The Staffordshire Hoard Horseman Helmet Foil
October 19, 2012
A comparison of the Staffordshire Hoard Horseman helmet foil and the known variations from the Swedish series helmets
My name is Andrew Pilkington, I’m a re-enactor, historical interpreter and amateur historian. If you have visited the Staffordshire Hoard gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery at weekends you may know me as Wulfgar of Mercia.
I recently spent a morning in the conservation studio at Birmingham looking at, handling and discussing various pieces of the Hoard. One of these discussions was about the “horseman” helmet foil and how it differed from the Sutton Hoo example to which it is frequently compared. This blog is the end result of that discussion and expresses my own personal opinions.
Pressblech for those that don’t know is the name given to metal foils that are embossed with various designs and used to decorate various objects such as helmets (1,2), drinking horns (3,4), cups etc.
They are fairly easy to produce – a thin sheet of metal is beaten over a die with the desired pattern cut into it – the real skill is making the die. The finest exponent of this art, working in England today is Dave Roper, pictured below (5).
There are many different designs found on these foils, ranging from marching figures, dancing warriors and men threatened by “beasts” (6) to complex interlace patterns.
The Gutenstein foil above was probably originally designed to go on a helmet but was later used as a scabbard decoration.
The placement of the foils on helmets seems to be significant and may tell a long forgotten story. Certain designs only appear above the eyes while others only appear around the edges, with figures marching in oppose directions.
While certain general themes are repeated (dancing warriors, duelling warriors, beastmen etc), they vary slightly from helmet to helmet.
The foils we are particularly interested in here are the ones depicting horsemen. The idea of decorating objects with pictures of victorious horsemen is not a specifically Anglo-Saxon one. The general design is found on Roman coins and on the grave stones of Roman Cavalrymen. A similar design is also found on the fourth century BC grave stone of Dexileos. Perhaps it is a traditional design bought into the Roman army by European Auxiliaries. The design is still with us today – find a pub called “The George and Dragon” and have a look at the sign.
There appear to be several versions of the horseman design, one shows a “fallen warrior” either being trampled or dragged along. Others show a man leading the horse, and another variation shows a snake near the horse. Sometimes the rider has a small figure sitting behind him guiding his spear, other times he is accompanied by birds.
It is difficult to decide who is the main character on these foils, is it the horseman, riding valiantly into battle or is it the fallen warrior bravely stabbing his attacker’s horse? Or is it the small figure, could he represent Woden either as a war god guiding the hero’s spear or as a psychopomp leading the hero into the afterlife?
The foils depicting horsemen are found decorating Swedish series helmets of the Vendel period. Three helmets exist in Sweden, Vendel 1, Valsgarde 7 and Valsgarde 8. Only one such helmet has so far been found in Britain. This is the famous Sutton Hoo Helmet which many people believe may have belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia.
The horseman foil discovered in the Staffordshire Hoard (7) is fragmented but it is still possible to see some details within it.
Some of the main features are outlined in the picture below to make them easier to see (8).
Initially it was thought that the Staffordshire Hoard foil was the same as the one from the Sutton Hoo helmet. Below is a line drawing by Lindsay Kerr of the Sutton Hoo foil (9).
A side by side comparison shows a number of differences (10).
- The position of the horse’s hind legs is different.
- The position of the rider’s foot is different.
- The strap behind the shield on the Sutton Hoo foil appears to go through a buckle whereas on the Staffordshire Hoard foil it appears to be held in a complex knot.
- The Sutton Hoo foil depicts a man being ridden down or possibly dragged along, he is holding onto the reins with his left hand. He is driving a sword into the horse’s chest with his right hand.
- On the Staffordshire Hoard foil we only have a partial image but it appears to show a man standing in front of the horse and holding its front leg while stabbing it in the chest. The position of his thumbs indicates that his body is facing the viewer.
- The figure’s head on the Staffordshire Hoard foil is indistinct on this photograph, so it is difficult to tell if he is wearing a helmet or has long hair.
The Staffordshire Hoard foil also shares some similarities and differences with other pressblech foil:
Pliezhausen Bracteat – shown below in a line drawing by Lindsay Kerr (11).
Side by side comparison (Pliezhausen shown reversed) (12).
- The Horse’s legs are in a similar position, although the nearest leg goes around the figure in Pliezhausen rather than being held as in the Staffordshire Hoard foil.
- The shield is made up of an almost identical concentric ring pattern.
Vendal 1 – shown below in reproduction foils by Dave Roper (13) and a line drawing by Wayne Letting (14).
Side by side comparison (15).
- There only seems to be one point of similarity between Vendel 1 and the Staffordshire Hoard foil and that is the knot behind the shield shown on the left foil/ line drawing.
Valsgarde 7 – shown below in reproduction foils by Ivor Lawton (16)
- The only similarity between the Valsgarde 7 foils and the Staffordshire Hoard foil is that the figure at the front of the left side is holding a short sword or seax.
Valsgarde 8 – shown below in reproduction foils by Thorkil (17).
- Yet again there is little in common with the Staffordshire Hoard foil, at most there is a similarity in the shield design.
If more parts of this Staffordshire Hoard foil are identified by the conservators at the British Museum, it may become necessary to revise my theories shown above.
Currently though with the pieces available and the low resolution of the photographs, it is not possibly to attempt a full reconstruction but it appears that we may have a previously unseen variation on the classic horseman design.
Andrew Pilkington – find me on twitter as waylandtb.
- Photographs and line drawings provided by Paul Mortimer, Lindsay Kerr, Wayne Letting, A J Pilkington and Birmingham Museums Trust.
- Helmets and drinking horns pictured were provided courtesy of Wulfheodenas members.
- Pictures 9 and 11 originally published in Wayland’s Work: Anglo-Saxon Art, Myth & Material Culture from the 4th to the 7th Century” by Stephen Pollington, Lindsay Kerr, Brett Hammond, Published by Anglo-Saxon Books 2010 (ISBN 978 1898281566).
- Pictures 6, 13, 14, 16 and 17 originally published in Woden’s Warriors: Warriors and Warfare in 6th – 7th Century Northern Europe by Paul Mortimer, Published by Anglo-Saxon Books 2011 (ISBN 978 1898281603).