Vendel Helmets: Spectacular Scandinavian Relics from the Vendel Period

Vendel and Valsgärde are two archaeological sites located in Sweden. Both of these sites were once used as burial grounds, and it is from the former that a period in Swedish prehistory, the Vendel period, derived its name. At these burial sites a number of helmets have been found. Considered to be some of the most impressive grave goods at Vendel and Valsgärde, they have been dubbed Vendel helmets. Similar helmets have also been found outside Sweden, in particular, England.

The Valsgärde burial ground in Uppland, Sweden, was discovered in 1929. Archaeologists have uncovered a wide range of burials including 15 boat burials. (Johan Anund / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Valsgärde burial ground in Uppland, Sweden, was discovered in 1929. Archaeologists have uncovered a wide range of burials including 15 boat burials. (Johan Anund / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Vendel and Valsgärde: Burial Grounds from the Vendel Period

The sites of Vendel and Valsgärde are both situated in Uppland, on the eastern coast of Sweden, and were used as burial grounds during the Vendel period. According to archaeologists, this period began in around 550 AD and lasted until 800 AD. In other words, this was the period that immediately preceded the Viking Age . Although the people living in Sweden during the Vendel period did not leave behind any written records of their own, they were written about by people from other parts of Europe. More importantly, they left behind material culture, which has since been excavated by archaeologists.

When the site of Valsgärde was discovered in the 1929, it was found that the burial grounds were almost entirely intact. Subsequently, it was almost completely excavated. Archaeologists unearthed at least 62 cremation burials, as well as 15 inhumations and chamber graves. The most spectacular find at the site, however, were the 15 boat burials . For such a burial, a boat would be brought up on land and transported to the burial grounds.

Prior to the burial, the boat would be filled with all sorts of grave goods that the deceased may need in the afterlife. These included practical objects, such as weapons and armor, as well as those for pleasure, such as board games. It has been noted that grave goods from the Vendel period are normally gold-plated and richly adorned. By comparison, grave goods from the succeeding Viking Period are noticeably plainer. Moreover, the Vikings seem to have preferred silver to gold.

Vendel helmets were made of iron and have been discovered in various Vendel period cemeteries. (Statens Historiska Museum / CC BY 2.5)

Vendel helmets were made of iron and have been discovered in various Vendel period cemeteries. (Statens Historiska Museum / CC BY 2.5 )

Vendel Helmets Found at Vendel Cemeteries

Helmets are arguably the most impressive grave goods found at Vendel period cemeteries. As a type, these helmets have been appropriately referred to as Vendel helmets. Although it is almost certain that the helmets were made in Scandinavia, questions remain about how and when this type of helmet appeared in the region.

Generally speaking, scholars are of the opinion that the Vendel helmets were inspired by Roman helmets used during the Late Roman Empire. Some, for instance, have suggested that the Vendel helmets were copied and adapted from gladiatorial helmets, whilst others suggest that they had their origins in the Roman parade helmets, or in the crested or ridge helmets used by soldiers during the Late Roman period.

Vendel helmets were made of iron and, like the Late Roman ridge helmet its “bowl” (the part covering the cranium) consisted of two or four parts that were held together by a longitudinal ridge. Incidentally, this design was also used for the Spangenhelm, a type of helmet that was popular in Europe during the medieval period.

Returning to the Vendel helmets, these may be regarded not only as protective gear, but also as objects of art. For instance, in some examples of Vendel helmets, the longitudinal ridge was made in the form of a dragon, with the head of the creature designed as the termination of the ridge. The mouth of the dragon looks as though it is holding on to the goggles and nose-guard of the helmet, the former of which are usually stylized as well. Cheekpieces are also often attached to Vendel helmets. In some cases, an aventail was added for extra protection.

Detail on the Vendel I helmet at Statens Historiska Museum in Sweden. (Statens Historiska Museum / CC BY 2.5)

Detail on the Vendel I helmet at Statens Historiska Museum in Sweden. (Statens Historiska Museum / CC BY 2.5 )

Intricate Adornment of the Vendel Helmets

As mentioned earlier, helmets from the Vendel Period were richly adorned, especially when compared to the helmets that belong to the Viking period. This is most clearly demonstrated by the embossed silver foil plates that decorate the helmets. These decorative elements were made using a technique called pressblech. This technique involves the hammering of the foil plates onto bronze matrices, by which the former would acquire the motifs on the latter.

The craftsmen of the Vendel period had a limited repertoire of motifs, about eight, according to one scholar. An example of a motif found on these silver foil plates is the “Fallen Warrior,” two examples of which were found at Valsgärde. This motif depicts a “spear-carrying mounted warrior riding down a fallen warrior. The fallen warrior is plunging his sword into the horse, and a small figure can be seen guiding the spear of the mounted warrior.” This small figure, who is shown wearing a horned helmet, is thought to be Odin (also known as Woden), the chief god in Norse mythology .

This particular motif has also been used to reinforce the connection between the Vendel helmets and their Late Roman counterparts. The motif of the fallen warrior, after all, is a popular theme found on the gravestones of Roman officers, whereby the officer is portrayed on his horse, and trampling a fallen native warrior. Yet, the depiction of Odin on the foil plates from Valsgärde demonstrate that the craftsmen of the Vendel period did not merely copy this motif from the Romans, but added local religious beliefs to them, thereby transforming it into a hybrid object.

Dubbed the Sutton Hoo helmet, this helmet discovered in 1939 in England, has been compared to Vendel helmets and found to be similar. (Public domain)

Dubbed the Sutton Hoo helmet, this helmet discovered in 1939 in England, has been compared to Vendel helmets and found to be similar. ( Public domain )

Vendel Helmets Discovered Outside Sweden

Vendel helmets were found not only in Sweden, as helmets of a similar style have also been discovered in other parts of northwestern Europe. In England, for example, a number of these helmets have been unearthed over the years. One of the most famous of these is the Sutton Hoo helmet, which is today displayed in the British Museum. The helmet was discovered in 1939 and has been dated to the late 6 th to early 7 th century AD.

Although some clear similarities can be seen between the Sutton Hoo helmet and the Vendel helmets of Sweden, there are also several differences between the two. Alex Woolf, for instance, points out that the Sutton Hoo helmet is of a higher quality than the Vendel ones. Another scholar, Monica Akemade, proposed that the Vendel helmets were in fact poor imitations of the Sutton Hoo helmet.

To conclude, the Vendel helmets from the sites of Vendel and Valsgärde are no doubt impressive artefacts, even though they may be considered by scholars to be of a lower quality than some of the other similar helmets produced during that period, such as the Sutton Hoo helmet. The Vendel helmets are also interesting due to the fact that they demonstrate the change and continuity in the design of the ridge helmet from the Late Roman Period to the Vendel Period, and thence to the Viking Period.

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Top image: Helmets are arguably the most impressive grave goods found at Vendel period cemeteries, and have been accordingly dubbed Vendel helmets.Photo source: Statens Historiska Museum / CC BY 2.5

By Wu Mingren

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