On display

Room 41, The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery: Highlights from the world of Sutton Hoo, AD 300–1100 

Object details

Height: 31.8 cm (as restored)
Width: 21.5 cm (as restored)
Weight: 2.5kg (of original, estimated)

Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory

Gift of Mrs E.M. Pretty

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The Sutton Hoo helmet

Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century AD
From Mound 1, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England

This extraordinary helmet is very rare. Only four complete helmets are known from Anglo-Saxon England: at Sutton Hoo, Benty Grange, Wollaston and York.

The helmet was badly damaged when the burial chamber collapsed. By precisely locating the remaining fragments and assembling them as if in a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, conservators have reconstructed the helmet. A complete replica made by the Royal Armouries shows how the original would have looked.

The helmet comprised an iron cap, neck guard, cheek pieces and face mask. Its form derives from Late Roman cavalry helmets. The helmet’s surfaces were covered with tinned copper alloy panels that gave it a bright, silvery appearance. Many of these panels were decorated with interlacing animal ornament (‘Style II’) and heroic scenes of warriors. One scene shows two men wearing horned head-gear, holding swords and spears. The other shows a mounted warrior trampling a fallen enemy, who in turn stabs the horse. The rider carries a spear which is supported by a curious small figure, standing on the rump of his horse – perhaps a supernatural helper. Similar scenes were popular in the Germanic world at this time.

The face-mask is the helmet’s most remarkable feature. It works as a visual puzzle, with two possible ‘solutions’. The first is of a human face, comprising eye-sockets, eyebrows, moustache, mouth and a nose with two small holes so that the wearer could breathe. The copper alloy eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire and tiny garnets. Each ends in a gilded boar’s head – a symbol of strength and courage appropriate for a warrior. The second ‘solution’ is of a bird or dragon flying upwards. Its tail is formed by the moustache, its body by the nose, and its wings by the eyebrows. Its head extends from between the wings, and lays nose-to-nose with another animal head at the end of a low iron crest that runs over the helmet’s cap.

A precious survival, the Sutton Hoo helmet has become an icon of the early medieval period.

More about this object





S. Marzinzik, Masterpieces: Early medieval art, (London, British Museum Press, 2013), no. 47

N. MacGregor, A history of the world in 100 objects, (London, The British Museum/BBC/Allen Lane, 2010), no. 47

S. Marzinzik, The Sutton Hoo helmet, British Museum Objects in Focus, (London, The British Museum Press, 2007)

G. Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo, (London, British Museum Press, 2011)

A. C. Evans, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, revised edition, (London, British Museum Press, 1994)

R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford, The Sutton Hoo ship burial, volume 2: Arms, armour and regalia, (London, British Museum Press, 1978)

Further reading

M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: A seventh century princely burial ground and its context, (London, The British Museum Press, 2005)

S. Crawford, ‘Votive deposition, religion and the Anglo-Saxon furnished burial ritual’, World Archaeology, 36 (2004), 87–102

S. Marzinzik, ‘Grave-goods in “Conversion Period” and later burials – a case of early medieval religious double standards?’, in K. Pollmann (ed.), Double standards in the ancient and medieval world, (Göttingen, 2000), pp.149–166

D. Janes, ‘Treasure, death and display from Rome to the Middle Ages’, in E.M. Tyler, Treasure and the medieval West (2000), pp. 1–10

M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings?, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)

M. Carver (ed.), The age of Sutton Hoo: The seventh century in Western Europe, (Suffolk/New York, Boydell and Brewer, 1992)