One of the largest portions of the ancient art market is that for ancient weaponry. Amongst the axe heads, swords and spears, ancient helmets stand out as some of the most spectacular pieces in this field. From Viking warriors to Roman legionaries, many ancient peoples utilised helmets in order to better equip their troops. Their survival to this day tells us significant amounts about who would have worn them and what was important in the ancient world.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, helmets were being worn in battle from as early as the 23rd Century BC. Although not very common, we see that professional soldiers wore helmets made of copper and leather. Chronologically, the next peoples to use helmets were the Assyrians – who had a very distinctive style. Made of bronze, they were conical coming to a point. In a move of clever design, this distributes force, lessening the blow of an attack. They would have also had a leather lining for both comfort and warmth, as well as a chin strap to keep it secure on the head.
Different Designs for the Same Purpose
Moving east to the Ancient Greeks, we start to see the development of helmets that might look more familiar. The typical Chalcidian Hoplite style helmet is one we automatically recognise as an ancient helmet. Hoplites were the citizen soldiers of Athens, and their helmets were designed to give the best all round protection for their vast armies. They’re particularly rememberable for the detachable cheek guards, that would have given vital protection to the face.
However, it would be wrong to think that the helmets coming from Ancient Greece all looked the same. Take the Hellenistic Pilos helmet from a similar period. Unlike the Hoplite helmet it has no cheek guards, having evolved from earlier leather caps. This Pilos helmet was designed for the lower ranking soldiers, but there were those designed for the higher ranks. An example is this Chalcidian helmet with wings. Representing an almost godlike presence, the helmet’s wings can quickly be associated with the god Hermes. This elevation of the typical Hoplite helmet makes the piece extreme rare and unusual.
Outside of the Greek world, a variety of different helmet styles existed. For example, this Etruscan Negau Helmet with almond shape and doubled-edge rim. Named after the excavation site where these styles of helmets were first found, they have become instantly recognisable as Etruscan.
Sometimes, Simple means More
As we come into the first millennia AD and we reach the Romans we start to see the mass production of helmets on almost an industrial scale. The Montefortino helmet is the classic first example of this. Said to be inspired by Celtic helmets, they were simple in design with a flat rim coming to a ball on the top. Mass produced; these are the first helmets not made for individual soldiers. So, we see gripes from the soldiers about their fit! However, wealthier soldiers may have added to their helmet, like the gilded example shown below.
Once we get to the Vikings, we move away from these helmets cast in a single piece of iron or bronze to those rivetted from several sheets. These were easier and less labour intensive to make. The rivets gave them a strength which served the Vikings well in battle.
Ancient Helmets were used for battle, right?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. Of course, many helmets from ancient history were used for protection in battle. We see evidence of damaged helmets, those on battle fields and large amounts of historical literature that reference their use. However, very well-preserved helmets that you find on the ancient weaponry market disproportionally may be from gifts or statues. The reason for this is simple. It’s much more likely that a helmet worn in warfare is damaged or destroyed.
A well-crafted helmet was a status symbol, for example in the Anglo-Saxon tale of Beowulf we see the ‘victory gift’ of a helmet to the hero when he defeats the monster Grendel. Military parades, presentations and trade between ancient states, were all times that could call for an expertly made helmet. They also had a place in art, as in rare cases life sized statues of gods or heroes would be adorned with their own custom made helmet.
How would you know if an ancient helmet was for battle or otherwise? Like most things in ancient history, there isn’t a straightforward answer for this question. One of the indicators is the weight. Lighter helmets, like those that weigh under or around 1kg are much more likely to have been made for battle. It took skill to shape the iron or bronze in order for the piece to be that light. Therefore, it followed that if a helmet was to be purposefully ceremonial that it was not worth the amount of work into making the helmet practical. Indeed, adornments and design would have taken more up more of the craftsmen’s time.
As we said, helmets made for statues are rare but there are examples that we think could have that origin. Take this Phrygian helmet. In a distinctive style, there are a couple of indications that this helmet could have been made for a statue. Firstly, it weighs 2.3kg, which is far too heavy for ergonomic movement in battle. However, what it is that really marks this as a statue helmet is that the crest on the helmet is backwards. The crest is for the god Attic, and to have it backwards is very rare and nearly only seen on helmets made for statues of gods.
How do you know where they’re from and how they’re authentic?
For starters, the style of a helmet tells us a lot about where and when a piece is from. As we’ve covered in this article, different time periods and peoples used very distinctive styles of helmets for different purposes. For example, the Chalcidian style can be quickly pinpointed down to being Greek, whereas the conical shape can be quickly described as Assyrian.
Experts have been studying and collecting these helmets for a long period of time; countless reference books have been written and exhibitions held. However, when looking at our helmets specifically their provenance can often give a good insight. Consider the Phrygian Helmet with its provenance dating back to 1897 or the winged Greek Helmet from the famed Axel-Guttman Collection.
Aside from the provenance, many of the helmets we sell here at Pax Romana also undergo X-Ray Fluorescence Tests. These test the surface of the helmet and compare the composition and age of the metal to those from other items confirmed from that period.
Some of the Helmets included in this article are currently available for sale on our online gallery’s collections. View all the helmets available for sale here.