Bells

Introduction

A bell is a hollow object, which can be spherical, conical or of various domed shapes. It can be sounded by an internal clapper, an external hammer or (for spherical bells) an internal pellet or pea. A bell is more musical than a rattle, although the two are related.

An open bell normally has a clapper, and can be a variety of shapes. Conical bells can have straight or slightly concave or convex sides; if the sides are strongly convex, the bell may be hemispherical instead. A church bell typically has a low conical top above concave sides, and this shape can be found in smaller bells as well.  Fragments of large bell can be mistaken for fragments of cast vessel.

PAS object type(s) to be used

Always use BELL. The PAS database avoids ANIMAL BELL because in most cases we are unsure about the function of any particular bell. CROTAL is only used for a very rare Bronze Age object.

Roman bells

Bells with rectangular cross-sections

Roman bells have been studied by Ward (1911) and Clarke (1971). Clarke concentrates on bells with square or rectangular cross-sections and small feet, 50-70mm tall. They have integral loops, generally lozengiform externally and with a circular perforation. Excavated examples tend to come from first-century contexts. A good example on the PAS database is HAMP-ADCEE3.

Roman bell with rectangular cross-section and corner feet
Roman bell with rectangular cross-section and corner feet (HAMP-ADCEE3)

Roman bells of other shapes

Clarke (1971) points out that simple hemispherical and conical bells are known from both Roman and post-Roman contexts and considers unstratified examples of these as undatable. Concentric line decoration and a circular cross-section can be found on bells from Roman contexts (e.g. from Colchester, Crummy 1983, no. 4166) but also on 7th- to 8th-century Scottish bells (Schoenfelder and Richards 2011, 153). Most English or Welsh finds of similar bells, however, can be recorded as probably Roman.

Bells of probable Roman date, DENO-281EF3 and NCL-0BCA96
Bells of probable Roman date, DENO-281EF3 (with convex sides) and NCL-0BCA96 (with straight sides)

Bells with openwork decoration

In their article on early-medieval ‘Norse’ bells of late 9th- to late 11th-century date, Schoenfelder and Richards (2011, 153-4) discuss bells with openwork decoration, bells with a circular cross-section, and those with decorative concentric lines. Openwork conical bells have a pronounced southerly distribution which differs from the ‘Norse’ bells, and although there is at present no dating evidence for them, we are recording them for the time being as Roman. See NMS-E837B5 for an example (illustrated below).

These bells have recently been considered in Eckardt and Williams 2018, the pdf text of which can be downloaded here; they conclude that these bells may, on the grounds of their distribution and loop shape, possibly be Roman, and point to parallels from the shores of the Black Sea.

Early-medieval bells

5th- to 8th-century bells

Both of the bells illustrated in MacGregor and Bolick (1991) are likely to be Roman in date.

A small (28mm high) copper-alloy bell with circular base, large semi-circular loop and iron chain and clapper was found in the early 7th-century grave of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo (Bruce-Mitford 1983, 893). So far we have no similar bells on the PAS database, so it may be an import.

A wide hemispherical bronze bell 40mm high was found in cremation 1281 at Spong Hill  which can be paralleled in another cremation from Little Wilbraham (Hills and Lucy 2013, 91-2). Both may be Continental imports of the 5th to 8th centuries.

Concentric lines and a circular cross-section (in other words, a conical shape) can be found on 7th- to 8th-century Scottish bells (Schoenfelder and Richards 2011, 153) as well as bells from Roman contexts (e.g. from Colchester, Crummy 1983, no. 4166).

‘Norse’ bells

‘Norse’ bells have been studied by Schoenfelder and Richards (2011) in an article which usefully includes some discussion of how to distinguish them from small copper-alloy Roman bells. Bells stratified in contexts of the late 9th to late 11th centuries are characterised by integral loops of various shapes, hexagonal cross-sections and straight tapering sides. The hexagonal facets may be slightly concave in cross-section and the lower edge may be scalloped, with the lower corners sometimes having feet. Ring-and-dot decoration is frequently found. The height range appears to be c. 27-37mm.

'Norse' bell (SF-ECD886) and openwork conical bell (NMS-E837B5)
‘Norse’ bell of late 9th- to late 11th-century date (SF-ECD886) and openwork conical bell of unknown date, perhaps Roman (NMS-E837B5) – see discussion above.

Other early-medieval bells

Schoenfelder and Richards (2011, 153-4) also consider bells with openwork decoration, bells with a circular cross-section, and those with decorative concentric lines. Openwork bells have a pronounced southerly distribution which differs from the ‘Norse’ bells, but there is no dating evidence for them. At the moment we are recording these openwork conical bells with a broad period of Roman, as this seems the most likely date (see discussion above).

Concentric lines and a circular cross-section (i.e. a conical shape) can be found on bells from Roman contexts (e.g. from Colchester, Crummy 1983, no. 4166) and on 7th- to 8th-century Scottish bells (Schoenfelder and Richards 2011, 153).

Medieval and post-medieval bells

Medieval and post-medieval bells include a large number of spherical examples, either cast or made from sheet. Fragments of larger cast bells can also be found, but are difficult to distinguish from cast copper-alloy vessels.

Cast spherical bells

Post-medieval cast spherical bells are often known as ‘crotal’ bells (and sometimes as ‘rumbler’ bells). They are very common finds because they are robust and easily recognised. Make sure that these are recorded with the object type BELL. Well dated examples are scarce, but it seems that these were in use for many centuries with slow tiny changes in detail. Because of this, we need to carefully describe the shape of the loop (externally and internally), the number and shape of the sound holes, the slot, the seam or ridge between the two halves and any decoration. Look carefully for makers’ marks as these have the potential to help in dating. Often there is a mark of a founder’s hammer instead of, or as well as, an individual maker’s mark.

Features of a cast spherical bell
Features of a cast spherical bell, seen on WILT-1BFA8A and KENT-71B3F7

Some work has been done on the manufacture of cast spherical bells, and some makers and makers’ marks, published on the UKDFD website.

Other cast copper-alloy bells

There is a small group of distinctive medieval bells that are broadly spherical, but with an openwork lower half and therefore sounded by a clapper rather than a pea. The upper half has eight slightly flattened surfaces, four of which have shields of arms as decoration. The arms have received several interpretations, but are thought to be those of Edmund, 2nd Earl of Cornwall, showing a double-headed eagle (referring to his claim to the Holy Roman Empire after his father was elected King of this in 1257) impaled with three chevrons, the arms of his wife Margaret de Clare. They married in 1272, making this the earliest possible date for these bells. See WILT-397A82 and SOM-AF84B6 for examples; also SF-A43191, which retains its clapper.

Cast spherical bell with openwork lower half (SOM-AF84B6)
Cast spherical bell with openwork lower half (SOM-AF84B6)

Sheet spherical bells

Small spherical bells made from copper-alloy sheet seem to have been used as dress accessories, or on hawks’ or dogs’ harness. As human dress accessories they were worn on belts, collars or sashes; there is a useful short chapter on medieval examples in Egan and Pritchard 1991 (336-341). They appear to come into use on human dress in the 14th century in Winchester (Biddle 1990, 725) and the late 14th century in London (Egan and Pritchard 1991, 336), although they were apparently in use as early as the late 13th century on animal harness (Egan and Pritchard 1991, 336-338, with examples from ceramic period 9, c. 1270-c. 1350).

