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The Greco-Illyrian Helmet of Găvojdia / The History of Romania in One Object
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Photo 1: The Greco-Illyrian helmet of Găvojdia. Photo by Milan Șepețan
Photo 2: Present-day Hallstatt in the Austrian Alps
The first half of the last millennium before the birth of Christ (cca. 800-500 BC) is generally known as the Early Iron Age. In archaeological literature it is also known as the Hallstatt period, named after what is today a picturesque small town in the Austrian Alps. Here, in the 19th century, the remnants of a thriving prehistoric community were unearthed. The wealth of this community was obtained from the exploitation of the local salt deposits. Analysis of the archaeological remains of this site revealed that the mineral was exploited by every category of person regardless of age, gender or status. This in turn allowed a large portion of the community to accumulate wealth.
Photo 3: Distribution map of Greco-Illyrian type helmets
However, this was not the case in other parts of Europe. Towards the end of the first half of the 1st millennium BC, several chiefdoms emerged in temperate Europe. They were ruled by an aristocratic elite dubbed the “Hallstatt Princes”. Such communities were frequently found in south-western Germany or north-eastern France but were also common in the northern Balkan milieu. This social category often expressed its identity through the use of prestigious foreign objects, mostly of Mediterranean origin. In most areas, the aristocracy resided in hill-forts alongside their retinue, separating themselves from the population living in the rural areas. They also distinguished themselves through complex burial ceremonies during which these prestigious items were displayed. In most cases, these objects consisted of military equipment or feasting paraphernalia. One such category of items are the so-called “Greek-Illyrian” helmets.
Photo 4: Example of a deliberately mutilated helmet
This type of defensive weapon was first produced in the Peloponnese starting with the late 8th century BC. However, they became popular among the Illyrian aristocracy during the 7th-4th centuries BC. Commonly found in graves, Greco-Illyrian helmets are thought to represent status symbols. In some cases, they are deliberately mutilated and placed as offerings in sacred places like temples or waters, further emphasizing their symbolic meaning.
Photo 5: Detail of the boar found on the forehead of the helmet. Photo by Milan Șepețan
Photo 6: Detail of the horsemen found on the left cheek-plate. Photo by Milan Șepețan
Photo 7: Detail of the floral motif found in the ear opening of the helmet. Photo by Milan Șepețan
The object presented here was found in the summer of 2003 in a sand quarry of the Timiș River, near the village of Găvojdia (Timiș County). It was made from a sheet of bronze which is 2-3 mm thick. The height of the helmet is 220 mm, its length is 195 mm, while its width is 150 mm. The cheek-plates as well as the forehead area are decorated with embossed figural motifs made from silver. A vegetal motif decoration is found in the opening space between the left cheek-plate and the one protecting the back of the head. On both cheek-plates we can distinguish the faded silhouettes of two horsemen. On the forehead, a hunting scene depicting a wild boar surrounded by two horsemen can be seen. These types of decoration, although rare, are found on other similar helmets like the one from Trebeništa, northern Macedonia. The motifs decorating the helmet are commonly found in Greek but also Thracian art. The boar is often regarded as a masculine symbol, illustrating strength and virility, while hunting was seen as an aristocratic activity. Both iconographies are often encountered on prestigious items of the period.
Photo 8: Map of late Hallstatt finds from the Banat Region
Not many helmets of this type are known north of the Danube. Besides the find from Găvojdia, other similar discoveries have been made at Jidovin/Berzovia (Caraș-Severin County), Gostavățu (Olt County) and Ocna Mureș (Alba County). This fact seems to suggest that modern-day southwestern Romania was a peripheral area in the distribution of these items. It could also imply that it was a liminal area to this social-cultural phenomenon specific to the north-western Balkan peninsula in the 6th-5th centuries BC.
Photo 9: Map of late Hallstatt finds from the Banat Region
Photo 10: An example of La Tène type military equipment. 1. Sword scabbard; 2. Sword; 3. Spear-head; 4. Shield-bosses, all found at Remetea Mare (Timiș County)
Unfortunately, archaeological information concerning the Banat region in this period is scant. However, connecting the available data to the information coming from the regions with a similar social-cultural background allows us to sketch a few hypotheses concerning the environment in which the helmet from Găvojdia was used. First of all, the finds from Găvojdia and Jidovin illustrate that the local elites chose to express their identities in a similar fashion as the ones from the north-western Balkan Peninsula. The helmet from Jidovin doesn’t have a clear discovery context; however the find from Găvojdia might suggest a votive offering in the waters of the Timiș River. Such treatment was not uncommon for the helmets found in the Illyrian environment and offerings placed in rivers or lakes were a common practice throughout the Iron Age.
Photo 11: The sun-disc from Remetea Mare
It seems that this ruling class was able to coordinate the construction of fortified hilltop settlements, which could be interpreted as regional centers of power. Such hill forts were identified at Herneacova (Timiș County), Remetea Pogănici (Caraș-Severin County) and in the Serbian part of the Banat Region, at Židovar. Rural settlements have also been found. One such settlement was found at Remetea Mare (Timiș County), which yielded several sunken dwellings as well as evidence of ritual practices and cult objects like the famous ceramic sun-disc.
This social organization came to an end towards the 4th century BC. During this time, the fortified settlements ceased to be inhabited, and the communities seem to have preferred to organize themselves in small rural settlements. The newly formed elite abandoned the old ideologies and adopted new ways of expressing their identity, more commonly found in the central European La Tène culture. This cultural shift corresponds to the historical migration of the Celts towards the Carpathian Basin and the Balkan Peninsula.
In conclusion, the helmet from Găvojdia represents a beautiful example of Early Iron Age craftsmanship. Its presence in south-western Romania illustrates the cultural connections between this region and the north-western Balkans during the 6th 5th centuries BC. Its discovery in the streams of the Timiș River suggests a sort of ritual practice, demonstrating once more the symbolic purpose of these objects. The practice of placing objects in sacred natural landmarks like rivers, caves or springs is common throughout history. They are considered liminal spaces and are often thought to be gateways to other worlds.
Text and video presentation by archaeologist ANDREI GEORGESCU of The National Museum of Banat. A film by ANA TUDOR and ADRIAN TUDOR.
The third season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with The National Museum of Banat in Timișoara and Timiș County Council.