The earliest evidence for the helmet is from Sumer at the Death Pits of Ur dating from 2500 b. c. e. Helmets of similar design appear on the Stele of Vultures. There are portraits of Egyptian soldiers wearing leather caps dating from 200 years earlier, but these caps are also portrayed being worn by nonmilitary personnel, and it is unclear if they were really military helmets. If so, they did not offer as much protection as the better-designed Sumerian helmet. The Sumerian helmet was a cap of hammered copper approximately two to three millimeters thick fitted over a leather or wool cap approximately four millimeters thick, providing a total protective thickness of one-quarter inch. It is unclear why the Sumerians did not use bronze for their helmets. Perhaps the ability to cast a sized bronze sphere with any consistency had not yet been developed, in which case, copper would have been far easier to mold to the shape of the head and obtain a good fit.
Once the helmet made its appearance, it became a standard item of military equipment at least until the seventeenth century c. e. The helmet is mentioned in the Vedic sagas in India dating to 1600 b. c. e., where the term sipra is used to describe it. It was presumably made of bronze or brass. A thousand years later, the Indian helmet was fashioned of iron plates joined together. Common soldiers wore helmets made of hide or thick cloth reinforced with some hard substance, like animal hooves. Achaean and Mycenaean soldiers wore helmets (koroto) made from slivers of horn cut from boars’ tusks and bound to a leather cap by thongs, to which horsehair plumes could be attached. The Homeric helmet was a cap, usually of leather but sometimes of bronze, that covered only the upper part of the head. It had a ridge of bronze over the temples and around the lower edge. The helmet was held firmly in place by a chin strap. Hector’s helmet in the Iliad had three layers of leather with boars’ teeth strung on the outside. The Mitanni charioteers wore either a bronze helmet called a gurpisu siparri or the great bronze scale helmet (gurpisu siparri kursimetu) , which was a leather cap onto which several layers of overlapping bronze plates had been sewn. The common infantry soldier wore a leather helmet fashioned from goatskins cut into triangles and sewn together at the seams. It required seven goatskins to make three helmets. The helmet of the Hittite guardsmen was very similar to the Mitanni helmet but had a chin strap to hold it securely on the head. The Sea Peoples wore different types of helmets. The Sherden, for example, wore bronze helmets with horns sticking out from the sides, while the Peleset helmet was probably a circle of reeds, stiffened hair, horsehair, linen, or leather strips held in place by a fillet and chin strap. Chinese helmets of the Shang Dynasty were bronze with a rounded crown, with sides and a back that came down low over the ears and the nape of the neck.
The Assyrian helmet was constructed of iron and came in various shapes, depending on the combat role of the wearer. The Assyrians introduced the technique of shaping the helmet at an acute angle so the top came almost to a point, an effective design for reducing its area and increasing the helmet’s ability to deflect blows. The Assyrian helmets, as with all helmets since, required an inner cap of wool or leather to help absorb the energy of a blow and dissipate heat. The Assyrian helmet also had a chin strap. The chin strap was probably introduced by the Sea Peoples in their military service in Egypt during the New Kingdom, from where it was later adopted by the Assyrians.
Greek helmets of the Classical and Imperial periods were constructed of bronze and had cheek and face plates. Face plates came to characterize later Roman helmets but were never a major feature of helmets in the Near East, probably because they made the head too hot. Roman helmets came in so many varieties as almost to defy description. Many were made of cast bronze, while others were made of low-grade iron. Their common features were strength, heavy weight, and a protective guard for the base of the neck and skull. The Romans were probably the first to mass-produce bronze helmets by casting them in state arms industries, a practice that led to continuous complaints from soldiers that they were of cheap quality and didn’t fit.
