In 1942, a peat cutter digging in a Danish bog crunched his shovel into a horned bronze helmet. Long, curving bull’s horns topped a round cap adorned with the beak and large eyes of a bird of prey. Fittings on the headgear may have made it possible to attach feathers and perhaps even a mane of horse hair.
Subsequent excavations revealed the remarkable adornment had a nearly identical twin—one that was deliberately placed in the bog on a wooden platter. But the horned pair had nothing to do with Vikings; instead, they were far older, a study now reveals.
Researchers show the helmets were deposited almost 3000 years ago—about 900 B.C.E., more than 1500 years before the first Vikings arose in the area. The team also argues that the décor of the headpieces may have been inspired by similar symbolism in far-off Sardinia. The connection would link for the first time two parts of prehistoric Europe separated by thousands of kilometers, suggesting there may have been a previously unknown sea route along the Atlantic coast connecting Scandinavia with the Mediterranean.
“It’s a great paper,” says Flemming Kaul, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark who was not involved with the research. “It’s part of this eye-opening story where we see long-distance cultural contacts in the Bronze Age.”
After the helmets were discovered, researchers suggested they were made in Scandinavia’s Late Bronze Age, a 3-century period of artistic, political, and religious change that began around 1000 B.C.E. But without precise dates for the metal helmets, it was hard to connect developments in Scandinavia with other cultures in Europe at the time.
In 2019, while taking detailed photos of one of the helmet’s curved, hollow bronze horns, Moesgaard Museum archaeologist Heide Wrobel Nørgaard spotted black organic residue, perhaps from birch tar used to anchor decorative plumes to the end of the horn. She was able to pick out two samples and radiocarbon date them. The Viksø helmets were deposited in the bog around 900 B.C.E., Nørgaard and her co-authors report today in Praehistorische Zeitschrift.
The headgear has parallels within ancient Scandinavian artifacts, including another helmet found elsewhere, bronze figurines wearing identical caps, and warriors with horned helmets depicted in rock carvings. Meanwhile, on the island of Sardinia and in western Iberia, rock art and figurines dating to the same time period commonly depicts warriors with nearly identical horned helmets. “There are huge similarities between them,” Nørgaard says.
Aarhus University archaeologist Helle Vandkilde argues the similarities between Scandinavian and Sardinian iconography shows traders from the Mediterranean began to make their way up the Atlantic coast to Scandinavia 3000 years ago, rather than using arduous overland routes across the Alps. Bronze Age Scandinavia had almost no metal sources, so demand for copper and tin probably fueled long-distance commerce, with cultural exchange following close behind.
“These [helmets] are new indications metals were traded further than we thought,” says Vandkilde, the paper’s lead author. “Ideas were cotravelers.”
The date also places the helmets at a time when a political elite in Scandinavia was consolidating its power and religious ideas were moving from Sun worship to specific gods with animal attributes. More ritual headgear than battle garb, the helmets are packed with animal symbolism. “You have a helmet which represents all the cosmological religious powers,” Kaul says. “It’s the most impressive religious power hat of the Bronze Age.”
Vandkilde and her colleagues suggest the “power hat” and its horned cousins communicated otherworldly authority by calling on imagery and ideas imported from the Mediterranean along with the copper and tin used to make bronze. The helmets were probably used for generations by the reigning leaders, they propose. “In my head, it’s a new dynasty that pops up contemporary with the helmets,” Vandkilde says. “They’re using the divine to sharpen and legitimize their power.”
Not everyone is convinced. Georg August University of Göttingen archaeologist Nicola Ialongo says the study leaves lots unexplained. If there was a heavily trafficked Atlantic trade route linking the Mediterranean to the far north, he argues, why are horned helmets and other iconography found in Sardinia and Scandinavia, but not in Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, or the Netherlands? “Even if you assume seafarers went directly from Sardinia to Scandinavia, they must have stopped along the way.”
Kaul says the research shows the Vikings weren’t the only Scandinavian society with far-flung connections in the past. “You can see trade networks and religious ties over long distances already in the Bronze Age,” Kaul says. “The Bronze Age is much more interesting than the Viking Age.”