King Raedwald at Sutton Hoo
A few months ago, the subject of the acoustic effects of full-face helmets came up in a discussion thread here (scroll down to the last few comments). I mentioned a TV documentary on the Sutton Hoo helmet, in which someone from the British Museum said that the replica helmet gave the wearer’s voice an impressive booming, echoing quality. We immediately wondered if this was true, and if so, whether it applied to other designs of helmet or was some unique property of the Sutton Hoo helmet.
Elizabeth Chadwick kindly posted a query for me on the Regia Anglorum re-enactors’ society email forum. I don’t have permission to post the responses, but in summary the consensus of the replies was ‘no’. None of the respondents thought that a face-covering helmet did anything to the wearer’s voice except perhaps to muffle it.
I can now give a definitive answer to the question, at least for the Sutton Hoo helmet, courtesy of King Raedwald himself (or, more correctly, his 21st-century alter ego). King Raedwald, or whoever was buried in the Mound 1 ship burial (see earlier post for discussion of the likely candidates), makes occasional appearances at Sutton Hoo when there are special events on. I was fortunate enough to meet him a couple of weeks ago, as the King had read and enjoyed Paths of Exile and had expressed an interest in meeting me.
As you can see from the photograph, King Raedwald looks immensely impressive. The helmet is particularly dramatic in sunlight, although the camera hasn’t fully caught the glitter and sparkle.
Close up of the replica Sutton Hoo helmet
The King also sounded very impressive when declaiming to the assembled multitude. I shouldn’t think he would have any difficulty in making himself heard across a battlefield. However, I think that was due to the King himself and not to any acoustic property of the helmet. When talking to the King later, his voice sounded similar whether he was wearing the helmet or not. I noticed a slightly disconcerting visual effect, in that when he was talking to me wearing the helmet I automatically expected the mouth to move in line with the spoken words, and of course it doesn’t. I imagine this discrepancy between audio and visual signals could have a slightly disquieting effect, but only on a listener who was close enough to see the helmet in detail.
King Raedwald very kindly let me try the replica helmet on, and my voice didn’t sound noticeably different to me. This suggests to me that the helmet has little effect on the wearer’s perception of their own voice, although it’s possible that a female voice may be in the wrong frequency range.
It appears that the Sutton Hoo helmet as currently reconstructed does not have any dramatic acoustic effects on the wearer’s voice, either as perceived by other people or as perceived by the wearer. The King suggested that the TV programme might have been referring to Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s comments on the earlier reconstruction of the helmet made in the 1970s. That version of the helmet was larger than the current reconstruction and could perhaps have had different resonance effects. Another possibility was raised by one of the people who replied on the Regia Anglorum forum, who suggested that some helmets make the wearer feel more important, which in turn could alter how the wearer projects their voice. Looking at the replica helmet, it’s easy to see how it could make its wearer feel like a king.