man who wore the golden helmet.
He lived in a time of political upheaval: the Franks took over political power in southern Germany and he was probably an important functionary of these new rulers, although he himself probably came from the Swabian Alb and his family may have already belonged to the old Alamannic elites.
Concept and text: Dr. Georg Kokkotidis
English translation: Sharon Adams
Editorial work and realization: Anna Gnyp