The most vulnerable part of the soldier in battle was his head, so the search for protection by some form of helmet goes back to the earliest times.
Helmets were purpose-built to protect the wearer against the specific weapons he faced. At first, ancient helmets seem to have been pointed at the top, to deflect the downward force of the mace or club. But as time went on and the ax became popular as a weapon, the shape of the helmet was modified to counter the cutting edge of a downward-falling blade.
It required great skill to create a helmet, even though the shape was simple. It had to be a one-piece dome of forged metal covering the entire head and upper neck. There might be a hinged flap to protect the ears of the warrior, or a bar that was joined to the upper helmet (see the fresco of a tasselled boars' tusk helmet below).
Some areas of the helmet needed to be thicker - for example the crown of the head. To forge this from a chunk of glowing metal needed the talent of a master-smith.
Flattened copper helmet and skull found in the Royal Tomb at Ur
Different armies during diﬁerent periods favored special shapes for their helmet. In some cases, such as the round- or cone-shaped helmet, the consideration was functional: to deﬂect the arrow and make difficult its penetration.
In other cases, however, the reason was quite different: to facilitate identiﬁcation between friend and foe in the midst of the anarchy of battle. The head of the soldier stands out more than any other part of his body, and so each army would equip its troops with a specially shaped or decorated helmet.
From the Stele of Vultures circa 2500BC. King Eannatum of Lagash in a distinctive helmet (above right and below) leads a phalanx of soldiers with metal helmets, and armed with spears and socketed axes. They are trampling over the bodies of their slaughtered enemies.
Some went further, and equipped different units of the same army with different helmets so that the commander in the ﬁeld could quickly identify the position of each unit at all times. And there were also instances in which the shape of the helmet and its decoration had their origin in some tribal or other tradition and served no military purpose.
Interestingly enough, the development of the helmet never reached the stage achieved in Europe, where it also covered the face. The only improvements in the Eastern helmet were the armored neckband, which protected the gap between the helmet and the coat of mail, a collar made of scales. Neither of these hampered movement or vision.
The technology of armor was constantly evolving. By 3,000BC metal workers were making helmets of copper (see picture above) as a defense against the stone or metal mace. These helmets must have been padded with an inner helmet of leather or quilted fabric.
By 2,500BC the Sumerians had bronze helmets, spears and axes. The means of protection with which the Sumerian warrior is most definitely associated is the metal helmet. This is very well depicted in the Standard of Ur, the Stele of Vultures, and the inlaid panels from Mari (right). It was slightly pointed and covered both the ears and back of the neck.
This type of helmet, with slight changes, was also found in the excavations at Ur, covering the skulls of buried bodies. Such helmets were also worn by the kings, and had a recess in the rear for the hair and plaits. Belonging to this type is the ceremonial gold helmet from Ur. And it is also shown on the conch plaque from Mari (above right) and the Stele of Vultures (above).
The helmet, too, was in extensive use by warriors in the Late Bronze period. Those worn by some of the enemy chariot drivers in the Thutmose IV chariot relief are slightly pointed and cover the ears and the forehead up to the eyebrows.
This metal headgear must have become very hot in battle, and so it was covered by some insulating material, which was also decorative. Some helmets, for example, had long feathers stuck to the crown, their points meeting at the top, their broad portions fanned and covering the metal. Some were overlaid with a cloth-piece, or cloth strips. And some had a tassel attached to the crown and knotted at the back like a plait.
Egyptian warriors also wore helmets, especially in assault. These, like their coats of mail, were quite expensive, and it is presumably because of their value that helmets are often depicted in Egyptian wall paintings in the hands of Semites bearing gifts.
The piercing axe, a universal weapon in this period, was primarily designed against this metal helmet. As defense against the axe, helmets often had 'horns' on either side, to catch the axe in its downward swing and render the blow useless.
This relief may show the storming of the cities of northern Israel by Tiglath-pileser, described
in the Bible at II Kings 15:29. Two warriors with spears, round shields
and extraordinary decorated helmets hack at the bricks of the
city's Iow outer wall with their spears. The huge shield behind them is the usual protection given to archers in Tiglath-piIeserís day.
(See Ancient Shields)
of a similar engraving showing plumed helmet, probably designed
An Egyptian soldier in the act of killing a warrior of the 'Sea Peoples' in the Medinet Habu temple relief'. Both men appear to be wearing headgear that was half helmet, half wig.
Helmets and armor worn by Assyrian sling-shot soldiers, forerunners of a rifle squad
Horses were sometimes given protective/decorative headgear similar to the plumed helmet of their owner; from the palace of Sargon, Khorsabad 721-705BC.
Study Resource for Archaeology