These small sheet bells are still made, particularly for use on cats’ collars, and so unstratified examples are in theory hard to date more precisely. But, given that the fashion for humans wearing bells seems to have declined (apart from perhaps on children; Egan 2005, 57) and larger, heavier cast spherical bells began to be used for animals, it is likely that many of our examples will date to the late medieval period, perhaps into the 16th century.

Sheet copper-alloy bell, probably of late medieval or early post-medieval date (ESS-316509)
Sheet copper-alloy bell, probably of late medieval or early post-medieval date (ESS-316509)

Other sheet copper-alloy bells

There is a group of sheet ‘rumbler’ bells which are not spherical. They have a tall upper part with a butted-together (perhaps originally soldered) seam down the reverse, and a loop at the top which is pierced from side to side and which often projects forwards. The upper part can be gently tapering, or can be a narrow stem. The lower part is similar to sheet spherical bells, and has a separate pea. See KENT-1EABA5 and NMS-C700A1 for examples.

The loop is similar to that found on horse-harness pendants, and it may be that these bells had a similar function. Griffiths 1986, fig. 20 shows bells used on an elaborate horse-harness pendant set; see SF-D74876 for a bell mounted on a suspension mount and LIN-FD3808 for a bell attached to a plate. Whether their date is much the same as the spherical bells (late 13th to perhaps 16th century), or much the same as other horse-harness pendants (mid 12th to mid 14th century), is currently uncertain.

Bells of sheet copper alloy, probably from horse-harness
Bells of sheet copper alloy, probably from horse-harness (LIN-FD3808, SF-D74876 and NLM-5EFFAE)

Tin or tin-alloy bells

There is a group of 13th-century bells from London which, when analysed, have proved to be of tin or tin alloy. There are a few similar examples on the PAS database, mainly from Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, which tend to be recorded as being of lead or lead alloy.  These bells are cast in one piece, have four projections which may have been bent inwards to retain a pea, and are often decorated. Their use is uncertain; they can never have made a very nice sound. See Egan and Pritchard 1991, 338-340, nos. 1668-1671, and examples on the PAS database at YORYM-E51788, SWYOR-F92A53, etc.

'Rumbler' bells made with four bent-in petal-like projections (SUR-476322 and YORYM-E51788)
‘Rumbler’ bells made with four bent-in petal-like projections (SUR-476322 and YORYM-E51788)

As with other sheet spherical bells, the type made from four bent-in projections are still made (often sold today as ‘craft bells’). SWYOR-909DB1 is a copper-alloy example which looks very post-medieval, but how much later in date it may be is hard to say. Unstratified, undecorated, undiagnostic examples are therefore impossible to date precisely.

There are also occasional examples of tin-alloy bells made in the same shape as the later copper-alloy sheet spherical bells. These are cast, either in one piece or in two halves later soldered together, and are presumably of the same date as the copper-alloy examples (late 14th century onwards). See Egan and Pritchard 1991, 338-341, nos. 1672-1689, and examples on the PAS database at HESH-8F0DAE and BH-837BE7.

Spherical 'rumbler' bells made from tin alloy or lead alloy (HESH-8F0DAE and BH-837BE7)
Spherical ‘rumbler’ bells of medieval date, made from tin alloy or lead alloy (HESH-8F0DAE and BH-837BE7)

Lastly, a few clapper bells recorded on the PAS database have been identified as Canterbury bells. Canterbury bells are discussed by Spencer (1998, 123-125, nos. 126-128) who illustrates two from London with inscriptions linking them to Thomas Becket. Analysis has shown that the alloys used for these tend to be at least 90% tin (Spencer 1998, 125). PAS examples tend to be identified as lead or lead-alloy, and include PAS-2EE133, KENT-EC8680, LON-806D1C, LON-C82858 and LEIC-6F1903.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used for medieval bells

For spherical bells, put ‘cast spherical’ or ‘sheet spherical’ in the classification field. For Canterbury bells, and any other bells which might be pilgrim souvenirs, put ‘pilgrim’ in the classification field. For all other medieval bells, leave the classification and sub-classification fields empty.

Key references

Bruce-Mitford, R.L.S. 1983. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Vol. 3 (British Museum Press)

Clarke, D.V. 1971. ‘Four Roman bells from Scotland’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 103 (1971), 228-31

Crummy 1983 (available to download free here)

Egan and Pritchard 1991

Schoenfelder and Richards 2011

Ward, J., 1911. The Roman Era in Britain (Methuen), 217-219.

Taps

Introduction

A tap is a valve that controls the flow of water from a container or a pipe. The container might be a barrel, a cistern (containing water for general domestic use) or a vessel; see Egan 1998, 242 for references to taps on copper-alloy vessels. Use TAP for all of these, and for taps on pipes (plumbing taps). It is not always possible to distinguish between barrel taps, cistern or vessel taps and plumbing taps.

PAS object type to be used

Use TAP for all taps, whether from barrels, cisterns, vessels or plumbing. Avoid BARREL TAP (and BARREL).  Items that have been recorded as TAP KEY in the past should be recorded either as part of a TAP (i.e. the handle) or as a key, either a KEY (WINDING) or a KEY (LOCKING), depending. A modern tap key is a tool comprising a crossbar on a long handle, enabling you to turn off the stopcock, and this is the only item that should be recorded as a TAP KEY.

Even if you only have the handle, this is still a TAP, just incomplete or fragmentary.

Terms to use in the description

Medieval and post-medieval taps consist of a hollow pipe (normally shown horizontally) with a hollow vertical cross-piece or socket into which the stem of the tap fits.

The part which is held to turn the tap on or off is the handle (not the ‘key’). The part below the handle that is turned is the stem; this usually has a hole through which the liquid flows when the tap is turned. The pipe is the part that brings the water or other liquid towards the tap, and the spout is the part that the water or other liquid comes out of.

Names for the different parts of a tap
Names for the different parts of a tap (LON-81C758 and SOM-901263)

Medieval taps

M-shaped or crown-shaped handles appear to be late medieval to early post-medieval; there are good examples  from London (Egan 1998, 242-4, with discussion of date) and Salisbury (Saunders 2012, 115 and 141). Similar examples from the PAS database include SUSS-ABB907 and NMS-2498B6.

M- or crown-shaped handle from a late medieval or early post-medieval tap (SUSS-ABB907)
M- or crown-shaped handle from a late medieval or early post-medieval tap (SUSS-ABB907)

The spouts of the London and Salisbury examples look zoomorphic, but similarly shaped spouts continue well into the post-medieval period.

Spouts in the form of animal heads, IOW-8F5BB4 and SF-07F127
Spouts in the form of animal heads, IOW-8F5BB4 and SF-07F127

 

Opinion seems to vary as to the date of other elaborate tap handles. Cockerels are the most common (with good examples at NMS-19B3AE, SF-07F127 and SUR-33DC8B, the last with maker’s mark) but there are also occasional fleurs-de-lis (such as DEV-8CDEC0 and IOW-1AA912) and even more unusual one-offs such as LVPL-4D7B13.

Taps are difficult to date if there is no handle. The examples from Colchester (Crummy 1988, 41) and Exeter (Allan 1984, fig. 193, no. 180), from a post-medieval context and a context of c. 1500 respectively, are similar to both medieval and post-medieval taps. See KENT-258C93 for a similar example on the PAS database.

