Research
 
HELMETS IN THE LATE/POST ROMAN PERIOD

The classic ‘Imperial Gallic’ helmet of the early Roman Empire sems to have gradually faded out during the turbulent 3rd Century AD. The two most common helmet types after this were the ‘Ridge’ and ‘Spangenhelms’ (All these names/classifications have been applied by modern scholars).

A Late Roman soldier wearing a ridge helmRidge Helmets

The Ridge helmet probably originated in Persia and was made known to Romans when this region was under the rule of the Sassanids. This distinct helmet is normally associated with the typical image of the later Roman soldier, archaeological examples are widespread and found as far apart as Hungary, the Balkans, Holland and Britain, so it’s a safe assumption to say that it was widespread use across the East and Western Roman Empires.
It seems to have been introduced as a more economically viable alternative to the Imperial Gallic, and the frequency of finds of this particular item coupled with a quote from a modern armourer (to reproduce the Imperial Gallic and later Ridge helmets in their most basic form) have left is in no doubt that these later helmets were common, produced without exceptional cost and endured the test of years; in some cases surviving (with adaptations or merely as heavy influence in helmets like the Vendel and Valsgarde finds) for centuries after their introduction.

Modern armourers and scholars agree that there seem to be two main categories of ridge helmet, the heavy and light versions.
The common feature of both is a skull made of two half bowl sections (these can sometimes be composites) joined together by a central raised comb or ridge running from the front to the back of the helmet.
From this bowl, cheek and neck guards are suspended, most commonly by means of leather straps riveted to the dome and cheek/neck guard components. This gives ease of movement and a more flexible fitting than earlier hinged helmets. (One bowl may change heads several times in its lifetime, with the cheek and neck guards adapted to suit the wearer).
Late Roman ridge helmThe Deurne helm - a high quality, ornamented ridge helmThe ‘light’ ridge helmet as it is called, is little more than what has just been described and it is this permutation that occurs in greater frequency, some examples having been found in Germany (Worms), Hungary (Intercisa), and Switzerland (Augst).
(Fragments also having been found at Richborough Roman Fort -Rutupiae (Kent) in the UK).Exploded view of a ridge helm The edge of the bowls, running (at just above eye-height) horizontally around seems in many examples to have been punched with a series of tiny holes.
It’s thought that the punched holes could take a leather edge; this innovation would have saved further of production costs as a ragged and unfinished metal edge could be hidden behind a laced-on rawhide border with very little time or skill.

The UK parallels we seek with continental evidence for the persistence of Roman equipment are perhaps best illustrated by the ‘heavy’ ridge helmet; moreover a British example was found in Burgh Castle on the UK’s East Anglian coast (The Saxon Shore Fort of Gariannonum) whose counterparts in the Balkans (Berkasovo) and Hungary (Concesti) are strikingly similar. The Burgh Castle helmet was composed of four segmented iron plates 1.5mm thick, these were fixed together with a crest and two reinforcing side bands (32mm wide where they meet the crest and 75mm wide where they meet the rim). Copper-alloy rivets (3mm diameter shanks, 4mm heads were used in its construction and the crest itself was made from a ridge of folded iron (standing 15mm high and running from the front to the back of the helmet) not a hollow semi-tubular crest present on its Berkasovo counterpart and Vendel/Valsgard descendents. This crest was folded at the bottom to produce flanges (8-10 mm wide) which were riveted to the plates that made up the helmet bowl.

The Burgh Castle helmet was found in a very dilapidated state (Initially classified as an ‘iron bucket’) and once it was finally recognised as a helmet, it was only when comparisons with continental examples were made was any sort of reconstruction attempted.

The Burgh Castle helm

Although elements of the cheek guard and brow band survive, it’s impossible to reach any conclusions on the overall appearance of the original so this helmet has been subject to a wide variety of interesting interpretations by several reconstruction armourers and illustrators.
Despite its poor condition the Burgh Castle helmet is one of the few examples of the style of ‘heavy ridge’ helmet where the structure can be so closely examined, as the surviving continental in most cases are represented only by a husk or skin of precious metal (like the Duerne helmet) as the structure of the iron dome has long since perished.
It could be argued that the ridge helmet provided the base on which helmets were designed and produced for centuries after the Roman occupation, not just in the obvious similarities linked to the afore mentioned vendel and valsgarde archaeology, but clearly represented in art on examples such as the Frank’s casket and what’s thought to be Northumbrian cavalry on the Aberlemno churchyard stone (6th-7th Century AD).


Spangenhelms

Sadly no entire British archaeological examples of Spangenhelms survive. Although this is not an argument against their widespread use in the UK. The spangenhelm (German term for ‘segmented helmet) as opposed to the ridge helmet is one where the construction of the dome uses more or less equal sized segment converging on a point on the very crown of the dome (as opposed to a central ridge).
Examples are found throughout Europe and the middle east, in fact the Egyptian example (Der el Medineh) was mad up of six plates riveted to six bands capped by a disc, again riveted at the top and with a ring attached to the disc (suggested as a plume holder). Around the rim of this helmet runs a brow band and this sported a rebated arch over each eye and sometimes included a T-shaped nasal component (In this latter aspectA spangenhelm it was similar to the ridge helmet). The example from Holland (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Lieden) is similar but it only has four segments riveted to four bands.

Examples of the spangenhelm in a Roman context are represented as early as the 2nd Century AD, in fact the Syrian archers on Trajan’s column appear to be wearing them.A recreated spangenhelmThe spangenhelm persisted beyond the Roman period too, and may have provided the foundation (in design terms) for the conical helmets represented on the Bayeux tapestry and artistic examples of conical helmets well ino the 12th Century AD.

No reference survives to tell us how helmets of this period were padded, but several experiments with sheepskin, quilted leather and strapping configurations have proved effective in soaking up the energy of blows in a re-enactment context.