The Case of the Missing Viking Helmets

February 22, 2001

Did the Vikings Wear Helmets?

A strong, sturdy, metal helmet would protect a Viking soldier marching into battle. Add some horns to the helmet and you have the typical picture of a Viking. But is this picture accurate? Did the Vikings really wear these helmets? Not according to Dr. Knut Wester, a neurosurgeon in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway.

The Viking Age started in the second half of the eighth century and lasted 300 years. Although researchers have attributed some metal helmets to cultures that predate the Vikings, only ONE metal helmet belonging to the Vikings has been found. Dr. Wester proposes four possible explanations for this absence of Viking helmets:

  1. Helmets were not buried with people. This is unlikely because expensive items were often buried with people during Viking times to show the high status of the family.

  2. Helmets were worn like crowns by the upper class only and passed on to the next generation to show status and power. However, crowns were not worn by Scandinavian kings until after the Viking Age, so this explanation is improbable.

  3. Helmets were made of thin metal and did not survive over time. This is unlikely because older helmets belonging to cultures that predated the Vikings have survived over time. Viking helmets could have been made of non-metallic materials and perhaps they decayed over time. These helmets would not offer much head protection.

  4. Vikings did not wear metal helmets. Dr. Wester favors this explanation and suggests that the Vikings "..did not always put safety first."

Why the Myth?

Why do pictures and stories depict Vikings in helmets if they did not wear this protective headgear? Dr. Wester believes the oral tradition of the Viking culture is to blame. Because paper did not arrive in Scandinavia until after the Viking Age, the entire history of the Vikings was passed on through stories told from generation to generation. References to these ancient stories probably blossomed into myths with time. School books and magazines that recount these myths contribute to the incorrect belief that the Vikings wore helmets.

Reference:

Wester, K., The Mystery of the Missing Viking Helmets, Neurosurgery, 47:1216-1229, 2000.


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