Post-medieval taps

There are trefoil handles from early post-medieval contexts in Amsterdam (Baart et al 1977, 352-6); examples on the PAS database include GLO-5E8406 and LON-604625.

Tap with trefoil handle, GLO-5E8406
Tap with trefoil handle, GLO-5E8406

There is a tap from Norwich with a ‘bifurcated’ handle (T-shaped with both ends slightly curved; Margeson 1993, 137-8, no. 932), which has been dated to the 17th century by comparison with taps from Jamestown, Virginia (Cotter 1958, 192; pl. 90) and Basing House (Moorhouse 1971, 57-58; fig. 25, no. 152). Good examples of this type of tap are LON-81C758 and LVPL-71F288.

Tap with bifurcated handle, LON-81C758
Tap with bifurcated handle, LON-81C758

 

18th- and 19th-century taps have T-shaped handles with straight tops. Examples on the PAS database include PUBLIC-2806EA and SUR-8EC347.

Barrel tap with T-shaped handle bearing maker's mark, SUR-8EC347
Barrel tap with T-shaped handle bearing maker’s mark, SUR-8EC347

 

A common type of post-medieval barrel tap has a pipe with a closed end and perforations to act as a crude filter. This usually has a striated or corrugated outer surface, probably to provide grip against the wood of the barrel (see PUBLIC-B94B94 for a complete example and NLM-122009 for a fragment).  At the other end a boss would have been hammered to help get the tap into the barrel.  A tap comparable to PUBLIC-B94B94 was found at Launceston Castle, Cornwall, in association with later 18th-century pottery (Mould in Saunders 2006, 313).

Post-medieval barrel tap
Post-medieval barrel tap with closed pipe (PUBLIC-B94B94)

 

Book Clasps

Introduction

Book clasps were used to hold the covers of a book tightly, together to keep it closed and the pages flat.

There are two main types of medieval book clasp. One fitted over a peg on the opposite cover, and has a pierced terminal, probably to hold a cord to help pull it off the peg. The other type has a hook, which clipped over a bar or hooked into a slot on the opposite cover.

We know of examples that fitted over pegs from at least the 12th century onwards. These would have been used at the end of a strap fixed to one cover, and they are pierced with a hole which fitted over a peg on the opposite cover. A projecting terminal was pierced sideways, probably to hold a cord to help in pulling the clasp off the peg.

Objects that look like over-the-peg clasps, with pierced terminals but with rectangular or T-shaped slots instead of central circular holes, are from boxes (or caskets, coffrets, chasses etc). See DENO-392CC4 for an example.

The hooked type of book clasp is generally flatter and flimsier than the pierced type. We know of examples in place on books of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the decoration suggests that they begin in the late medieval period but perhaps become more popular in the 16th century.

Every clasp has to engage with another fitting on the opposite cover to keep the book closed, but both pegs and catchplates are rare.

A recent PhD by Charlotte Howsam (2016) covers both medieval book clasps and book mounts, and is downloadable free here. It gives a clear typology of both clasps and mounts, is copiously illustrated, and has lots of background information.

Howsam’s types A.1, A.2, A.7, A.9 and A.10 fit over pegs; A.3, A.4 and A.5 have hooks.

Type A.8, which is defined as being made from folded sheet metal, comes in both pierced and hooked forms.

Every clasp has to engage with another fitting on the opposite cover to keep the book closed. Pegs and their baseplates form Howsam’s type A.11; catchplates for use with hooked clasps form type A.6.

Howsam’s typology is derived from a catalogue of book fittings excavated from monastic sites. She comments that further excavation and more PAS finds are likely to expand the typology (Howsam 2016, 23), and indeed we have already recorded clasps of types not included; see below.

PAS object type(s) to be used

‘Book clasp’ is not included in the mda thesaurus, so we use BOOK FITTING instead, with ‘clasp’ in the classification field.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

The Howsam type (Howsam 2016, 30-42) should be put in the sub-classification field, in the following format: Howsam type A.9.2

A note on dating

There are several ways of dating book clasps, unfortunately with different results.

Book clasps still in place on books can be of the same date as the rest of the binding, but because the leather straps tend to wear they are often repaired or replaced. When this happened, new clasps could be added to old books or old and precious clasps re-used on new books. Despite the uncertainty, clasps in place on books are very useful. There is a Howsam type A.5.2 on a late 16th-century binding illustrated  in Margeson (1993, 74).

Book clasps found in archaeological contexts seem to cluster in the late 14th and 15th centuries in London (Egan 1998, 277-80) and in early to mid 16th-century contexts elsewhere (Howsam 2016, 24-26). Howsam points out that many old books were destroyed at the Reformation, leading many old book fittings to be found in 16th-century contexts. The date of the context is not the same as the date of manufacture of the book fitting.

Art-historical parallels can also be used to date book clasps. Limoges-style enamel has been found on SWYOR-D9A074 and HESH-7ACEC5, suggesting a date between 1150 and 1300 AD. Stamped annulets have been found on many clasps of type A.1.1, perhaps suggesting a date in the late 12th or 13th century. Going further back in time, BERK-151457, LVPL-CDD0D0 and SUSS-5AF9E0 can all be dated to the 11th century on the basis of their (very different) art styles.

A famous late 12th-century statue from St Mary’s Abbey, York, shows an apostle holding a book closed by a clasp and peg (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, fig. 1505). And finally, a simple rectangular hooked clasp (LEIC-F82DD1) bears the initials EE and the date 1717.

See the individual types below for precise dating.

Medieval and early post-medieval book clasps

Clasps that fit over pegs

Howsam type A.1

This type has a solid cast element with a bar for a hinged plate. The solid cast element can be domed and pierced (A.1.1), or domed with a blind hole on the underside (A.1.2) or flat and pierced (A.1.3). All have a terminal in the form of a stylised animal head, pierced from side to side to hold the cord, and a plate, normally hinged around a bar.

A.1.1 clasps normally have hinge loops holding a separate bar, but occasionally can have a rectangular slot separating the loop from an integral bar (e.g. NMS-B9A166).

There is a group of A.1.1 clasps from late 14th- or early 15th-century contexts in London (Egan and Pritchard 1991, ; Egan 1998, ) but others with stamped annulet decoration (e.g. YORYM-2BBE37) are more likely on art-historical grounds to belong to the 12th or early 13th century.

There is only one example of an A.1.2 clasp recorded on the PAS database so far, BUC-B7EF37

Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.1. Left: SWYOR-0B8297. Right: YORYM-2BBE37.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.1. Left: SWYOR-0B8297. Right: YORYM-2BBE37, with annulet stamps.

There is a growing number of A.1.3 clasps on the PAS database. These are more various in shape and decoration than other A.1 clasps and can include openwork, stamped and Limoges-style examples. Some have decoration which can be dated as early as the late 11th century (e.g. BERK-151457); others can have Limoges-style enamel (e.g. GLO-EB53B3) and still others can resemble clasps of the standard A.1.1 type; the date-range therefore probably runs from 1050 or 1100 to at least 1450 AD.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.3, showing the diversity of shape and decoration. Left, top to bottom: NMS-F85129, NMS-5A7B07, NMS-42D9C5. Centre left, top to bottom: NMS-D590D7, GLO-EB53B3. Centre right, top to bottom: NMS-A664F2, SF-743945, BERK-B866CA. Right, top to bottom: BERK-151457, SUR-764574.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.1.3, showing the diversity of shape and decoration. Left, top to bottom: NMS-F85129, NMS-5A7B07, NMS-42D9C5. Centre left, top to bottom: NMS-D590D7, GLO-EB53B3. Centre right, top to bottom: NMS-A664F2, SF-743945 (note the orientation of the terminal), BERK-B866CA. Right, top to bottom: BERK-151457, SUR-764574.

