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Emesa helmet

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Emesa helmet
Colour photograph of the Emesa helmet
The Emesa helmet
Material Iron, silver
Weight 2.217 kg (4.89 lb)
Created Early 1st century AD
Discovered 1936
Homs, Syria
Present location National Museum of Damascus

The Emesa helmet (also known as the Homs helmet) is a Roman cavalry helmet from the early first century AD. It consists of an iron head piece and face mask, the latter of which is covered in silver and molded into an individualised portrait of a face, likely its owner. Confiscated by police soon after looters discovered it amidst a complex of tombs in the modern day city of Homs, the helmet was eventually restored at the British Museum, and is now in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus. It has been exhibited internationally, although as of 2017, due to the Syrian Civil War, the more valuable items owned by the National Museum are hidden in underground storage.

Ornately designed yet highly functional, the helmet was probably intended for both parades and battle. Its delicate silver gilding is too fragile to have been put to use during cavalry tournaments, but the thick iron core would have defended against blows and arrows. Narrow slits for the eyes, with three small holes underneath to allow downward sight, sacrificed vision for protection; roughly cut notches below each eye suggest a hastily made modification of necessity.

The helmet was found in a tomb near a monument to a former ruler of Emesa, and, considering its richness, may have belonged to a member of the élite. As it is modelled after those helmets used in Roman tournaments, even if unlikely to have ever been worn in one, it may have been gifted by a Roman official to a Syrian general, or, more likely, manufactured in Syria after the Roman style. The acanthus scroll ornamentation seen on the neck guard recalls that used on Syrian temples, suggesting that the helmet may have been made in the luxury workshops of Antioch.


The helmet is made of iron and consists of two parts: a head piece and a face mask.[1][2] The top of the head piece, now rusted, contains a dent[3] and shows remains of a woven and likely colourful fabric.[1][2] Around the sides runs a diadem in the image of a laurel wreath,[1] while a narrow fluted strip runs from front to back.[4] This strip terminates in the neck guard, which is covered with an acanthus scroll surrounded by birds and butterflies.[1] This ornamentation is covered in silver gilt, as is the face mask, which hangs from the head piece by a central hinge.[1][2] A loop under each ear, and holes in the neck guard, would allow its wearer to fasten it closed.[1][2] The face mask has additional holes in the mouth, nostrils, and eyes; three holes underneath each eye-slit allow for a greater range of vision.[1][5] These apparently were not enough, for a small and rudimentary notch was carved into each of the central holes to increase the afforded vision.[6] The helmet weights 2.217 kg (4.89 lb),[2] and the iron core is between 1 and 6 millimetres thick.[3]

The face mask of the Emesa helmet shows distinctive features.[1][7] The nose is long and fleshy with a prominent bump, and extends high between the eyes.[1][7] The cheekbones are low yet prominent,[1][7] and the small mouth, which droops toward the sinister side, shows a thick lower lip.[1] Other features, meanwhile—the eyes and eyebrows, and the chin—are more conventional.[1][7] These features suggest that the maker of the Emesa helmet attempted to translate some of the individual characteristics of the wearer's face into the helmet.[1][8]


The Emesa helmet is highly functional, and was likely made for both parades and battle.[9][5] It is thick and heavy, which would have offered protection against heavy blows or arrows,[10][5] the former of which may have caused the dent on the head piece.[3] Exceptionally narrow eye-slits also indicate care taken to increase protection;[10][5] the rough manner in which the holes underneath were enlarged is likely the consequence of an emergency requiring a better field of vision.[6] Although classified as a cavalry sports helmet, the type worn in equestrian displays and tournaments known as the hippika gymnasia, it was unlikely to have been used in such events.[11] Tournament helmets were robust and manufactured without finesse, in order to withstand the rigors of ceremony unscathed.[12] The delicate ornamentation of the Emesa helmet, by contrast, would have been damaged easily, and thus suggests that it would have only been subjected to such risks in the exceptional circumstance of battle.[12]


