- Museum number
Iron and copper alloy helmet composed of a pair of iron shells independently riveted onto an external frame of copper alloy bands around the bottom, up the front and back, and over the top. The iron shells are now heavily corroded and form the two sides of the helmet creating a roughly parabaloid asymmetrical profile. The iron shells were originally covered with cloth, fossil impressions of which remain in the corrosion products. Round-headed gilded rivets (diameter at head 0.7 cm) were used to secure the shells onto the bands, are evenly spaced at 0.3-0.5 cm intervals and are hammered into the bronze bands which form the frame of the helmet. There was originally a second row of rivets, slightly more widely spaced, but now missing and with the holes obscured by corrosion.
- Production date
Height: 20 centimetres
Width: 22 centimetres (base)
Depth: 19 centimetres
- Curator's comments
This belongs to the so-called spangenhelm type of helmet. The lowest row of rivets were presumably used to attach the lining, presumably of leather and since perished. The construction and decoration of the close parallel in the Iraq Museum (also from Kouyunjik) confirm a late date similar to that of the decorated scabbards and not the earlier Parthian (let alone Assyrian) date suggested in some literature. The assumption that they were Assyrian rests on their 19th century discovery and influenced Victorian artists, including Sir Edwin Long in his painting 'The Babylonian Marriage Market', to use them in their reconstructions. This helmet, along with 22495 and 22497, was already recognised as being of Sasanian date in the 1922 Guide (p. 169).
A letter from M.E.L. Mallowan to C.J. Gadd, dated 25 October 1935 (ANE Correspondence) states that "A picture of a helmet exactly resembling the one you showed me yesterday, may be found in Liverpool Annals. Vol. XIX, plate LI. No. 3 - it is referred to in the text on page 78. - there were Sassanian coins in the vicinity - cf. page 77. As far as I remember this head [sic] is now in Baghdad. If you discover any pictures of Layard's helmets I will be much interested to know in what volume they may be found. P.S. The KUYUNJIK helmet I refer to was discovered in the season 1930-31".
See also BM.22497; BM.22495
See Rassam Inventories p.21 and no.22497; ANE Correspondence, Stephen V. Grancsay to R.D. Barnett, 7 & 19 June 1962, with reply dated 12 June.
Comparanda: James 1986a.
The helmet referred to above as in Baghdad is on display in the Iraq Museum (2018).
Unpublished Cernuschi catalogue entry
Excavated at Nineveh, Iraq
Probably 6th-7th century
Bronze and iron
H 23, D 20-22.5 cm (at the browband)
Rawlinson 1894: 398-99; Guide 1900: 99; Arendt 1935/36: taf. VII; Werner 1949/50: 188-89, taf. 7/2; von der Osten 1956: taf. 105; Grancsay 1963: 259, fig. 8; Gardner 1968: fig.; James 1986: 117-19; Wilcox & McBride 1986: 39; Overlaet 1982: 193; Dezsö and Curtis 1991: 105; Overlaet ed. 1993: 172, no. 30; Nicolle & McBride 1996: 66, fig. 34B; Simpson 1996: 97-98, pl. 2a-b; Reade 1998: 78
London, The British Museum, ANE 22498
Composed of iron plates riveted onto an external frame of copper alloy bands with a 4 cm. high iron browband overlaid with bronze around the bottom. Round-headed rivets, measuring 0.7 cm. across at the heads, were used to secure the plates onto the bands and were regularly spaced at intervals of 0.3 - 0.5 cm.; these rivets were originally gilded. A previous report that the browband is cut away in front to form eye-slits is incorrect, and is probably a misunderstanding of the break pattern. The iron infill plates are heavily corroded but were originally covered on the exterior with cloth, traces of which remain in the corrosion products. There are traces of a second row of holes around the browband but these lack metal rivets or traces of attached iron rings; the intervals are also too widely spaced to have been for the attachment of camail, and instead appear to have been intended for a sewn leather lining.
This is one of four Sasanian and later helmets excavated on the mound of Kuyunjik at Nineveh. Since the first 19th century discoveries, they have attracted widely different opinions about their date. One arrived as part of a consignment of antiquities in July 1880 when it was itemised as "an Assyrian bronze helmet" (Trustees Original Papers 22 July 1880, 3228); two had arrived earlier and been mounted for exhibition in 1877, and shortly before that had been incorporated as props in the famous Victorian painting by Edwin Long entitled "The Babylonian Marriage Market" (1875). It was later speculated that they might represent evidence for a battle between Roman and Parthian forces, and the metal assumed to be Margian steel, but by 1900 they were recognised as "probably the work of Sassanian smiths" (Guide 1900: 99). A 5th century or later date is now generally accepted by specialists of military equipment. Nevertheless, the discovery of as many as four helmets at one site is remarkable and, by comparison, such military equipment is usually only found in exceptional circumstances in the Roman empire, for instance in a siege-mine at Dura, or in graves, ritual pits and hoards. It is therefore not certain that they directly signify a military garrison at Nineveh, although the historical evidence points to a stronghold at this site during this period.
