Collections Officer Christine Hutchinson of Preston Park Museum in Stockton on Tees on a locally-found Viking helmet that is the only one of its kind in the UK
This is the only Viking helmet to be found in the UK and only the second near complete one to be found in the world, so it’s an amazing discovery.
It was however found back in the 1950s by workmen digging trenches for sewage pipes in Yarm – just down the road from us – and we know that no archaeological surveys were done at the time. So up until very recently there was always a kind of question mark over it.
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We had a few news clippings from the 1970s and 1980s – when the helmet came to the museum – and even back then people were asking questions around it. Some suggested it might be a later copy – perhaps made in the Victorian period or even later.
But now knowledge and technology has moved on, there’s a lot more to help us, and Dr Chris Caple, from Durham University, has found out what it was made of, how it was made and who might have used it.
It dates to the tenth century when the Vikings were very much settled in this area and living alongside the Anglo Saxons. Yarm was an important port on the River Tees and Robin Daniels of Tees Archaeology, who advises us on our archaeology collection, has said that maybe there was a quayside on the river near to where the helmet was found.
Chris Caple believes the helmet wasn’t part of an assemblage of grave goods, however, and that the helmet was likely to have been hidden in a pit. The tenth century was more of a Christian age and grave goods are more associated with pagan burials.
But if somebody had hidden it, surely they would have come back and retrieved it at some point? It would have been valuable in itself and also fairly valuable in terms of its metal, which could have been used for something else.
It’s quite fragile and is made up of iron bands and plates riveted together and now that it has been through this process we have much more detail – for instance where a mail curtain may have been attached along the back. It’s got the nasal guard, which as Chris points out looks a bit like the nostril of a beast, which is very typical of helmets of the time. Although it’s very fragile,it’s nearly all there – there’s some damage, possibly from a plough, but really you can see the shape of it still – it’s a lovely object.
The team at Durham was also able to treat the corrosion, which will help preserve it for longer. The initial stage saw an emphasis on 3D photographs and then they took very small samples from the metal. They looked into every aspect of it – at the minerals that were present on it and any deposits that might tell us about the environment it’s been buried in. They were also able to tell that it had no additional decoration because there were no other types of metal included – it was just iron.
So it is a very intriguing object, partly because we still don’t know a huge amount about what was happening in this area during the Viking era and, as Chris points out in his report, the only other artefact from Yarm definitely dating from that period is a ninth-century Viking cross shaft, which is currently at Durham Cathedral. We have a lot of Anglo Saxon artefacts in our collection but the helmet is really our only major Viking artefact.
The only other Viking artefacts in our collection, also on loan, are a series of stone grave monuments, which came from Kirklevington, which is just a short distance from Yarm. It could indicate that Yarm was a Viking market place with the merchants and leaders living in Kirklevington.
The helmet is on loan to us from Yarm Town Council and we’re very lucky to be looking after it – and it does take quite a lot of looking after, especially in terms of the humidity levels, but we are able to provide that safe environment for it. We see it as one of our star objects and we want to begin making links to the wider archaeology collection and tell the story of the people who settled here in earlier times.
We know that there are examples of other Viking helmets in the world but this one is very special – it is the only second near complete example, the other one being in Norway. We’re not a big national museum, so it’s quite a big deal that we’re able to put this helmet on display for the people of Yarm, because that’s who it really belongs to.
We have a Viking exhibition, Fearsome Craftsmen, coming in February so it will be great to highlight the helmet again during this time. We’re also looking into new and accessible interpretation for the helmet so that as many people can engage with it as possible. It is on permanent display though and visitors can book online via the museum’s website, www.prestonparkmuseum.co.uk to come and see it.
Christine Hutchinson was speaking to Richard Moss.
Preston Park Museum and Grounds
Stockton On Tees
Nestled alongside the River Tees, Preston Hall, a former Georgian gentleman’s residence and former home of industrial magnate Robert Ropner, houses a varied collection of Teesside’s treasures. Walk through the impressive doors to find out more about those who lived there, the varied museum collection, the vital role the mighty…