The helmet was discovered by looters in the summer of 1936, in the modern-day city of Homs.[13] Digging near the former site of a monument to Sampsigeramus, they found a complex of rich tombs and extricated the objects.[13] Their looting was itself discovered due to the garment shroud of one of the bodies, covered with small golden plaques that shed onto the earth when disturbed.[13] The next morning children noticed this gold and brought it to a bazaar, where it came to the attention of the police and ultimately led to the arrest of the looters and the confiscation of the grave objects.[13] The helmet was then secured for the state collection by Emir Djaafar Abdel Kader, the curator of the National Museum of Damascus at the time.[14]

The helmet required conservation work when found, and after several unsuccessful attempts it was brought to the British Museum.[15][16] It was subsequently displayed in the King Edward Gallery as a month-long loan from 25 April 1955,[17][18] and is now in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus;[19] the museum reopened in 2017 after closing for several years during the Syrian Civil War, although the more valuable objects are still hidden in underground storage.[20] From 1999 to 2002 the helmet was part of a travelling exhibition, Syria: Land of Civilizations,[19] with stops in Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.[21]


After its discovery, the Emesa helmet underwent a number of unsuccessful restorations.[15][16] It was eventually taken to the British Museum, where a final restoration was finished in 1955.[17] This was done by Herbert Maryon,[15][16] who in 1946[22][23] had reconstructed the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo helmet,[24] and the following year an account of the process was published by Harold Plenderleith.[25] Examination discovered the silver to be brittle, with cracks that had been filled in by a dark stopping substance.[3] The iron behind the face mask had rusted, putting further stress on the silver and forcing the cracks open by as much as 4 millimetres (0.16 in).[3] The face mask—held on by wire, as the hinge had detached—was therefore removed from the helmet to be worked on.[26]

The rusted iron was cut out from the back of the face mask around the mouth and jaw, where the distortions were greatest.[27] To strengthen the silver enough that it could be manipulated, the mask was placed in an electric furnace, and the temperature raised to 310 °C (590 °F) over three hours; burnt rust was then removed by brushing the mask with 9% oxalic acid, before heating it again, for eighteen hours at 600 °C (1,112 °F) and at 650 °C (1,202 °F) for thirteen.[27] The silver was then cleaned again, on both sides, with silver gauze temporarily soldered over the cracks in the back to allow the front to be wiped down.[27] The gauze was removed, the silver manipulated to close the cracks, and new gauze installed, permanently, using soft solder.[28] Thin lines of solder showing through the closed cracks were concealed with a surface coating of applied silver.[29] The iron that had been removed to expose the back of the silver was finally cleaned and placed back in position.[29] Although a few cracks remained visible higher up on the face mask, they were closed as the iron behind them was sound and not exerting pressure, yet would have to be removed for restoration to occur.[29]


Colour photograph of the Nijmegen helmet
The Nijmegen helmet is also classified as a cavalry sports helmet

The style of the acanthus scroll on the back of the helmet, and other objects found with the helmet and in the tombs nearby, suggest that the helmet dates to the first half of the first century AD.[30][31] It is the earliest known Roman helmet with a face mask, and is broadly classified as a cavalry sports helmet—type D, according to the typology put forward by H. Russell Robinson.[4] Type D helmets are characterised by a single horizontal hinge attaching the face mask to the head piece, and by head pieces that are decorated to represent helmets.[32][note 1] Several examples of type D exist, such as the Nijmegen helmet, but unlike these, the Emesa helmet was probably never intended for sporting use.[34] It may instead have been given as a gift by a Roman official to a general of the ruling family of Emesa, or manufactured in Syria to the likeness of helmets seen during Roman tournaments.[30][35][11] The latter circumstance is thought more likely, for the acanthus ornamentation resembles that seen on Syrian temples.[36] The helmet may therefore have been commissioned from the workshops of Antioch, known for their luxury.[36]


