By Pat Lowinger
Among the numerous treasures to be found at the Museum of Natural History in Bucharest, Romania is an ancient golden helmet dated to 4th through 3rd century BCE. This helmet, known as the Helmet of Cotofenesti is a remarkable example of ancient Thracian craftsmanship in form, style and design.
The region of modern Romania and Bulgaria was home to several Thracian tribes. One of the better known of these tribes was the Getae (Gets). The Getae were renown not only for their ferocity as warriors- a trait which appears to have universal among all Thracians, but also for their skill as horsemen. The earliest literary descriptions of the Thracians are found in Herodotus’ Histories. While a considerable portion of Herodotus’ description of the Thracians were intentionally inflammatory, his descriptions of Thracian culture, society and religious practices are still invaluable to historians and archaeologists. While it is at times difficult to parse out the biases of many ancient Greek and Roman sources, modern historians are fortunate to have a considerable amount of literary evidence for the study of ancient Thrace; either as independent tribal regions, a partially-controlled Hellenistic territory and lastly as a province of the Roman Empire.
One area which is often overlooked by historians and antiquarians is the remarkable skill which various Thracian tribes demonstrated in the production of metal goods- whether bronze, gold or silver. A broad range of finely crafted metal goods have survived from antiquity. As expected, many of these items are weapons and armor, but some are not. Delicate pieces of jewelry and/or elaborate armbands show considerable tooling and engraving to create awe-inspiring works of art.
The Cotofenesti Helmet is perhaps one of the best known pieces of Thracian craftsmanship. The helmet was originally found in the Romanian village of Poiana Varbilau in 1929. The piece was crafted from solid gold and weighs just over 2 pounds (1.9 KG).
Experts have identified the production (cultural origin) as Geto-Dacian. The helmet was of typical design, but the extreme value and elaborate engravings does suggest that the helmet was likely ceremonial (as a symbol of high rank/status). The imagery does tell us much about the cultural beliefs of the Getae (later called Dacians by the Romans). Over the front of the helmet (face) are two engraved ‘eyes’ used to ward off evil magic, commonly referred to as the evil-eye (mati in Greek). The rear is engraved with what are suspected to be mythological figures. Each cheek guard (in mirror) depicts the ritual sacrifice of a bull.
In antiquity the Thracians were to a military force to be reckoned with. Whether as enemies or allies, the Thracians ensured their place in the annals of Greek and Roman historians. Today, we are fortunate to have numerous objects which show the material wealth and culture of these ancient peoples- as craftsmen and artists.