Note that the simplest of all (e.g. NMS-42D9C5) could potentially be mis-identified as buckles.

Howsam type A.2

This is similar to type A.1, but with the plate made from an integral forked spacer. This is clearly related to buckles and strap-ends with forked spacers (the ‘composite’ type) which can be reliably dated to the 14th or early 15th century.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.2, one over twice the size of the other. Left: FAKL-5A14D0. Right: ESS-608C92.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.2, one over twice the size of the other. Left: FAKL-5A14D0. Right: ESS-608C92, retaining one of the plates soldered to the forked spacer.

Howsam type A.7

A simple type of pierced clasp has sometimes in the past been published as a belt mount.  This is formed of two rectangular plates attached to each other generally by two or four rivets and both perforated centrally to fit over the peg.  Howsam notes that they are often decorated along their edges with cusps, notches and apertures (Howsam 2016, 37). 

Many such fasteners are known from ecclesiastical sites such as Battle Abbey (Geddes in Hare 1985, 159; fig. 50), or Carmarthen Greyfriars (Brennan 2001, 66-67), but also from urban reports such as those for London (Egan and Pritchard 1991, 225; fig. 141) or Norwich (Margeson 1993, 39; fig. 22). Many from older reports are recorded as dress accessories.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.7. Left to right: SOM-47EC37, SWYOR-5A57B5, SF5386.
Probable book clasps, of Howsam type A.7. Left to right: SOM-47EC37, SWYOR-5A57B5, SF5386.

We do not yet know if the commonest type of rectangular mount – with a central hole, with a reserved lozenge surrounded by rocker-arm engraving (e.g. Egan and Pritchard 1991, no. 1054 and Margeson 1993, no. 264) – is a dress accessory or a book clasp. Examples on the PAS database include IOW-9357A4, LON-DCA744 and NMS-28FA14. At present we think they are not from books, as they have just one plate rather than two.

Howsam type A.8

Type A.8 clasps are made of a single piece of sheet metal folded in half. Most have a gap at the fold which forms the side-to-side perforation, and holes to fit over the peg. Type A.8.1 resembles Type A.7 above, but has the addition of the loop at the fold. Type A.8.4 has a rounded lobe with a dome over the perforation.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.8. On the left are two examples of type A.8.1 (IOW-2BF565 and SUR-FCC344). On the right are two examples of type A.8.4 (BH-0DDF66 and NMS-9BD911).
Book clasps of Howsam type A.8. On the left are two examples of type A.8.1 (IOW-2BF565 and SUR-FCC344). On the right are two examples of type A.8.4 (BH-0DDF66 and NMS-9BD911).

Type A.8.2 is as A.8.1, but has a dome which is also perforated. Type A.8.3 is shaped into a flat perforated roundel. Types A.8.2 and A.8.3 have not yet been recorded on the PAS database. Type A.8.5 is different in that it tapers to a hooked end and has no perforation, so is considered below under Clasps with Hooks.

Howsam type A.9

This type has an integral hollow attachment plate. Howsam sub-divides it into two types; A.9.1 with a dome over the perforation, and A.9.2 with a lozenge.

The hollow attachment ends can be compared with those on ‘lyre-shaped’ buckles and similar strap-ends, which are dated from effigies and brasses and on art-historical grounds to the very late 14th and 15th centuries.

Although these appear to be cast in one piece, it is possible that some examples were made in several pieces, carefully soldered together.

The transversely pierced terminal on A.9.2 clasps often contains a metal ring and, as with the buckles and strap-ends, the hollow end can have a separate backplate.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.9.2. Left to right: IOW-7D75B7, NMS-91A927, WAW-0592C0.
Book clasps of Howsam type A.9.2. Left to right: IOW-7D75B7, NMS-91A927, WAW-0592C0. Note the wear on the hole of NMS-91A927.

Howsam type A.10

Type A.10 is cast in one piece, with a hole to fit over the peg and a terminal pierced from side to side. Howsam only included one example in her catalogue (SWYOR-D9A074, illustrated below), but there are several other disparate one-piece book clasps that can also perhaps be allocated to this type.

As the group is quite heterogeneous, including different shapes and decoration, the date-range of Type A.10 is wide. More precise dates may be possible on the basis of the decoration.

One-piece book clasps which can perhaps be allocated to Howsam type A.10. Top row, left to right: SWYOR-D9A074, SUSS-0D63D3, WMID5232. Second row, left to right: HAMP2800, GLO-8F1C22, GLO-5B1D88. Bottom row, left to right: BERK-ED9750, LVPL-CDD0D0
One-piece book clasps which can perhaps be allocated to Howsam type A.10. Top row, left to right: SWYOR-D9A074, SUSS-0D63D3, WMID5232. Second row, left to right: HAMP2800, GLO-8F1C22, GLO-5B1D88. Bottom row, left to right: BERK-ED9750, LVPL-CDD0D0.

Type A.10 does not include all one-piece book clasps; it is a catch-all for those which do not fall into other types. Those made from a folded sheet belong to A.8, and those with hollow plates belong to A.9. 

Pegs – Howsam type A.11

The pegs over which these clasps fitted are very rarely found (or recognised). The only certain example on the PAS database is NMS-935146, with a square quatrefoil base-plate. No certain example of a detached base-plate for a peg has yet been recorded.

Occasionally pegs survive in place within a clasp’s perforation. Examples include WMID-3DC2A5 and WAW-C67F20.

Clasps with hooks

Clasps with hooks form Howsam types A.3, A.4 and A.5, and type A.8.5 also has a hook. Type A.3 has a flared attachment end, type A.4 is rectangular. Type A.5 has a hinge opposite the hook for attachment to a second plate. Catch-pieces for use with hooked clasps form type A.6.

Hooked book clasps are usually made from flat copper-alloy sheet. Hook-pieces have a central hook in one short end, and the hook is usually relatively wide and flat.  The catch-piece can either have a slot cut in it, or can have two projections rolled over a bar. The hook would have been clipped into the slot or over the bar to close the book.

Hook-pieces seem to be much more common than catch-pieces, perhaps because they are more easily recognised.  They were attached to leather straps with rivets and backplates which do not usually survive.

Howsam type A.3

Type A.3 is the commonest type of medieval book clasp. It is made from a long thin strip of copper-alloy sheet, with one end flared and shaped and the other end hooked. The metal appears brassy and has often corroded to a reddish brown. They are often decorated with longitudinal grooves, circular perforations, stamps and ring-and-dot motifs.

A selection of book clasps of type A.3. Left to right: FAKL-9EC55F, SWYOR-A411C7, KENT-E363E8, ESS-C923A9, WILT-CB74F6.
A selection of book clasps of type A.3. Left to right: FAKL-9EC55F, SWYOR-A411C7, KENT-E363E8, ESS-C923A9, WILT-CB74F6.

