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Early Helmet

Place of Origin: Tibet

Date: 14th to 17th Century

Bowl Diameter: 220mm

Reference: 127

Status: Available

Full Description:

A six-plate helmet constructed from slightly convex and arched iron plates.  The plates are held together by an internal iron strip and an external strip of copper alloy which are all riveted together with iron pins.  Some of the pins pass through decorative conical silver rivet-heads.  The copper alloy strips have pronounced median ridges and characteristic triangular tabs which act as fixing points.  Each iron plate has a horizontal band of copper alloy at its base; and at its apex, a wider copper alloy plate.  The helmet is surmounted by an iron plume socket with a lozenge-shaped knop sometimes said to derive from the shape of a stupa.

The copper alloy parts are thought to be used to reinforce the helmet and provide decoration.  They are engraved throughout with multiple crescent shapes upon the upper and lower bands, and are finely scalloped along the edges.

The helmet is marked twice.  The first marking is deeply engraved on one of the iron plates, and is the number 235 in Tibetan numerals—almost certainly an inventory number.  The second marking is inlaid in gold on the plume holder and is the number 871, also in Tibetan numerals.  The two markings probably signify a change of ownership or location, perhaps to a more important armoury.  This could be one of the helmets kept in or near the Potala and issued once a year for use in the New Year Festival, hence a fancier inventory number.

This helmet is of highly unusual form and bears a striking resemblance to an eight-plate helmet in the Metropolitan Museum (acc.no.2002.226) which has been dated to 8th–10th century.  The Met’s example is illustrated in the book Warriors of the Himalayas by Donald J. La Rocca (1), in which La Rocca states that the Met’s example is possibly the earliest piece of metal armour with clearly distinguishable Tibetan features.

The use of slim plates, each with a raised medial ridge and each with cusped edges and all using rivets with prominent dome-shaped heads to join the plates on multi-plate helmets, can be seen in an early helmet from Nineveh dated to the 3rd century AD, which is in the British Museum and is illustrated by Robinson (2).  The relationship between recognisably Tibetan helmets and the example from Nineveh speaks loudly of an unbroken tradition continuing for more than 1,500 years, and once more confirms Tibet as being the most outstanding source of extraordinary objects.

(1) La Rocca, Warriors of the Himalayas, Rediscovering the Arms and Armour of Tibet, 2006, p.68, cat.no.8.

(2) Robinson, Oriental Armour, 1967, p.19, plate IA