As mentioned in previous posts, tracking down large sheets of armour-appropriate tin-bronze alloys is a difficulty that plagues the ancient-reproductions industry. Unfortunately, this post is not about a universal solution, but at least a small triumph.
Some months ago, a customer of mine let me in on some research he had been doing into the alloy composition of bronze cymbals. According to the manufacturers that he had contacted, some cymbals are made with the same proportion of tin as ancient helmets were – mainly 8%, with some as high as 12 or 13%. I decided to buy some used cymbals and test them for colour and working properties. Of the dozen-or-so cymbals I bought, there turned out to be 5 or 6 different alloys, about half of which turned out to be totally unsuitable for shaping with hammers. Anneal an expensive Turkish cymbal and give it a hard rap with a hammer, and this is what happens:
After that experiment came to a sudden and unprofitable conclusion, I decided to find out more about my cymbals before hitting them. I found out that there are two main types of bronze used in that industry – bell bronze, which has around 20% tin and is so brittle that it can only be formed by casting (which I had discovered the hard way), and malleable bronze which is usually 8% tin and… malleable.
The next cymbal I tried was a “B8 alloy” – a malleable bronze with 8% tin content. After annealing the bronze, I closed the mounting hole by flattening out the bell at the centre of the cymbal. A tiny strip of bronze cut from the edge of the cymbal, a bit of flux and some heat made the hole non-existent.
The result was a usable disk of bronze nearly 60cm across – perfect for raising a helmet from! So that is what I did. These photos show how the raising progressed over the course of several days.
I started by trimming the cymbal into a rough oval and making a small cut-out where the helmet’s face opening would be. Ordinarily, I would leave the face closed, and trim it out entirely after raising. Cracks in the cymbal from its previously life in a garage band left me no choice, though. Here is a side view, about three passes in:
A few more passes and I began to feel nervous about how much I had trimmed off the side of the cymbal.
As the helmet deepened, I roughed out a ridge around the helmet’s brow. The form was getting close enough that I could tell by testing it against my profile template that it would be necessary to draw out some bronze to widen the top of the cheek, where it should meet the nape.
The metal had drastically thickened along the lower edge from the compression of the raising process, so it was not difficult to draw out what I needed and still leave the bronze thick enough.
The final trimming waited until the surface of the helmet had been thoroughly planished, which had the effect of simultaneously smoothing and hardening the metal. The face opening was trimmed out – a bit wider than I prefer on an Illyrian helmet, but it was a replica project, so personal preference took a back seat.
The next step was to sand the surface smooth through successively finer grits until it was ready for polishing. Here I am about half-way there.
After polishing the helmet, I executed a distinctively ancient edge treatment by upsetting the metal around the helmet’s margins. That means I hammered the metal edge-on to compress and mushroom the edge. The extra thickness was then moulded, by careful hammering, to a ledge that ran around the helmet’s edge. The additional thickness and work-hardening of the edge improved the rigidity of the already hard helmet. The anticlastic form of the nape and cheek guards, the helmet’s distinctive brow ridge and the crest ridges already contributed significantly to the helmet’s ability to resist deformation. These structural features all work toward keeping the weight of the helmet reasonable – mine finished out at just over 1.4kg (3 lbs), which is what the archaeological record had me shooting for.
The finishing touches for this helmet were a button and staple for crest attachment. There are few ancient helmets that spell out crest attachment as clearly as the Illyrian does, which makes it particularly satisfying from the perspective of accuracy. This is how it turned out:
The last step was to make two crests that could be mounted on the helmet. I was requested to avoid light-coloured horse hair, so I made one from hair that I had previously dyed red, using natural dyes, and one from naturally black hair.
The finished helmet will be part of an interactive display accompanying an exhibition of artefacts on loan from Greek museums, which will be travelling throughout the USA and Canada. I will post exhibition venues and dates here when I know them.
To see more photos of the finished helmet, check our portfolio listing.