Do 3,000-year-old Bronze Age Horned Helmets Have Trans-Continental Links?
A team of researchers has sampled organic matter from residue found inside a rare and deeply ancient bronze horned-helmet in Denmark. But their claim that a long-distance prehistoric oceanic trade route connected Scandinavia with the Mediterranean is not resting well with everyone.
Back in 1942 a Danish peat cutter was digging in a bog on the island of Zealand near Veksø when he unearthed the first of the now famous pair of horned bronze helmets. Featuring long curved bull’s horns extending from a round cap, the helmet was decorated with the beak and large eyes of a bird of prey. Furthermore, adding to the drama, feathers or a horse-hair mane may have been attached at the back of the helmet.
It was initially thought that this rare ritual helmet was ‘Viking Age’ and would stand as one of a kind, until later excavations revealed a second one, on a wooden platter. Now, not only has it been discovered that these helmets were deposited almost 3000 years ago, but the researchers suggest they were influenced by Sardinian symbology. While the dating part is accepted, that last bit is a real problem.
The front of one of the Danish horned helmets used as a focus in the latest study on Bronze Age Mediterranean-Scandinavian trade routes. (Nationalmuseet / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Linking Denmark’s Horned Helmets to Prehistoric Trade Routes
This all started in 2019 when Moesgaard Museum archaeologist, Heide Wrobel Nørgaard, was photographing the two bronze horned helmets and identified black organic residue inside one of the long hollow horns. Now, new radiocarbon dating has determined that the Viksø helmets were deposited in the bog around 900 BC.
The new study was published by Aarhus University archaeologist Dr Helle Vandkilde, and a team of researchers, in the journal Praehistorische Zeitschrift. The paper suggests the styling of the two bronze horned helmets was perhaps inspired by “ Sardinian symbolism.” If this assumption is correct it would serve as the first archaeological link between prehistoric northern Europe and the Mediterranean, which are separated by the Alps , and thousands of kilometers of land or sea challenges.
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To solve these major geographical issues, the new study speculates that a hitherto unknown ancient trade route most likely followed the Atlantic coast connecting Scandinavia with the Mediterranean Sea.
The back of the Danish horned helmet shown above. (Nationalmuseet / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Helmet Symbolism Linked To Sardinia and Western Iberia
Co-author Dr Nørgaard wrote that there exist “huge similarities” between the Danish horned helmets and rock art and figurines dating to the same time period found in Sardinia and in western Iberia . Furthermore, bronze figurines have been discovered wearing identical helmets, and rock carvings depicting warriors with “nearly identical horned helmets.” According to Dr Vandkilde, these visual matches between Scandinavian and Sardinian iconography “shows traders from the Mediterranean began to make their way up the Atlantic coast to Scandinavia 3000 years ago.”
Dr Vandkilde thinks the helmets were used in a ritual context by several generations of Bronze Age Danish rulers. “They’re using the divine to sharpen and legitimize their power,” she wrote in the study. This is all backed up with the fact that the agri-political elite in Scandinavia was consolidating its power around 1000 BC. Moreover, solar worship was being redefined with new rituals designed for specific animal deities .
The three geographical zones with horned-helmet representations analyzed in the new study: Sardinia, southwest Iberia, and southern Scandinavia, with selected key sites indicated in yellow. (De Gruyter / Praehistorische Zeitschrift )
Symbolism to the Side, What Does Science Have To Say?
This all sounds quite linear, doesn't it? Well, it's not! A Science.org article about the new paper explains that archaeologist Nicola Ialongo from the Georg August University of Göttingen says the study leaves “lots unexplained.” You see, it’s all well and good drawing similarities between the symbolisms of different cultures but there has to be supporting archaeology in between to assert a physical connection, and in this instance, there is nothing in between.
Dr Ialongo argues that if there was indeed a heavily trafficked prehistoric Atlantic coast trade route linking the far north of Europe with cultures in the Mediterranean, “why are horned helmets and other iconography found only in Sardinia and Scandinavia?” Surely, if Sardinian religious symbolism had become so popular then similar helmets wouldn’t they also be found in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom, asked Ialongo? But they are not.
Based on the latest study’s conclusions we can now imagine that this scene in Sardinia was a basecamp for Bronze Age voyages to Scandinavia. Or is the latest study wrong? ( Stefano Neri / Adobe Stock)
Choose Your Science Very Carefully
Dr Ialongo doubled down, asserting that even if you assume seafarers went directly from Sardinia to Scandinavia, “they must have stopped along the way.” However, no such bronze horned helmets have been found in between western Iberia and Scandinavia. Nothing.
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Here we have another great example of “choose your scientist” carefully, and what appears to be a jenga-like scientific paper, wobbling on the lack of supporting archaeological evidence. Thus, this entire work might be a case of applied pareidolia, seeing artistic relationships in history where none actually existed. Then again, if so much as a fragment from a horned helmet is found in France tomorrow, Dr Vandkilde is top of the pops for her foresight.
Top image: The two Viksø horned helmets found in Denmark in 1942, which were used in a new study as evidence that an ancient Bronze Age trade route linked the Mediterranean to Scandinavia. Source: Nationalmuseet / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ashley Cowie