The present helmet most closely resembles another example found at Nineveh during excavations near the site of the Assyrian temple of Ishtar, and which is now in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad (Thompson & Hamilton 1932: 78, pl. LI: 3). The depth of this helmet relative to other datable finds suggests that it may have been discarded in a pit or similar deep cut feature, although its findspot cannot be used for dating. However, the traces of cloth covering the exterior of the iron panels were better preserved on this second helmet. The cloth itself was decorated and, judging by published photographs, was divided into three vertical bands on each panel: the central panel consisted of vertical overlapping scales and was flanked on either side by horizontal rows of overlapping scales radiating to the left and right respectively. The scales appear to survive in very low relief, thus rather than being woven may have been executed with a back-stitch or stem-stitch. The manufacture of decorated cloth panels to fit helmets of this type implies textile workshops to match the output of the metalsmiths. The pattern finds close parallels with identical punch-marked motifs on two helmets in the Brussels and Metropolitan Museums (Grancsay 1963; Overlaet 1982; 1998: 286, fig. 168). The same decoration is also found on 6th-7th century sword scabbards reportedly found in Daylaman. This pattern has been variously interpreted: Ghirshman (1963: 310) saw it as representative of the mythical bird Varagna, an incarnation of the Zoroastrian god of victory Verethragna, whereas Werner (1956: 42, 45-46, 51-53, 69-81) interprets it as belonging to a wider shamanistic tradition also reflected in similar motifs on Hunnic metalwork and Baldenheimer-type spangenhelme possibly produced in Byzantium. However, similar motifs also occur on Late Sasanian stuccoes, silverwares and textiles, suggesting that, if it did indeed originate outside the empire, it had become thoroughly assimilated as a design motif with a resonance wider than that to be expected purely within a military context (Overlaet 1998: 290).
Despite their decorative appearance, the thickness of the metal plates and bands suggests that all of these helmets were intended to have a practical function. Nevertheless, the combination of bronze, gilt, iron, silver and cloth hints at the visual splendour of the Sasanian army, hence perhaps the "gleaming helmets" of Ammianus' description (History, Bk. XXIV,2.5). It also raises the possibility that certain individuals, ranks or units may have been distinguished by the appearance of their helmets and that colour symbolism may have been significant. Certainly some high-ranking individuals wore highly elaborate crests on their helmets, and portrait seals of Sasanian officials and nobles are frequently depicted with personal monograms attached to their rounded-conical tiaras or domed kolahs.
It is now becoming clear that several types of helmet were worn by units in the Sasanian empire. A single helmet from Dura suggests that in the 3rd century helmets were made by combining two iron half-shells. Rounded-conical spangenhelm type helmets with four bands appear in the 5th or 6th century and, judging by the evidence of another helmet from Nineveh, were occasionally equipped with cut-out eye-slits. Rows of holes around the bases of the browbands on unprovenanced helmets have been previously interpreted for the attachment of camail. However, the interval spacing suggests that this was to secure a leather lining, and depictions on late Sasanian spahbed seals, column capitals, the grotto at Taq-i Bustan and post-Sasanian stucco from Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad imply that helmets were worn over mail coifs. There are variations in details of construction and decoration: some were decorated with cloth overlays whereas others, although none from archaeological contexts, appear to have been highlighted with decorative bronze or silver overlays. In both cases there is evidence for these overlays being decorated with a motif which finds very close parallels on 6th-7th century sword scabbards reported from Daylaman. These finds therefore may be representative of types used across the Sasanian empire rather than being, as Bálint (1992: 415-16) has suggested, merely an extension of the Caucasian region. A similar late Sasanian date may be suggested for at least two of the four helmets excavated at Nineveh, and this findspot confirms that this type of helmet was also used near the western frontier of the Sasanian empire, as well as apparently in north-west Iran. It is uncertain what sorts of rank, let alone ethnic affiliation, may have worn the decorated helmets but analogy with Roman and post-medieval European armies makes it clear that decorated equipment was not the prerogative of the highest ranks.
- On display (G52/dc7)
- Exhibition history
2006 14 Sept-30 Dec, Paris, Cernuschi Museum, 'Les Perses Sassanides ou les Fastes d'un empire oublié'
1995-2005 17 Nov-12 Dec, BM, G52/IRAN/20/1
1994 16 Jun-23 Dec, BM, G49/IRAN/20/1
1993 12 Feb-25 Apr, Belgium, Brussels, Musée Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Splendeur des Sassanides / Hofkunst Van des Sassanieden, no.30
1975 Jul-ca 1990 - BM, Iranian Room [IR], case ?, no. 27
1971 - BM, 'Royal Persia: a commemoration of Cyrus the Great and his successors on the occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire'
Old Mesopotamia gallery in old WAA student's room off Coptic Corridor, wall-case.
- Acquisition date
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number