The soldiers of the ancient world also carried shields, and like helmets, these came in a number of types. Most were made of laminated wood covered with cowhide, beaten bronze, and even sheet iron. Early Egyptian and Sumerian shields were fabricated of bull, oxen, and cowhide stretched over a wooden frame. These shields had to be oiled regularly with vegetable oil or animal fat to keep them from drying out, shrinking, and cracking. Other shields were made of woven reeds. Shields came in a variety of shapes: squares, rectangles, figure eights, keyhole shaped, and round. Since even the earliest shields afforded good protection against any type of deadly penetration by hand-wielded weapons, the most important considerations were weight, which affected the ability of the soldier to maneuver and protect himself in close combat, and size, which provided him with protection against hails of arrows fired by archers in concert. For the most part the ancient shield offered good protection against both close combat weapons and archery fire. There is, however, a description in the Iliad of a soldier being wounded by an arrow that passed through his shield, an occurrence that must certainly have been a rarity. Some shields were very large, reaching to seven or eight feet, and were bowed back at the top to provide protection from arrow counterfire while an archer fired from behind them. These shields stood on the ground by their own weight. Sometimes these large shields were attended by a shield bearer, who carried them into position and helped steady them or moved them forward during siege operations.
One of the reasons why training an infantry soldier in the ancient armies before the sixth century b. c. e. was difficult had to do with the handgrip with which the soldier held and wielded the shield in battle. Almost all the portrayals of shields that have come down to us from archaeology show a single handgrip in the center of the shield. These grips were probably a leather strap or a carved wooden handle. Held in this manner, the shield required considerable strength to raise and was difficult to press against an opponent with much force. Other shield grips, like those of the Achaeans and Mycenaeans and even of the early Greek city-states, were constructed of a collection of tethers that met at a ring in the center. In only one case that I am able to discern was there a shield grip that had a different grip, and that was the grip portrayed on the shield of the Sherden warriors in the service of Egypt after the attack of the Sea Peoples around 1200 b. c. e. This grip does not seem to have been imitated by other armies in the Near East but appeared in Greece in the sixth century b. c. e., where it was responsible for a military revolution.
The difficulty in using the old Greek tether shield grip was that it required a great deal of strength and training to use, factors which restricted military service in Greece to the nobility. The replacement of the tethers with a single loop through which the forearm could be passed and with another loop at the shield’s rim that could be held by the hand in a strong grip reduced the strength and training required for its use. This meant that the average citizen could now easily master the use of the shield. The mass production of the shields also made them cheaper. Both these developments made it easier to enroll the common citizenry for war. Very quickly, the practice of war shifted from the exclusive domain of the contest of noble champions to battles between highly disciplined groups of militia heavy infantry. Thus arose the famous Greek hoplite.
The body armor, helmet, and shield of the ancient soldier afforded him good protection against the weapons of the day, indeed much better protection than was available to the modern soldier until recent times. The advent of gunpowder brought about the gun, which, 200 years after its first appearance, was finally powerful enough to pierce the plate armor of the Renaissance knight. The result was that armies abandoned the search for personal protection of the soldier, and body armor and the helmet began to disappear from the battlefield. This was a tragic mistake. The protective devices of the ancient soldier would have provided excellent protection against firearms well past the time of Napoleon. When the dispersion of battle formations, the inaccuracy of the firearms, and rates of fire are factored in, the ancient soldier would have been safer on the battlefield of the nineteenth century than he was on his own.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries c. e., no army wore helmets or body armor, even though this period saw the introduction of long-range artillery and exploding shells, both of which produced shrapnel at alarming rates. Infantrymen up to the early days of World War I went into battle with no protective headgear while a storm of steel crashed around them. The bronze shields of the ancient Greeks would easily have repulsed the gunfire of a Napoleonic rifle, and the severely angled helmet of the Assyrians would have made penetration difficult even by a Civil War musket. During World War I the French discovered that the Adrian helmet used by French firemen afforded excellent protection against head wounds. The French rushed this style of helmet into production to equip the rest of their troops with protective headgear. Body armor made a return to the battlefield during the Vietnam War and is now regularly used by most armies. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the military planners of the ancient world may have better understood the relationship between weaponry and personal protection than did many of those who came after them.