Type A.3 book clasps are difficult to date accurately. They appear to be later than over-the-peg book clasps, but the two types may overlap. Decoration that may help to assign a start date for the type includes rocker-arm, as on KENT-E363E8 above; and double lines of stamps (sometimes known as rouletting or interrupted rocker-arm), as on WILT-CB74F6 above. Evidence for the continued manufacture of this type into the early post-medieval period might include the colour of the metal and the presence on books. We tend to date them to the 15th and 16th centuries unless there is strong evidence for a date outside this range.

A good example of a late 15th-century book with its A.3 clasps in place was published at Cologne in 1493 and is now in the library of Michigan State University (KJA 1925 .N52 A36 149). The clasps are riveted to short straps and the catch-pieces are nailed directly to the opposite cover. Another in the same library, remarkably similar, dates from 1574 (QK 41 .D6 1574).

Howsam type A.4

This type appears to be the earliest type of hooked book clasp, perhaps dating to the 14th or 15th centuries. A.4.1 is a simple rectangular plate, but A.4.2 retains a small separately made pierced lug on the top. This would probably have been used with a cord or ring, to help in removing the clasp and opening the book.

Type A.4 clasps are not always strictly rectangular, as several flare slightly to the attachment end (and see NMS-52C783 for an oval example). Even if they have flared ends, the dividing line between A.3 and A.4 clasps is generally clear.

Decoration on the plates of type A.4.2 tends to be distinctively medieval, perhaps 14th or 15th century. Examples include SUR-6DA691 (rouletting), BERK-2C8241 (grooved aperture) and NMS-280856 (rocker-arm).

Clasps of type A.4.1 are rare, and some (such as NLM-0A25E8) may be incomplete examples of type A.4.2. There are a few examples which clearly never had the pierced lug, though, and these include SF3887.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.4. Left, type A.4.2 (SUR-6DA691 and NMS-280856). Centre left, type A.4.2 (BERK-2C8241). Centre right, type A.4.2 (BH-87AE0C). Right, type A.4.2 (SF-12E8D6) and type A.4.1 (NLM-0A25E8, SF3887).
Five book clasps of Howsam type A.4.2. Left, top to bottom: SUR-6DA691 and NMS-280856. Centre left: BERK-2C8241. Centre: BH-87AE0C. Centre right, top: SF-12E8D6. Below is a type A.4.1 which may in fact be an incomplete type A.4.2 (NLM-0A25E8). Right, a definite example of a type A.4.1 (SF3887).

Howsam type A.5

These are defined as having a hinge at the end opposite the hook, showing that they articulated with another metal plate (an anchor plate) rather than a strap. An example in place on a late 16th-century book is shown by Margeson (1993, 74).

Howsam divides these into three types, A.5.1 with a central hinge loop, A.5.2 with two hinge loops, and A.5.3 with a central hinge loop and separate pierced lug on top. So far only type A.5.1 has been recorded on the PAS database.

Book clasps of Howsam type A.5.1 (KENT-9565A3 and HAMP-4EF407).
Book clasps of Howsam type A.5.1 (KENT-9565A3 and HAMP-4EF407).

The date of type A.5 clasps is at present uncertain. They resemble A.3 clasps, so should probably be similarly dated, to the 15th or 16th centuries AD. Later post-medieval book clasps are also normally hinged to an anchor plate, but these later clasps are not included in Howsam’s classification.

The plate to which a type A.5 clasp is hinged is known as an anchor plate. Anchor plates are not normally distinguishable from catchplates, which form the next type, A.6.

Catchplates and anchor-plates – Howsam type A.6

 Howsam separates these into types with slots (A.6.1 and A.6.3) and types with projections rolled over to hold a bar (A.6.2 and A.6.4). The precise type depends on whether the plate is rectangular or triangular, but as you can see below the shapes are more variable than this. It may be that all flaring plates should be interpreted as rectangular (A.6.1 and A.6.2) and plates tapering to a point should be interpreted as triangular (A.6.3 and A.6.4). Alternatively and more simply, as we have not recorded many, they can all be recorded simply as type A.6.

Catch-pieces of Howsam type A.6. Left to right: type A.6.1 (BERK-11236D), two examples of type A.6.2 (SWYOR-40B394, SUR-92DC8D), three examples of type A.6.4 (BERK-56D1C8, PUBLIC-1DABA9, NMS-551569).
Catch-pieces of Howsam type A.6. Left to right: type A.6.1 (BERK-11236D), two examples of type A.6.2 (SWYOR-40B394, SUR-92DC8D), three examples of type A.6.4 (BERK-56D1C8, PUBLIC-1DABA9, NMS-551569).

Anchor plates are virtually impossible to recognise if they are detached from the rest of the clasp, and in fact one of the items pictured above as a catch-piece (NMS-551569) has a very close parallel which is clearly an anchor-plate (YORYM-C84DCC). Anchor-plates are not common in the medieval period, and nor are the type A.5 clasps that they fit together with. Clasps hinged to anchor plates seem to be more common in the post-medieval period.

Silver book-clasp of Howsam type A.5.1, with anchor-plate (Howsam type A.6)
Silver book-clasp of Howsam type A.5.1, with anchor-plate of Howsam type A.6.4 (YORYM-C84DCC).

Later post-medieval book clasps

As printing came in, paper began to replace parchment (animal skins) and this process of change continued until well into the post-medieval period.

Paper lies flatter than parchment, so book clasps to keep the book shut would not be so necessary; and paper books often had pasteboard (layered paper) covers, which did not hold nails and rivets to fix clasps and mounts nearly as well as the earlier wooden covers.

Parchment was expensive, but also strong; it could cope with luxury pigments and gold leaf, and so was retained into the 18th century for luxury books, such as bibles (Howsam 2016, 142). Clasps became more common again in the later 19th century, probably as part of the Gothic revival popular at the time.

Clasps from these books will not be as common as those from earlier books, and have not yet received any formal study. Searches in 17th- or 18th-century library collections (such as Thomas Plume’s library in Maldon, Essex) may add to our knowledge of these in the future.

Items currently tentatively identified as later post-medieval book clasps are generally dated by their decoration. All so far identified fasten using hooks. Below is an eclectic collection of things that have been identified as 17th- to 19th-century book clasps.

Objects that have been suggested as later post-medieval book clasps (DENO-7678B3, SOM-909472, NLM-4F2825, LON-63D127, PUBLIC-D033C8, LEIC-F82DD1).
Objects that have been suggested as later post-medieval book clasps. Top left, DENO-7678B3; note the Gothic initials E W, which probably date it to the 19th century. Bottom left, SOM-909472. Centre left, NLM-4F2825. Centre right,  LON-63D127 (above), PUBLIC-D033C8 (below), which has the initials WN in a curving, 18th- or 19th-century script. Compare PUBLIC-D033C8 to LEIC-ACBA86, which is attached to a binding strip. Right, LEIC-F82DD1, which is dated 1717.

Several other items have been suggested as post-medieval book clasps in the past. A variety of small openwork hinged items have been recorded as book clasps (such as HAMP-8D6FC9), but it seems more likely that these were simply small hinges from furniture. Another object type which is sometimes recorded as a book clasp is cross-shaped, with a large blunt hook (such as IOW-17AAC2); these are not like any other book clasps, and may be dress hooks instead. Stock clasps (such as YORYM-DAA383) are also sometimes mis-recorded as post-medieval book clasps.

