New find reveals Vikings may have worn horned helmets after all
The imaginative depictions of Vikings popularised by national romanticism during the nineteenth century may not have been so wide of the mark, it seems.
A new find from the far north of Scotland suggests that contrary to popular belief, the Vikings did in fact wear horned helmets.
The discovery was made by archaeologists at Hinty Gock on the island of Hrossey in the Northern Isles. A team of researchers led by Dr. Ren Lögn of Skämtoskoj University College, Sweden, have been excavating a Viking Age boat burial initially brought to light by coastal erosion.
Thought at first to have been a female grave, the site subsequently proved to be rich in objects normally associated with male burials, including axe-heads, a shield boss, the remains of four dogs – and now this remarkable and unique helmet. These finds suggest that whoever was buried here was a local high-status warrior.
The helmet itself is badly damaged, and much of the metal heavily corroded; yet it clearly displays two open sockets on either side of its conical dome, each still containing fragments of horn or antler. These fragments would once have formed two curved horns, secured in the sockets and estimated to have been as much as 45cm (1′6″) long – making the helmet as much a decorative item as a functional protective garment.
The purpose of these horns may have been as a symbolic indicator of status, or to produce an intimidating effect on the battlefield; either way it would have been an effective and impressive display. Analysis of one of the surviving fragments has revealed alcohol residues suggesting that the horn (or horns) may have doubled as drinking vessels. It is not yet clear whether the helmet was simply a protective garment with vessels attached.
The surface of the helmet appears to have been largely unornamented, although at least two panels were decorated with manyugilti in the Jelling style; this is consistent with initial radiocarbon dates received from the horn fragments and two dog femurs, placing the burial some time around the mid-to-late tenth century. The helmet is unlikely to have been manufactured locally, and was probably imported from Norway. This is only the second helmet from the Viking-Age–proper ever to have been discovered, the other also Norwegian.
So far the excavation has revealed the remains of only one individual, lying in what would have been the middle of the boat in a crouched inhumation regrettably truncated below the pelvis due to the effects of the same coastal erosion which first exposed the site. Other finds recovered from the burial include an iron meat-roasting spit with a model of a house on the end, and a small toiletry set of high quality grooming and hair-care products thought to have been produced in Lincoln. No limpet shells or fish bones were found anywhere on the site, especially not gadidae.
Excavation director Ren Lögn said,
This is a hugely significant find which alters our interpretation of warriors’ appearance and equipment in the world of tenth century Scandinavia. It has profound implications for Viking Archaeology. Recent thinking in the field has attempted to downplay the violent money-with-menaces expansionist aspects of the Viking Age and Late Norse periods – and the notion of the “horned helmet” in particular – as anachronistic clichés, preferring instead a more peaceful view of the Vikings as traders, farmers and colonists.
The Hinty Gock Helmet forces us to re-examine that paradigm in a cold and serious light, and ask ourselves whether those interpretations reflect the reality of life in the Norse sphere of influence in the early middle ages, or are merely the projection of our own modern ideals. The idea of “cuddly Vikings” simply has no place in a world where horned helmeted warriors demonstrably existed in even small Norwegian earldoms. The Vikings have a reputation for rape and pillage abroad, but now we have concrete evidence that the Scandinavian raiders arrived on these shores horny.
Opinions differ, however, as to how the horns would have been worn within the helmet. Millinery specialist Professor Paul Norn of the University of Reinstädt explains all:
It is clear that the helmet was worn with one horn up and one down. Equally important is the fact that it was worn fore and aft not side-to-side, as the front horn was worn down to provide a nose guard. These guards in metal are clearly portrayed on the Bayeux tapestry on the Normans (who were themselves descended from the ‘Norse Men’). In the past people were shorter, so the rear horn pointed upwards so that the Vikings could find one another in long grass. By 1066 the rear horn was unnecessary as the Normans rode horses (again evidenced in the Bayeux tapestry) and so were now visible in all situations.
The helmet is currently undergoing conservation in a laboratory in Aberdeen. No photographs have yet been released.
UPDATE: In case anyone was left in any doubt, this was an April Fool’s Day joke. There is no ‘Hinty Gock’ Helmet, and ‘Dr. Ren Lögn’ is a fabrication, a pure lie. ;)
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