Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Phaistos helmet reconstruction - complete

There you have it folks, my reconstruction of a 16th century BCE Minoan helmet.

Here it is with the original Phaistos helmet for comparison

My objective was to make a helmet that is as close as possible to what the Minoans actually used, based on what we know about helmets in the bronze age.  How historically accurate is my reconstruction?  Overall this was quite a successful project and the final product does successfully recreate the Phaistos helmet.  Where I've had to make assumptions, I'm fairly confident that they are plausible and reasonable.    As far as possible I've used materials and technique that were available to the Minoans, with the exception of three little cheats: metal components made out of modern ferrous alloy, modern dyes for the felt, and modern steel tools.  In this blog post I'll talk about some of the decisions I made and why I made them.

Because these helmets were made from perishable materials there are no surviving examples.  There are depictions of beehive helmets in Minoan and Mycenaean art, but these are small, often fairly stylized, and can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

Some of the most detailed depictions of beehive helmets in ancient art show boars' tusk helmets of the kind Homer described.  These sculptures show helmets that were constructed around a framework of leather strips, and I've constructed mine the same way.  The difference is that instead of boars' tusks my helmet has an outer shell of leather plates.

From the front

From the side

From the inside.  The felt lining is what Homer called a πίλός (pilos).

Because of the lack of direct archaeological evidence I've had to make some assumptions, and to some extent this project has been about testing those assumptions.  Using felt to cover the joins in the outer layer of the helmet was an assumption based on the fact that it's well suited to the task, and we know that felt was used to line helmets.   While it would have been possible to use leather I think the felt did a better job and was easier to work with, so that assumption worked fairly well.  The felt lining inside the helmet makes it more comfortable to wear, but on the outside it's mainly decorative.  It's there to cover the join lines between the leather plates.

My decision to make the outer shell of the helmet in four parts was also an assumption.   I don't know if the Minoans would have had a way to make the outside of a helmet in one piece, but that wasn't possible with the leather I used.

The fact that Aegean beehive helmets were usually made from perishable materials is fairly conclusively established*, but exactly what materials were used and how they were used is less clear.  Based on archaeological finds of metal reinforcement discs we know that this style of helmet was made from either leather or some type of textile with metal discs attached to it to enhance its protective qualities.   Leather is a reasonable guess, but it's also possible these helmets could have been made from linen.  Probably many layers of linen glued together much like a linothorax.   Some bronze age images show helmets with horizontal ridges that I think may perhaps represent thick rolls of glued linen.  In the future I'd like to try making a linen helmet to see how it works out.

From the top you can see the concentric leather rings that make up the outside of the helmet.

What kind of protection would this helmet offer?  

I have to admit that after spending between 20 and 30 hours making this thing I don’t particularly want to take it down the firing range and shoot at it.  However, it would be easy enough to make a test patch and I can already make some observations about the helmet’s protective qualities.

At its thinnest point, the helmet is 20mm thick.  This includes two layers of 5mm armour leather plus two layers of wool felt.  At its crown the helmet is a good two inches thick, with many layers of leather strips.  It weighs 1.4 kilograms, which is equivalent to a lightweight motorcycle helmet.

I’m inclined to think the primary purpose of a helmet like this was to prevent blunt force trauma.  It’s made from thick layers of flexible materials that can absorb the kinetic energy of an impact, and it offers as much protection as possible to the crown of the head.  The thick leather reinforced with metal studs would be relatively difficult to penetrate with a sword or arrow, but the construction as a whole seems designed to absorb the kinetic energy of an impact rather than to provide the kind of solid barrier that plate armour does. In this respect it's a lot like a linothorax.

Would I be happy to let someone hit me over the head while wearing this helmet?  Yes.  Yes I would.

*  Helmets made entirely out of metal did exist in the bronze age, but were unusual.  Even the famous Dendra Panoply did not come with a metal helmet.  Its owner apparently preferred a boars' tusk helmet.


  1. I suspect that you are right and wool felt is one of the things that the joins between the layers.

    You may want to try wearing the helmet while exerting yourself somewhat on a hot day, to see how practical such a helmet would be with regard to heat build-up in hot weather.

    1. It does get hot, but I guess any helmet is going to get hot to some extent. I haven't had the opportunity to try other helmet types for comparison. The real problem with this thing is that the wool is itchy. I'd want to wear some type of linen cap underneath it myself, but whether that was done in the bronze age I don't know.

  2. And as you say it does greatly resemble period art depictions of helmets, and the contrast between the light-colored leather and the blue felt is most decorative.

    1. Thanks! I chose the blue primarily because it was a popular colour, as far as we can tell from the surviving artwork, but it has turned out to be quite attractive.

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  4. I The leather could of been waxed to provide more protection, as well. I wonder when the earliest references for waxed leather are from?

    1. That's a good question. I don't know whether the Minoans treated leather with wax and unfortunately there isn't any archaeological evidence. I'll have to do some research.