Search

Search for all examples of book clasps.

Key references

Egan 1998

Howsam 2016

How to Write a Description

What is the description for?

Our descriptions should fully describe every aspect of the object. In other words, they are a text version of the object which replaces the object itself. Most of the objects that we record do not end up in a museum; they might be given away, sold, hidden, lost or even melted down. Unlike excavated archaeological finds, which are carefully curated in stores and museums, we won’t always be able to find out more by going back to the object.  So the record must stand instead of the object itself, and so must contain as much detail as possible and practicable.

PAS recorders must also give enough detail to allow the reader to check our identifications. We must back up our statements with evidence. Evidence for our identifications and evidence for our dates normally comes from citing parallels, generally either from other PAS records or from excavated finds.

The description is also crucial in allowing the record to be searched for and found. We cannot yet search on the object’s appearance; we need to search on the text used to describe it.

Lastly, in order to write a good description you have to look really closely and analytically at the object, and this makes you think hard about its function and date.

Principles

There are two initial principles to bear in mind when writing a description; firstly the record must be findable when you search for it, and secondly it must be understandable when you try to read it. These are different things; a very easy-to-understand record that uses clear simple language can be hard to find in a search, but a record with a very poor description can be found quite easily if it uses the right jargon term.

The consistent words that allow your record to be searched for and found are often unusual words that don’t occur in many records unless we deliberately include them. An example might be the ‘lyre-shaped’ buckle. This is a particular kind of late 14th- and 15th-century buckle with a sub-triangular or trapezoidal frame and an integral rectangular plate. To find examples, it’s easiest to search for the jargon term, so it’s good to include it in the description field. But to understand the details of one particular buckle, you need to describe every aspect in clear simple language.

A third principle to remember is to describe what you see. Don’t put in too much interpretation before you have set down all the aspects of the object. If you say ‘the remains of the pin loop can be seen on the bar’ then you aren’t adding all the information you could. Try saying what you can see – that ‘a flat strip of copper alloy 6mm wide can be seen wrapped around the bar. This may be the remains of the pin loop’. This allows the reader to judge for themselves whether it’s the remnants of the pin loop, or perhaps the hinge loops of the plate.

HInge loop or pin loop? Describe it so that the reader can decide.
HInge loop or pin loop? Describe it so that the reader can decide.

Another thing to say right at the start is that it is a good idea to look at and read through other people’s descriptions. You may find that you can copy and paste parts of another description and then edit it to fit your object. But beware – although you can learn a lot from other people’s descriptions, it is dangerous to copy and paste without thinking hard about how it fits your object, and how you can improve it to be even more useful.

Getting started

The first few lines of the description are the most important, because they appear in search results. It’s helpful to give the searcher enough information in the first few lines to let them decide whether they should open up the record and have a look. So it’s a good idea to start with the identification, the date and the material, plus a few of the most important attributes. The details can come further down the description.

Search results show the first seven lines.
Search results show the first seven lines. Putting basic information here can help the reader decide whether to open the record or not.

Once you have put down these basics, start to fill in the details. A lot of recorders imagine that someone is drawing the object from their description. So they begin with the outline shape and then fill in the details, and they work in a logical order. Perhaps they start in the centre and move outwards, or start at the edge and move inwards; whatever seems best for that object.

Examples of objects that are best described from the centre outwards, or from the edge inwards
Examples of objects that are best described from the centre outwards, or from the edge inwards. Left: NMS-ADCA16. Right: KENT4837.

Other objects will be best described from one end to the other, but watch out – you must tell the reader which end you are starting from and which way up you are holding it. Don’t rely on the image to tell them this. It is particularly easy to mix up ‘left’ and ‘right’ if you don’t know which way up the object should be.

Examples of objects that are best described from left to right, or top to bottom.
Examples of objects that are best described from left to right, or top to bottom. Left: IOW-392328. Right: BERK-475ED2.

Working in this logical order, we must go on to fill in the details. As our principle is to write down what you see, you shouldn’t put too much interpretation in before you have finished a proper description. Note down all the separate parts, what shape they are, what material, and how they are decorated.

What to include

Here are a few ideas.

Material: when you describe an object with several components, remember to state the material for each one, including rivets.

Components: each component needs a full description with shape, material, decoration, etc

Shape: there is lots of help in our separate guide to describing shape, form and decoration. If you use the word ‘sub-‘ (as in ‘sub-rectangular’) then tell us the details. Is one edge shorter than the others? Are the corners rounded?

How it was made: this follows on from Shape. Telling us that it was made from ‘sheet folded in half with a rectangular pin slot cut out of the centre of the fold’ really helps.

Decoration: don’t forget to say how the decoration was made, so instead of saying that there are ‘lines’, tell us if they are ridges or grooves. There is lots more help in our separate guide to describing shape, form and decoration.

Surface treatment: remember to tell us if something like gilding covers just the front, or the front and sides, or the front, sides and reverse.

Reverse: and if there are other faces or sides, then make sure you have described all of them.

Completeness: check that your description cannot be misunderstood. ‘Broken’ is a tricky word – something that is ‘broken’ can be cracked or fractured partly through, or can now be in two pieces, or can be missing entirely. Broken is not the same as incomplete; after all, if you have broken your leg, it should still all be there. Having a missing leg is something quite different. Parts that are still there are ‘surviving’.  Be careful to make yourself clear, even if it means making the description longer.

The description follows the same rules as the ‘Completeness’ field in the database, so ‘incomplete’ implies more than 50% surviving and ‘fragment’ less than 50%. Other more specific terms should of course be used if possible, such as ‘about half’ or ‘less than a quarter’ and so on. In the last resort, ‘part of’ an object has no precise connotations at all.

Wear: usually you only need to describe this if the object is unusually worn or in remarkably fresh condition.

Wear on the breaks: it is good to get into the habit of including this information. You don’t need to guess at whether the break is old or new; you can use less loaded terms such as ‘fresh break’ or ‘worn break’.

Colour of the metal: sometimes this will be relevant, but not always. You can add it if you like.

Corrosion and loss of surface: if an object is very corroded or has lost a great deal of surface, then say so.

Size and weight: copy the measurements in mm and g. You can then add supporting information (e.g. ‘width across wider end, 21mm; width across narrower end, 18mm’).

Names for parts of an object

The names for the different parts of different objects vary a good deal, and there is usually some advice in the individual object guides. But some words are common to all objects, and perhaps should be explained here. You can also find more detail in the guide to How to Describe Shape, Form and Decoration.

Front: Most objects have a front, and a reverse (see below). Sometimes it is easier to talk of an upper and lower plate (for example on a buckle plate) but still the upper plate will be the front, and the lower plate the reverse. It is not normally necessary to call the front of something the ‘front face’.

Reverse: The reason we don’t use ‘back’ is because sometimes an object has both a front and a reverse, and a back as well.

The difference between the back of YORYM-1716A4, and its reverse.
The difference between the back of YORYM-1716A4, and its reverse.

Face, side and edge: These words are often ambiguous – they can mean several different things.  ‘Side’ can mean each of the flat surfaces of a solid object, or either of the two surfaces of something flat and thin, such as paper. Used in this way, it is synonymous with ‘face’. Annoyingly, ‘side’ can also mean an outside limit, a line at which something ends. Used in this way, it is synonymous with ‘edge’.

