Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

There is a moment, in a famous Monty Python sketch (“The Argument Clinic”) in which the main character, played by Michael Palin, walks into a room where he’s immediately hit on the head. 

He’s then informed that this is “Being Hit on the Head Lessons”, to which he replies “What a stupid concept!” and the sketch ends.  (If you don’t remember or don’t know this scene, here’s a LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpAvcGcEc0k )

In early warfare, the lesson to be learned, however, was to how to shield your head, especially when your enemy carried a club in the form of a purpose-built mace or hand axe.

(from the so-called “Narmer Palette”, c.3000bc)

(from the victory stele of Naram-Sin, c.2250bc)

Egyptian soldiers don’t appear to have worn helmets, perhaps relying on their shields to fend off attacks to their heads,

but their early contemporaries, the Sumerians, produced bowl-shaped helmets of copper, as this skull, with its helmet (from the tomb of Queen Pu-abi, c.2600bc) still more-or-less intact, shows us,

as does this file of soldiers from the so-called “Vulture Stele” (c. 2460bc).

This is a simple protective covering, but a Sumerian king might wear something a bit more elaborate—

(first identified as the helmet of Mes-Kalam-Dug, 26th century BC—there is an interesting article on the subject here:  https://sumerianshakespeare.com/56701.html )

although it has been suggested that this, made from gold, might not have been worn in battle, as Angus McBride has pictured it here.

For the moment, note the perforations around its lower edges—I’ll come back to these shortly.

From such a basic beginning, helmets progressed to the more elaborate—though not necessarily more protective—cone-shapes of some Assyrian helmets,

(from the depiction of a siege from the palace of Tiglath-pileser III, at Nimrud, second half of the 8th c. BC)

although, as you may see depicted on the upper left-hand side of this relief, there were also helmets which were designed with the protection of some lower part of the head in mind.

(fragment of a relief from the palace of Ashurbanipal, second half of the 7th c. BC)

Without going into a lot of detail (like anything to do with armor, it’s a complex subject—just look at this table of the development of Greek helmets),

you can also see that helmets worn by the ancient Greeks were often constructed to protect the whole head—here’s a plain example–

(7th c. BC)

but here’s a grander one—

A difficulty with a helmet like this is easy to see:  it not only constricts your vision and hearing, but it would be really hot and stuffy in a Greek summer.  To gain some relief, it looks like it would be lifted and pushed back on the head when not in service, as we can see on numerous depictions of Athena, for example, like this, one of my favorite reliefs, which is sometimes called “The Mourning Athena” or “Athena Reading a Decree” (c460bc), but which I think may actually be Athena at a boundary stone, suggesting that the patron of Athens stands at the edge of its lands, ready to protect them.

The Romans, in turn, may first have learned about helmets from their “big brothers”, the Etruscans, who had originally lived to the north, but gradually colonized land south of the Romans, as well.  The Etruscans, in turn, had been powerfully influenced by the Greeks who, themselves colonized the far south of Italy, as well as Sicily. 

In time, the Romans combined this with what they learned from their contacts with the Celts, who moved into northern Italy and were famous metal-workers,

but developing their own styles over time.

If we continued our review, we would find that many generations of armorers, from the Romans all the way through the Middle Ages, were always seeking ways better to protect the head.

Two important details needed to be added to this, however, and they are commonly overlooked when you see someone put on a helmet, be it Greek, Roman, or medieval, in a film.  And, for the first of these, we need to return to that Sumerian king’s helmet.

You will notice, right away, that there is a hole just below the ear.  When we see people put on and take off helmets in film, they just plop them on and off, like a hat.  Here’s Jaime Lanister taking off his helmet in Game of Thrones.

In fact, real helmets don’t just stay on heads because the wearers want them to—they need to be tied  or buckled in place, like these, from the Great War.

(A footnote here:  soldiers might actually wear the strap on the back of the head during combat, as it was believed that the concussion from a shell burst in front would throw the brim of the helmet back and the strap might then snap a soldier’s neck.  Here’s a British soldier just behind the front with the strap in the rear.)

So, that hole below the ear would match another, on the other side, to which the king’s armorer would have attached a chin strap.

At the lower edge of the helmet, you can see a whole line of holes.  If you wore a helmet so that there was nothing more than bare metal above your skull, it would not only be very hot in summer, which was the main campaigning season throughout the centuries, but a blow to the helmet would, potentially, drive the metal directly into the wearer’s head.  Those lower holes, then, are for a liner—of just the sort you see in this Great War helmet, like those on the British soldiers in the images above.

Besides the liner attached to the helmet itself, there was always the possibility of a liner attached to the wearer, called, in later times, an “arming cap”.  This was a padded cap which, when tied to the head, would provide some extra protection for the inside of the helmet in combat.  I’m not aware of any clear ancient images of one of these, but they do appear in medieval manuscript illustrations.  You can easily see one under this ancestor of the Model 1916 helmets which the British soldiers wear.  This earlier version is called a “kettle helm”.

(This is from the wonderful “Maciejowski Bible”, also called the “Morgan Bible”, c.1240ad—here’s a LINK to an article on its rather remarkable history:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_Bible )

And here’s David beheading Goliath because, with his helmet off (you can just see it to the right), his arming cap alone will not protect him.

(from an English psalter—book of psalms—dating from somewhere between 1212 and 1220AD)

So, what lessons about not being hit on the head have we learned from all this?

1. always wear a helmet, but, unlike in film,

a helmet needs to be securely attached to the wearer—notice that none of these three has a chin strap

2. it is useful either to have a lining—no holes for a liner here

3. or at least an arming cap to protect the head within the helmet—Jaime just took his helmet off

Although I’ve used Game of Thrones for my examples, it’s only because I’m in the middle of rewatching the series.  The lack of the necessary internals for helmets goes back far beyond television or even film.  Here, for example, is Sir Pellias from a book which formed many readers’ views of medieval knights in the early 20th century, Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903).

Although he’s dressed for battle or a tournament, notice the lack of an arming cap, just like Jaime Lanister.   What might happen to his head if someone used an axe on that helmet?

When you next watch an adventure film, filled with men (and hopefully some women, like Eowyn) in armor, ask yourself:  what’s under that helmet except hair and what’s keeping it in place?  Theoden, at least, can answer…

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Buckle up,

And know that, as always, there’s