  1. ^ This is in contrast to type C helmets, for example, which show idealistically youthful faces and head pieces with wavy hair.[33]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Seyrig 1952a, p. 67.
  2. ^ a b c d e Seyrig 1952b, p. 101.
  3. ^ a b c d e Plenderleith 1956, p. 226.
  4. ^ a b Robinson 1975, pp. 121–122.
  5. ^ a b c d Seyrig 1952b, p. 102.
  6. ^ a b Plenderleith 1956, pp. 228–229.
  7. ^ a b c d Seyrig 1952b, p. 107.
  8. ^ Seyrig 1952b, pp. 107–108.
  9. ^ Seyrig 1952a, pp. 67–69.
  10. ^ a b Seyrig 1952a, pp. 67–68.
  11. ^ a b Robinson 1975, p. 122.
  12. ^ a b Seyrig 1952b, p. 105.
  13. ^ a b c d Seyrig 1952a, p. 66.
  14. ^ Seyrig 1952a, pp. 66–67.
  15. ^ a b c Huey 1962a.
  16. ^ a b c Huey 1962b.
  17. ^ a b Illustrated London News 1955a.
  18. ^ Illustrated London News 1955b.
  19. ^ a b Fortin 1999, p. 113.
  20. ^ Armenia Public Radio 2017.
  21. ^ Fortin 1999.
  22. ^ Bruce-Mitford 1946, pp. 2–4.
  23. ^ Martin-Clarke 1947, p. 63 n.19.
  24. ^ Maryon 1947.
  25. ^ Plenderleith 1956.
  26. ^ Plenderleith 1956, pp. 226–227.
  27. ^ a b c Plenderleith 1956, p. 227.
  28. ^ Plenderleith 1956, pp. 227–228.
  29. ^ a b c Plenderleith 1956, p. 228.
  30. ^ a b Seyrig 1952a, p. 69.
  31. ^ Seyrig 1952b, pp. 105–106.
  32. ^ Robinson 1975, p. 118.
  33. ^ Robinson 1975, p. 115.
  34. ^ Robinson 1975, pp. 118–122.
  35. ^ Seyrig 1952b, pp. 106–107.
  36. ^ a b Seyrig 1952b, p. 106.


  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (September 1946). "Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial". East Anglian Magazine. 6 (1): 2–9, 43.
  • Fortin, Michel (1999). Syria: Land of Civilizations. Translated by Macaulay, Jane. Québec: Musée de la Civilisation. ISBN 2-7619-1521-6.
  • Huey, Arthur D. (22 March 1962a). "Mirrors Fail to Reflect Enthusiasm". The Kansas City Times. Kansas City, Missouri. p. 1. Retrieved 17 October 2016 – via Free to read
  • Huey, Arthur D. (22 March 1962b). "Mirrors Fail to Reflect Enthusiasm". The Kansas City Times. Kansas City, Missouri. p. 2. Retrieved 17 October 2016 – via Free to read
  • "A Magnificent Silver and Iron Helmet — A Portrait of a Syrian Royal General About the Time of the Crucifixion: Newly Restored and Now Exhibited on Loan at the British Museum". Illustrated London News (6, 054). 27 August 1955. p. 769.
  • Martin-Clarke, D. Elizabeth (1947). Culture in Early Anglo-Saxon England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
  • Maryon, Herbert (September 1947). "The Sutton Hoo Helmet". Antiquity. XXI (83): 137–144. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00016598. closed access publication – behind paywall
  • "The National Museum of Damascus opens again". Public Radio of Armenia. 2 August 2017. Retrieved 6 January 2018. Free to read
  • Plenderleith, H. J. (1956). "Silver: Restoration of the Emesa Helmet". The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art: Treatment, Repair, and Restoration. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 226–229.
  • "Portrait — and Armour — of a Syrian Royal General: A Superb Silver and Iron Helmet of the Time of the Crucifixion". Supplement. Illustrated London News (6, 071). 27 August 1955. p. iii.
  • Robinson, H. Russell (1975). The Armour of Imperial Rome. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-684-13956-1.
  • Seyrig, Henri (June 1952a). "A Helmet from Emisa". Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. 5 (2): 66–69. JSTOR 41663047. closed access publication – behind paywall
  • Seyrig, Henri (1952b). "Le Casque d'Émèse". Les Annales Archéologiques de Syrie. Direction Générale des Antiquités de Syrie. II (1–2): 101–108. (in French)
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