On the PAS database, we tend to use ‘side’ to mean a face which is neither the front, nor reverse, nor top, nor bottom. If we want to describe the sides of the front, for example, we tend to use the word ‘edge’.

To add to the difficulties, ‘face’ obviously has a second meaning – the front part of the head, with eyes, nose and mouth. To help in searching, we usually use the word ‘mask’ for this type of face.

Front, reverse, sides, edges, top and bottom
Front, reverse, sides, edges, top and bottom

Section: Most people use this word to mean a part or area of something. But it is also used to mean an imaginary cut through an object (a cross-section). For archaeologists, it is a jargon word which means a vertical cut through a feature or structure (see below for an example). This can be confusing. In general, it is best to avoid the word ‘section’ in describing an object, if you can, and use ‘part’ or ‘area’ instead, or ‘cross-section’.

Profile: The word ‘profile’ has a technical meaning (side view) in archaeological illustration terms, but it is not widely understood, so be careful how you use this word. It is generally better to use the words ‘side view’. The side view – the shape when viewed from the side – is, in theory, different to a cross-section, but many objects will be the same shape in cross-section as they are in side view.

In plan: Archaeologists describe features or structures ‘in plan’ (i.e. the horizontal view, seen from above) as well as ‘in section’ (i.e. the vertical view, seen from the side). See below for an example. This works well for archaeological features, which cannot be picked up and turned over; it is less satisfactory for portable antiquities, when it is usually difficult to understand. If you are tempted to use the words ‘in plan’, try taking them out and see if it affects the meaning.

The Snape Anglo-Saxon ship, recorded in section (above) and in plan (below)
The Snape Anglo-Saxon ship, recorded in section (above) and in plan (below) in 1862 (PSA 2nd series, 2)

Ambiguous descriptions and difficult words

One of the benefits of looking at other people’s descriptions is that you can find that someone else has used a word in a completely different way from the way you use it. This usually means that the word is ambiguous (it can mean several different things) and that you either need to explain exactly what you mean, or you need to find another word. Below are some tricky things to describe and some difficult words. You can find more in the guide to How to Describe Shape, Form and Decoration.

Left and right, vertical and horizontal, upper and lower, top and bottom: These are all relative words, in that where they are depends on which way up you are holding the object. If you use them, make sure you have described which way you are holding the object, or give some other kind of supporting information (such as telling the reader that the ‘top’ is the wider end, or the end with the suspension loop). Don’t rely on the image to give this information.

The underside of something is perhaps the aspect that is described in the least standard way. It can be described as the base, the bottom, the underside, the underneath, the lower face and even the reverse. It is unlikely to be searched on, so clarity is more important than consistency. Pick the term that seems clearest in the circumstances.

Round: this word can mean all sorts of things. A ball is round, and so is a pancake, and so is a wedding ring – but they are all very different and need to be described differently. A better word for a ball is ‘spherical’, and a less regular three-dimensional shape could be described as ‘globular’. A pancake is best described as flat and circular. For more on shapes, see How to Describe Shape, Form and Decoration.

Thin: this word has been used to describe both flat things and narrow things. It can be a useful word, but it needs extra description so that we know if the object is thin from front to back (flat), or thin from side to side (narrow).

Strap-ends of both these shapes have been described as 'thin'.
Strap-ends of both these shapes have been described as ‘thin’. Left: SWYOR-C16415. Right: LANCUM-593AA1.

Bun-shaped, leaf-shaped, slipper-shaped, heater-shaped, etc: it’s always dodgy to describe something as shaped like something else. Buns and leaves can be of many different shapes, and my slippers may not be the same shape as your slippers! There are a few well-known exceptions, which it seems OK to use, firstly to give the reader a quick rough idea and secondly for ease in searching – but it is normally essential to also have a detailed description. The main exceptions include drop-shaped, heart-shaped, and the letter shapes (e.g. S-shaped, C-shaped). For more on shapes, see How to Describe Shape, Form and Decoration.

Identical decoration in several different places: ‘two rows down either side’ is very different to ‘two rows, one down either side’. Watch out that you are getting it right.

Grammar, punctuation and writing style

It is worth taking care over your spelling and grammar. If you spell (or type) a word wrongly then a search for that word won’t find it. If you are careless about grammar, it’s possible that a reader may misunderstand what you were trying to say.

It’s very important to describe the object in a logical order, and to make a logical argument giving enough information. The reader should be able to use the evidence to make up their own mind. Once you have finished the description, you can go on to give an interpretation.

It is easy to use too many words when describing shapes. If an object is flat and oval, it is simply that – you don’t usually need to add ‘in shape’ or ‘in plan’ or ‘in outline’ or even call it ‘oval-shaped’.

If the description gets a bit long, find a place to divide it up into paragraphs – maybe the plate and frame of a buckle could go in separate paragraphs, or maybe the front and reverse of a seal matrix.

Quoting parallels

It is a great idea to quote some parallels. It backs up your arguments if you can show that there are other similar objects which might be more complete, or with clearer decoration. Parallels on the PAS database are ideal for this, and are easily found.

You may also want to quote parallels to make a convincing argument for a particular date. For this, PAS records are not so good, because they don’t have any independent evidence for date. Archaeologically excavated parallels in published excavation reports are much better evidence of date, but of course they are much harder to find in the published literature. You may be lucky and find that a well-dated parallel has already been cited on a PAS record of a similar item.

Copying other descriptions

It is a really good idea to look at existing descriptions, and copy bits and pieces – but it is fraught with dangers. You must read them in great detail, and check every single statement against your object. If you aren’t absolutely sure it’s correct for your object, amend it or leave it out. Try to improve on the record you are using; take the best bits, and make your record even more logical and thorough.

It is very dangerous is to copy other descriptions without reading them carefully and checking them against your object, as errors may well creep in. It is a good idea to mention the parallel that you have used.

Dimensions, date, material, completeness

These have their own fields to fill in, but all of these details also need to be added to the free text in the Description field. This is for several reasons. Firstly it helps in reading, so that the description can be understood on its own without constantly having to look up and down the record. Secondly, the habit of always including these details minimises the chance that any of the data might be lost or forgotten.

Thirdly, you can use the free-text Description field to add supporting information.

  • For measurements, often you need to describe how you have taken these (e.g. ‘Surviving length 42 mm, original length c. 60 mm’; or ‘8 mm wide in the centre, tapering to 6 mm wide at either end’).
  • For dates, often you need to back up your opinion with evidence, otherwise the reader may not know why to believe you (e.g. ‘this object type is most common in the 14th century, but the use of niello inlaid in a criss-cross pattern suggests a late 15th- if not early 16th-century date for this particular example’).
  • For completeness, knowing something is incomplete or a fragment is more useful if we know whether the break is fresh (showing possible recent agricultural damage) or worn (possibly broken in antiquity or showing long-term agricultural damage).
  • For material, of course we need to know which components are made from which material.

Parts that are still there are ‘extant’ or ‘surviving’; parts that aren’t are ‘missing’. ‘Broken’ is a tricky word – something that is ‘broken’ can be cracked or fractured partly through, can be in two pieces but complete, or can be missing entirely. ‘Broken off’ is clearer. Be careful to make yourself clear, even if it means making the description longer.

