A helmet from ancient Sardis

Last year, I gave a lecture in London where I argued that Greek warfare should be interpreted in a Mediterranean context, and that the warfare of the Greek mainland arose out of an interplay between the Aegean and the Near East, and (Western) Anatolia in particular. One of the things I did when I was in Italy last month was finish writing up a chapter based on this lecture for an upcoming collected volume based on the same colloquium.

It’s interesting when you approach a well-trodden field from a fresh perspective. In this case, the argument I made was that the Aegean and Anatolia (especially the western portion of it) should be regarded as a cultural koine. After all, we know that the Greeks and various Anatolian peoples interacted heavily with each other and exchanged many ideas. Pottery and the knowledge about making roof tiles found its way from Greece to Anatolia, while the Lydians probably introduced the Greeks to coinage and the symposium. It seems logical that they influenced each other also in matters of warfare.

One of the things that you should be keenly aware of when discussing Greeks in the Archaic period is that they – like the peoples of Anatolia – were not exactly a single unified culture. Aside from the different dialects spoken by Greeks in different parts of the Aegean, their material culture often shows significant differences, too (and if you read Thucydides, for example, there were peoples in mainland Greece even in the Classical period that were barely recognized as such!). If you’re interested in a good book on the subject, I recommend you start with The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration (2003) edited by Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke.

A skeleton and a helmet

One of the things I stumbled across during my studies were a number of articles (co-)written by C.H. Greenewalt Jr. about exciting discoveries that they made in Sardis, the famous capital of the Lydian Empire. Sardis was taken a little after 550 BC by the Persian Empire, which subsequently swallowed up the whole of Anatolia, including the Greek cities on the coast. The sack of the city left a debris layer that has been investigated by the archaeologists there.

In this layer, a skeleton was found of a man in his early twenties. Analysis of the skeleton suggested that the skeleton must have belonged to a warrior, since the characteristics of his arms were somehow consistent with a man who spent a great deal of time carrying a shield with his left arm and swinging a sword with his right. I’m not exactly as confident about this interpretation of the skeletal remains, especially since no weapons were found on the body. Instead, clutched within his right hand, the excavators discovered a small rock, and they interpreted this as the last desperate act of the man to stave off certain death. Clearly, though, he was struck down before being able to cast his stone.

Found within the same area, but a little removed from the skeleton, were the remains of a bronze-decorated iron helmet. The helmet may have belonged to our unfortunate victim, but this cannot be said for certain. The helmet, however, is an interesting bit of kit in and of itself. It consists of different plates of iron with bits of bronze added to it, and once also featured iron cheek pieces. The construction is unique: it is similar to much later Roman Spangenhelme, and Greenewalt pointed out that this discovery thus pushed down the date for these kinds of helmets by six centuries! The find was considered so important that the mangled bits of iron and bronze were painstakingly analysed to enable to enable a modern reconstruction, which you can admire over on the website of the Sardis expedition.

The skeleton and the helmet are thus silent witnesses of the siege of a great city. More can be said about the helmet, including whether or not it was Lydian or Persian, but I’m saving that for my chapter. Once the volume goes to print I’ll revisit this blog post and reveal some further details. For now, though, what an exciting find! Made more than a decade ago, it nevertheless seems unlikely that you heard much about it, since developments in Anatolia are often ignored by those who study Greek warfare on the ground that it wasn’t Greek (whatever that may be). But it’s an important find, and it suggests either a re-invention of this type of multipart helmets centuries later or the continued existence, in some way, of such helmets from at least the sack of Sardis to the Roman Empire.

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