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Some thoughts on Byzantine 7th century military headgear based on Metropolitan Museum of New York exhibits


Reconstructing Byzantine military gear of 7th century AD is a matter of conventions and educated guesses as the archaeological finds of period items (especially military gear) are rare. The era is considered part of the Second Phase of the Migration Period. That is the time that the later Germanic tribes and early Slavs overran large tracts of Roman territory.The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Army seems to have drawn heavily from military fashions that originated in the Eurasian steppes. Most migration era helmets surviving in museums appear to be constructed from several parts and is accepted by the scholars to be typical of the armies at that time.


Spangenhelm (iron), Migration Period – Museum of the Cetinska Krajina Region – Sinj, Croatia. Source: WIKIPEDIA

A good deal of the visual Byzantine Army headgear reconstructions of the 7th century AD, are based on these museum items. But there are a number of reconstructions based on exhibits of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that are speculative and some times have been dismissed as artistic license. A collection of silver objects showing images from the life of the biblical hero David depict soldier in fancy headgear.Dr. David Nicolle has suggested that the troopers depicted there wear the typical helmets of the period but carry over them very fancy cloth caps typical of the populations living in the Caucasus regions.

byzantiene silver plate David Eliab

David meets his brother Eliab, depicted here as a byzantine elite soldier. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But a much later exhibit in the same museum can put this theory to the test. A Spanish 16th century straw hat looks surprisingly similar to the headgear depicted in the silver plates of Byzantine origin.


16th century Spanish straw cap with velvet decoration. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York

While there is a notable 9 centuries time space between the two exhibits, there is nothing to suggest that the Byzantine artisans were not capable of producing similar straw caps if asked to. What is there to suggest that the 7th century silver smith simple copied the off duty headgear of officers or elite troops of his time?

More questions can be raised though. In the Metropolitan Museum’s arms collections exists also a 16th century steel helmet made by the Italian smith Filippo Nergoli that is again remarkably similar to the helmets shown in the above mentioned Byzantine silverware. The helmet is also in the same time space as the above mentioned straw hat but there are known examples of roman helmets made form a single piece of metal.

fc32f20df92bf34674cff41af Nergoli 1543

16th century helmet from Milan or Brescia. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York

While the rank and file of the 7th century Byzantine troops would posses the more affordable and more easily made “spangen helm” it is not unusual for officers and patrician rank commanders to be able to afford helmets of better quality and decoration. Once again the possibility that the silver smith depicts real contemporary helmets is not unlikely. For example on the plate depicting the duel between David and Goliath, the Philistine champion and the depicted warriors may represent Jewish and Philistine royalty that the artist modeled upon contemporary aristocratic warriors.


David Nicolle Romano-Byzantine Armies 4th–9th Centuries Osprey Publishing 1992




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