06 October, 2010

Helmet acoustics: a definitive answer from King Raedwald

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.


Meghan said...

Oh, that's really interesting (and I love that you actually tried it on). I'd never actually see that kind of helmet before so it's really great that you put it on your site!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I can imaigne that warlords needed to learn how to project their voice - with or without helmet. ;)

Roman aristocrats learned that during their rhetoric lessons, and I bet the centurions learned it somehow as well, like modern drill sergeants. *grin*

I had some singing lessons, so my voice carries pretty well, and it's dark for a woman, too.

Annis said...

Must have been fun meeting King Raedwald himself, Carla! He certainly looks impressive. Pity that our hopes about uncovering a possible Dark Age battle special effects trick have been dashed, but as the RA respondent commented, maybe the wearing of the helmet was itself the special effect. This was a ceremonial helmet, wasn't it? Presumably ones worn in battle would have been a bit plainer, though the Anglo-Saxons were very fond of their bling :)

Carla said...

Meghan - Glad you found it interesting! The Sutton Hoo helmet is particularly spectacular, especially when seen 'in the flesh', as it were. Some Late Roman or early medieval Swedish helmets have some similarities, so it's not totally unique.

Gabriele - Yes, I should imagine that projecting one's voice effectively was something that warriors learned, either formally or through years of experience. Singing or declaiming may also have been part of the skill set - Caedmon's story suggests that it was expected that you'd be able to entertain the throng in the hall when it was your turn. There may have been a degree of overlap between skald/scop and warrior.

Annis - indeed, it was an honour to meet the King :-) He thinks the Sutton Hoo helmet was intended for use in battle as well as on ceremonial occasions, and I'm inclined to agree. The helmet has a good sturdy iron bowl under all the decoration, so it would have been functional as protective headgear. Visibility is surprisingly good, it's not excessively heavy and it doesn't restrict movement of the head, so it would be practical to wear, especially for someone who was used to it. Also, the fragments of the Sutton Hoo helmet showed some signs of repair, which may have been due to battle damage or to more prosaic wear and tear. Either way, it doesn't look as if it spent its life in the equivalent of a glass case. Battle is one of the occasions when you would want to look as impressive and intimidating as possible to demosntrate your position as a Mighty Warlord, so it's arguably the situation where the splendid helmet is most likely to justify its existence. If you won, any damage to the helmet could be repaired (you'd likely pick up plenty of precious metals from the defeated enemy), and if you lost, damage to your fancy helmet would be the least of your worries. I rather think this ornate war gear was intended for use in anger (hence the scene at the beginning of Exile), although it would surely also have been used on ceremonial occasions as well.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The same discussion is going on about the face masks on some Roman cavalry helmets. Vision seems to be more limited, though (I should wear both helmets to compare, lol) so maybe the masks were indeed only used to impress those Germans and Caledonians during official meetings and parades (after all, Varus more or less held court in Germania for several summers, and I'm sure his men brought out all those shinies). ;)

Constance Brewer said...

Interesting question and reply. Something I never thought about before. Makes one speculate about helmets in general, and all their various designs. :)

Rick said...

That's almost as good as hearing from King Bubba!

And a quick and colorful death, it seems, to the idea that war helmets functioned in part as megaphones. As Gabriele says, guys in this business would develop a parade ground voice, helmets or not.

The carving and gilt-work of major 17th century warships shows that people were not afraid to add expensive decoration to equipment used in battle. As you noted, battle is an occasion on which you (usually) want to be as impressive as possible.

Considering the discussion, an interesting verification word, 'milit'.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Vision must have been fairly limited on some of the combat helms from the Middle Ages, so perhaps the wearer can develop techniques to compensate. I'm sure you're right that shiny gear was ostentatiously displayed on ceremonial occasions :-)

Constance - yes, it raises all sorts of interesting questions

Rick - a swift and colourful death is entirely in keeping with the culture :-) Cool as the idea of an acoustic helmet is, I rather like the idea that the wearer's voice was his own rather than derived from ingenious special effects. Ships are a slightly different case in that the water carries the bulk of the weight (subject to not unbalancing the vessel, though I imagine it would take an awful lot of decoration to do that - yes?), though it's the same principle. Display counts.

Doug said...

An interesting and unusual article. The helmet is more exotic than those I have seen before!
I would expect that a larger helmet would intensify the voice because there would be a slight echo effect, not enough to blur what is being said, just enough to add a further amount.

Carla said...

Doug - the replica helmet really brings out how dramatic the helmet would have looked, which is harder to visualise from the reconstruction of the original fragments. King Raedwald suggested that a larger helmet might have had a different effect on the wearer's voice. As you say, a larger version might echo differently.

ACE said...

Rather belatedly I've just caught up with this. I am probably the originator of the comments about the helmet replica enhancing the wearer's voice. Years ago, not so very long after the Tower of London replica was made, Rupert Bruce Mitford made a splendid entrance into the Sachsensymposium wearing the helmet replica. When he reached the podium he spoke lines from Beowulf in its original Anglo-Saxon and his light tenor voice was lower in timbre and booming. Even allowing for the theatricality of the occasion the change in his voice was startling and it was an occasion when the small hairs on the back of the neck literally stood up! If the latest run of replicas have no noticeable effect on the voice,
maybe 'King Raedwald'is right and it's something to do with the size and internal structure of the Tower of London replica that has this effect.


Carla said...

ACE - hello and welcome! Thank you for taking the trouble to come and reply. That's a very interesting observation about the Tower of London replica helmet. It seems possible that the differing reconstructions could have different acoustic effects.