|Gevninge helmet fragment|
Gevninge helmet fragment
|Size||8 by 5 cm|
(3 by 2 in)
|Created||c. 550–700 AD|
|Present location||Lejre Museum, Denmark|
The Gevninge helmet fragment is the dexter eyepiece of a helmet from the Viking Age or end of the Nordic Iron Age. It was found in 2000 during the excavation of a Viking farmstead in Gevninge, near Lejre, Denmark. The fragment is moulded from bronze and gilded, and consists of a stylised eyebrow with eyelashes above an oval opening. There are three holes at the top and bottom of the fragment to affix the eyepiece to a helmet. The fragment is significant as rare evidence of contemporaneous helmets, and also for its discovery in Gevninge, an outpost that is possibly connected to the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. It has been in the collection of the Lejre Museum since its discovery, and has been exhibited internationally as part of a travelling exhibition on Vikings.
The fragment is an ornate piece, but nothing else remains of the helmet; it might be the single remnant of a disintegrated helmet, or it might have been lost or discarded. It is one of two Scandinavian eyepieces discovered alone, giving rise to the suggestion that it was intentionally deposited in an invocation of the one-eyed god Odin. It would have been part of a decorated "crested helmet", the type of headgear that was common to England and Scandinavia from the sixth through eleventh centuries AD. These are particularly known from the examples found at Vendel, Valsgärde, and Sutton Hoo; the Tjele helmet fragment is the only other Danish example known.
Gevninge is three kilometres (1.9 mi) upriver from Lejre, a one-time centre of power believed to be the setting for Heorot, the fabled mead hall to which the poetical hero Beowulf journeys in search of the monster Grendel. The settlement's location suggests that it functioned as an outpost through which anyone would have to pass when sailing to the capital, and in which trusted and loyal guardians would serve. This mirrors Beowulf's experience on his way to Heorot, for upon disembarking he is met with a mounted lookout whose job it is "to watch the waves for raiders, and danger to the Danish shore." Upon answering his challenge, Beowulf is escorted down the road to Heorot, much as an Iron Age visitor to Lejre might have been led along the road from Gevninge. The Gevninge helmet fragment, a military piece from a riverside outpost, therefore sheds light on the relationship between historical fact and legend.
The Gevninge eyepiece is 8 cm (3 in) wide and 5 cm (2 in) tall, moulded from bronze and gilded. An oval eye opening is overlain by a sculpted eyebrow with grooves representing individual hairs; grooves around the perimeter of the oval might represent eyelashes. The top and bottom of the fragment each have three holes, presumably used to attach it to the helmet where it would have formed the dexter eyepiece. The top three holes might have attached it to the helmet cap, the bottom three to some form of face protection such as a face mask or camail.
The Gevninge helmet fragment was discovered by itself, with no other nearby artefacts to give it context. The settlement at Gevninge dates to between 500 and 1000, while helmets with similar decorative characteristics suggest dating the eyepiece to the sixth or seventh century, perhaps from 550 to 700; another helmet eyebrow discovered in Uppåkra, Sweden, has the same suggested date. The Gevninge fragment fits into the corpus of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian "crested helmets", each characterized by a rounded cap and usually a prominent nose-to-nape crest. The Tjele helmet fragment is the only such helmet found in Denmark, while the richly ornamented helmets found at Sutton Hoo, Vendel, and Valsgärde may provide the closest approximation to what the Gevninge helmet would have looked like when whole.
Helmets like that which the Gevninge fragment once adorned served both as utilitarian equipment and as displays of status. Examples from Northern Europe during the Nordic Iron Age and Viking Age are rare. This may partly suggest a failure to survive a millennium underground or perhaps a failure to be recognised after excavation: the plainer Anglo-Saxon and Roman helmets from Shorwell and Burgh Castle were initially misidentified as pots. The extreme scarcity nevertheless suggests that they were never deposited in great numbers, and that they signified the importance of those wearing them. In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, a story about kings and nobles that partly takes place in Denmark, helmets are mentioned often, and in ways that indicate their significance. The dying words of Beowulf, whose own pyre is stacked with helmets, are used to bestow a gold collar, byrnie, and gilded helmet to his follower Wiglaf.
If protection was all that was asked of a helmet, a simple iron cap would suffice. Yet a soldier guarding Gevninge, a riverside outpost on the way to the major city of Lejre, would have to be trustworthy, and perhaps also connected to the king by family or loyalty. He would also occupy an important position in the military hierarchy. Adornments like the Gevninge fragment would have identified the rank of such a person, as well as adding decoration to a helmet.
The fragment was discovered in 2000 with the use of a metal detector during a minor excavation in Gevninge, a Viking Age settlement and modern-day village in Denmark to the west of Roskilde. The excavation was in response to the planned construction of houses on an undeveloped hectare of land in the middle of the village, but it unexpectedly revealed a farmstead with several buildings.
The eyepiece may have been made at nearby Lejre, the seat of the Scylding kings during the Iron and Viking ages. It was discovered in the topsoil and might have been lost or discarded, or the entire helmet might have become buried and then been destroyed by ploughing. It might also have been deliberately buried, as was the helmet eyebrow from Uppåkra. If buried alone, it might have been an allusion to the one-eyed god Odin who sacrificed an eye in exchange for wisdom and intelligence in Norse mythology.
The Lejre Museum now displays the Gevninge fragment alongside other seventh-century grave finds from the area. The fragment was exhibited in Denmark and internationally from 2013 to 2015 as part of a major exhibition on the Vikings, starting at the National Museum of Denmark. It then travelled to the British Museum for Vikings: Life and Legend, then to Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau for Die Wikinger.
The discovery of the fragment in Gevninge is notable for its proximity to Lejre, three kilometres (1.9 mi) down the river from Roskilde Fjord. Lejre was once a centre of power, as evidenced by monumental burial mounds, large halls, the silver-filled Lejre Hoard, and stone ships. For the last hundred years Lejre has also been understood as the most likely setting for Heorot, the great mead hall of the Danes in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, to which Beowulf travels in search of Grendel and Grendel's mother. In this sense, Gevninge could have been "the Port of Lejre", standing guard against anyone who sailed towards the capital. Indeed, Beowulf and his men are met by such a guard when they disembark in Denmark:
þa of wealle geseah weard Scildinga,
When the watchman on the wall, the Shieldings' lookout
|—Old English text||—English translation|
The watchman is a "noble warrior" (guð-beorna) who, after listening to Beowulf's explanation of his voyage, directs his men to watch the hero's boat and offers to escort him to king Hrothgar. He then turns back stating, "I'm away to the sea, back on alert against enemy raiders" (Ic to sæ wille, wið wrað werod wearde healdan). Whether or not Gevninge was the basis for the coastal outpost encountered in Beowulf, the two filled similar roles. They would have also been subject to similar strategic considerations, being both early lines of defence against attack, and places to welcome the flow of visitors. In this way, the fragment provides a nexus between legend and historical fact.