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Britain's first Viking helmet discovered

Friday, August 7, 2020

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New research has shown that a corroded, damaged helmet unearthed in Yarm, Stockton-on-Tees, in the 1950s is a rare, 10th century Anglo-Scandinavian (Viking) helmet, the first ever found in Britain and only the second nearly complete Viking helmet found in the world.

This unusual find was discovered in Chapel Yard, Yarm, by workmen digging trenches for new sewerage pipes. Known locally as the ‘Viking helmet’, it has been on loan to Preston Park Museum from Yarm Town Council for a number of decades. It had never previously been researched and the age of the helmet had caused much debate until now.

In recent years a project led by Dr Chris Caple, Emeritus Reader at Durham University, has been underway to discover new information about this artefact. Dr Caple and his colleagues have used evidence from recent archaeological discoveries as well as analysis of the metal and corrosion to reveal it to be an Anglo-Scandinavian helmet made in the 10th century in northern England.

Councillor Jim Beall, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Health, Leisure and Culture, said: “It’s very exciting to have confirmation that the Yarm Helmet on display at Preston Park Museum is a very rare example of a Viking helmet and the first to be found in Britain. The museum is open to the public once again and it is great to welcome visitors to see this fascinating piece of history.”

Alan Gallafant, Chairman of Yarm Town Council, said: “Yarm Town Council are delighted that the provenance of this important historic helmet has been confirmed, thanks to the work carried out by Dr Chris Caple and Durham University. Yarm Town Council welcome the launch of this exciting development on Yarm’s history.”

Dr Caple commented: “We were initially alerted to the object by our colleagues at Preston Park Museum. It was a challenging project, as the thin iron sheet is now very susceptible to corrosion (it has to be kept in very dry conditions), so it was not simply a question of only showing the date at which it was created, but working out how it had survived until it was unearthed in the 1950s. Our analysis showed that it was initially preserved in waterlogged conditions, only later becoming damaged and starting to corrode. Fortunately it was discovered before it corroded away completely.

“Although there are half a dozen early medieval helmets from Britain, the Sutton Hoo and Coppergate helmets being the most famous, this is the first Anglo-Scandinavian (Viking) helmet from Britain.

“Whilst the Saxon helmets were often highly decorated and were worn by warrior leaders, as much symbols of authority as helmets, by the 10th century we can now envisage that most professional warriors had helmets like the Yarm Helmet. They were simply manufactured, well designed to protect the wearer (rivets flush with the surface so they did not catch bladed weapons) but no longer decorated. Together with a mail hauberk (shirt of chain mail), a helmet was essential personal protective equipment for a warrior. We see almost all the combatants in the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry wearing helmets and hauberks.

“The only other near complete Viking helmet is from Gjermundbu in Norway. They do not normally survive because by the 10th century both Anglo-Scandinavian and Saxons were Christian and no longer buried objects in graves. This helmet, like the Coppergate helmet appears to have been hidden in a pit.”

The Yarm Helmet has been on permanent display at Preston Park Museum since 2012, where its condition is closely monitored and it continues to be one of the star objects on display.

It can be seen at Preston Park Museum but tickets must be pre-booked online at www.prestonparkmuseum.co.uk/book-your-visit (tickets will be available to book one week ahead of visiting, normal museum admission applies).

The full results of the investigation can be read in the report published this month in Medieval Archaeology, Volume 64/1 and a summary can be read on the museum’s website www.prestonparkmuseum.co.uk

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