12th May 1982 saw the discovery of the “Coppergate Helmet.” At about 2:40pm at the Coppergate dig in York, the bucket of the site’s mechanical digger struck a solid object. Believing the object was a stone, work was stopped to see how large it was. Examination of the object exposed a golden looking band on which lettering was clearly visible: it was not a stone but a helmet! It required rapid and careful removal as exposure to the air from its anaerobic soil resting place put the fragile remains at risk of rapid corrosion and the helmet was lifted at about 8.30pm.
The following day work resumed to try and establish some context for the find, but the helmet pit, the helmet, and the associated deposited items were to provide the only evidence for the Anglian period. Despite this, the helmet is incredibly important. Anglo-Saxon helmets are rare enough but the condition in which the Coppergate Helmet was found is exceptional even so. The water-logged soil in which it had rested since it was deposited had preserved it remarkably well. The actual metal survives rather than just the corroded deposits. There was some damage to the helmet caused before it was buried and further damage had been caused by the mechanical excavator before it the helmet was spotted in the ground. The Coppergate helmet consists of four major elements; an iron cap with brass decoration and edge bindings, two iron cheek-pieces with brass edge bindings and suspended on either side of the cap from iron hinges, and a mail curtain, predominantly of iron, attached at each end to the cheek-pieces and suspended from the edge of the cap. In order to preserve the helmet from exposure to the air, which could cause rapid erosion, within 48 hours of discovery, the helmet was safely sealed in a high humidity box with a transparent acrylic lid and a nitrogen gas flow. It was only when the helmet was removed for photographing or closer examination that rusting started to occur noticeably.
The pit in which it was found had been cut into the natural clay and lined with re-used oak planks; later building work had avoided hitting the helmet by a matter of only centimetres. There were a number of other items or fragments found within the pit but these were distributed randomly through the infill, so were probably mixed in with the soil used rather than placed in the pit directly. Dating of some wood fragments confirmed an Anglian date for the pit and infill.
The Coppergate helmet itself lay near the north-east corner of the pit, face downwards and with the crown of the helmet facing towards the southeast and tilted slightly towards the corner. Inside the helmet was a mail curtain which formed a protective barrier for the neck of the wearer when suspended from the helmet rim. The mail curtain consists of 1947 rings arranged in 28 horizontal rows, the longest of which is now 81 rings long.
Once examinations were completed as far as possible, and over 12 months later, the helmet was sent to the British Museum for reconstruction.
The nasal strip is decorated with sinuous and interlocking beasts and the eyebrows are grooved, ending in snarling animal heads. The strip over the crest of the head also terminates in animal heads.
An inscription runs over the top of the helmet, in Latin:
IN NOMINE : DNI : NOSTRI : IHV : SCS : SPS : DI :
ET : OMNIBVS : DECEMVS : AMEN : OSHERE : XPI
On each side of the helmet, running from the crown towards each ear is a subsidiary inscription:
IN NOMINE : DNI : NOSTRI : IHV: SCS : SPS
OMNIBVS : DECEMVS : AMEN : OSHERE
Both inscriptions can probably be understood as meaning:
“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy
Spirit (and) God; and to (or with) all we say Amen. Oshere’.
The name Oshere is a well-attested Old English name. The helmet cannot be associated with any particular individual, nor can the name itself help to date the text. The name is probably that of the owner of the helmet; it is possible, but less likely, that it is the name of the maker of the helmet.
Dr Elisabeth Okasha of University College, Cork observes that:
“Neither of the two other existing Anglo-Saxon helmets are inscribed, although several Anglo-Saxon inscribed weapons have survived. The motive in inscribing a helmet was presumably similar to that in inscribing a sword, a scabbard or a knife, to commend the owner to the protection of God. The two versions of the helmet text are fastened into place so as to form a cross. It seems that this is less likely to be accidental than to symbolise the same desire for divine protection.
It seems highly unlikely that the cross shape formed by the two inscriptions is purely accidental. No other crested helmet has such an arrangement with what is, in effect, a second crest of virtually identical structure at right angles to the first. If the repetition of the prayer may have been intended to double its force, then an arrangement of the elements into a cross shape may have been intended to add another level of protection. The cross is used as a protective symbol, for example, on the nasal of the Benty Grange helmet.”
Along with the protective inscriptions, the cross symbols and the animal motifs, the helmet was designed to protect its wearer in battle. We’ll never know how well it succeeded.
In the words of the Beowulf poet:
“Figures of boars, bright
and fire-hardened, gleamed gold-adorned
above the cheek guards: in war the boar
helped guard those fierce men’s lives.”
It seems appropriate to end our discussion with a quotation from Ailsa Mainman’s book “Anglian York” (2019:127) which considers the helmet in the wider context of activity in York at the time of its production:
“This striking and evocative object therefore usefully serves to tie together many of the disparate pieces of the Anglian jigsaw described [in this book]. It was being worn, perhaps in conflict, at a time when burial was coming to an end at the Belle Vue House cemetery but was continuing at the Queen’s Hotel site on Micklegate. At the same time the main period of settlement at 46-54 Fishergate was coming to an end, but both occupation and commercial activity was becoming established along the banks of York’s two rivers and perhaps in the Coppergate / Ousegate area. The helmet attests not only to the networks of supply bringing fuel and raw materials into York, but to the spread of complex technological skills. It belongs to the period of Alcuin, when art and scholarship were flourishing in the city and in the wider kingdom of Northumbria. Somewhere in York the church of Alma Sophia was under construction, while Alcuin himself was forging contacts in Europe which would later take him to join Charlemagne’s court in Francia. It was made around the time of the recorded expulsion of Frisian merchants from York, during a period of political turbulence when kings of Northumbria were being regularly killed, murdered, deposed, expelled – and replaced.
The helmet brings us face to face with these higher social orders who are referred to in the written sources but who were previously invisible in the archaeological record, other than in the coinage of kings and prelates. The helmet might well have been made in York and, perhaps most strikingly, it illustrates the highly developed skills of 8th century metal workers who painstakingly made each tiny link of chain, hammered together the orin cap, fitted the brass bindings with their inscribed prayer and attached the decorated nasal guard and eyebrows. It also demonstrates that they, like their powerful patrons, belonged to a world that was literate, wealthy and fully cognisant of current artistic fashions.”