As in the ‘Completeness’ field in the database, ‘incomplete’ implies more than 50% surviving and ‘fragment’ less than 50%. Other more specific terms should of course be used if possible, such as ‘about half’ and so on. In the last resort, ‘part of’ an object has no precise connotations at all! Don’t use ‘section’, as this has a technical sense as a slice through an object.

When you have finished writing the description

When you have now described everything you can see, go back and check the record through. Check that you have described both front and the reverse, and the sides, and the shape in cross-section (whether it’s flat, or three-dimensional; whether it is solid or hollow, etc). Check that you have added the material of each component, and the decoration of every bit. If you have copied parts of another record, check that you have left out everything that you can’t see on your object. If some aspect is visible to the naked eye but not on the photograph, note this down too. Watch out for spelling mistakes and check that the information is in a logical order. If you have used a bibliographic reference, check that this is in Harvard style, and remember to add the reference after saving the record.

The last thing to say is that you cannot describe every single aspect of an object. We generally try to record at a level appropriate to the importance of the object. For something unusual and carefully made, with a high level of investment in materials and craftsmanship, we should also invest our resources in its description. But for a commonplace mass-produced item, we should make our records adequate, but not exhaustive.

Seal Matrices

Introduction

A seal matrix is used for making an impression on a wax seal, to authenticate a document or to keep it closed. Some specialised matrices may be used for making impressions on lead seals, such as cloth seals (e.g. NFAHG-C241B0).

The earliest seal matrices on the PAS database date from the early-medieval period, but these are rare; most date from the 13th and 14th centuries. After this they slowly declined in use, but were still made in small numbers up to the 19th or even 20th centuries.

PAS object type(s) to be used

All seal matrices should be recorded as SEAL MATRIX. For finger-rings with an engraved bezel that can be used for sealing (signet rings), use FINGER RING.

Roman engraved glass or gemstones (intaglios) were used mainly on signet rings, but they can also occasionally be found in brooches (e.g. OXON-2B4EA1) or pendants (e.g. BUC-CE48C1). Similar post-medieval intaglios were used mainly on seal matrices, but they also occur on finger-rings (e.g. SUR-A95AB6). Because of the variety of uses, detached gem or glass intaglios should be recorded as INTAGLIO.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

Seal matrices have not been classified formally. For the medieval period there is a major division in terms of inscription, between those with names (mainly dating to the 13th century) and those with anonymous mottoes (mainly dating to the 14th century). The anonymous matrices can be difficult to search for as a group, so it is useful to add ‘anonymous’ to the classification field.

If there is heraldry on the matrix, please add ‘heraldic’ to the classification field.

Terms to use in the description

The engraved face is normally called the die. If it uses an engraved gem, this is called an intaglio.

The central image can be called the design, although you will also see the words ‘motif’ and ‘device’ used. We discourage the use of ‘device’ as it is a word with several meanings.

Around the central design there is usually lettering. This may be called the inscription or the legend; we prefer the former, as the latter has more than one meaning.

A seal impression is sometimes called a cast.

The term ‘matrix’ (from the Latin ‘mater’ meaning mother) implies that the design is cut into the surface; the equivalent in relief is called a ‘patrix’. All seal matrices, therefore, must have the design and inscription recessed into the surface. As most are made individually, the standard method of manufacture is engraving; if the design and/or inscription appear to have been cast or stamped instead of engraved, please note this in the Description field.

How to record the inscription

Because the seal matrix was used to make an impression, the engraving of the inscription was done in mirror-image. To read and interpret a seal matrix it is therefore helpful to get an image of the engraving the right way round. This can be done in Photoshop, or by taking a impression (also called a ‘cast’).

The PAS used to recommend that an impression was made for every seal matrix, and photographed alongside the matrix. The materials used could be Fimo (which needs to be baked to set permanently hard) or in Dass (an air-drying clay, but which is vulnerable to damp).

These days, manipulating images is so easy that a matrix can be reversed to read the central motif and inscription the right way round. In Photoshop, choose the Image tab, then Rotate and Flip Horizontal. In this way the inscription will appear clockwise, the right way round.

Sometimes a very unclear inscription will be easier to read when the flipped image is additionally put into negative. To do this in Photoshop, choose the Filter tab, then Adjustments, then Invert. The altered images should be added to the record as separate images, keeping the unaltered record images together.

One seal matrix (KENT-A874A2), manipulated to help read the inscription. From left; original photograph, flipped horizontally, and 'inverted' (put into negative).
One seal matrix (KENT-A874A2), manipulated to help read the inscription. From left; original photograph, flipped horizontally, and ‘inverted’ (put into negative).

Roman seal matrices

Sealings in the Roman world were normally made using signet rings, which are finger-rings with engraved bezels. Normally the bezel would have held a separate carved gem or intaglio, and these are recorded as FINGER RING.

There are a few examples of Roman lead seals which were stamped with rectangular dies (examples here), but we have not yet recorded any matrices. The closest candidate has raised letters, so is a patrix rather than a matrix; it has therefore been recorded as a DIE STAMP (SUR-8620F1).

Early-medieval seal matrices

Early-medieval seal matrices exist, but are exceptionally rare. One of the four known Anglo-Saxon seal matrices (other than signet rings) is are recorded on the PAS database at SF-BE7CB0, and there are also two Frankish-style signet rings, PAS-8709C3 and ESS-E396B1.

Medieval seal matrices

Medieval seal matrices are usually made from lead or copper alloy, but can occasionally be made from silver. They have a central design and inscription, usually added to the matrix by engraving.

Circular and pointed-oval seal matrices, showing the central design and the inscription (IOW-CFE1A5 and NMS-A97FD5).
Circular and pointed-oval seal matrices, showing the central design and the inscription (IOW-CFE1A5 and NMS-A97FD5).

Medieval seal matrices tend to be one of two broad forms – flat, or conical (perhaps hexagonally faceted). Flat seal matrices can be of lead or copper alloy; conical ones can be of copper alloy or silver. Both can be a variety of shapes, but flat ones are most often circular or pointed-oval, and conical matrices most often have circular dies. About a quarter of the silver examples include a re-used Roman intaglio as the central design.

Conical matrices usually have pierced terminals, probably for suspension, and can have an orientation mark on the reverse to show where the top of the design is. Flat matrices usually have a pierced lug on the reverse which fulfils both of these functions.

Medieval seal matrices. Left above, a flat pointed-oval lead matrix (SF-3FC3B3). Left below, a conical silver matrix with a re-used Roman intaglio (SUR-36D8C9) - note the orientation mark on the reverse. Right, a conical copper-alloy matrix with circular die (NARC-BDC51E).
Medieval seal matrices. Left above, a flat pointed-oval lead matrix (SF-3FC3B3). Left below, a conical silver matrix with a re-used Roman intaglio (SUR-36D8C9) – note the orientation mark on the reverse. Right, a conical copper-alloy matrix with circular die (NARC-BDC51E).

Seal matrices with personal names are thought to date to the 13th century, and anonymous seal matrices are thought to date to the 14th century.

Occasionally an unfinished, blank seal matrix is found, such as LON-37E577 or SWYOR-3A9A82. Further evidence for manufacture of medieval seal matrices comes from the mould LVPL-35AD66 and the mis-cast matrix LON-476DD1.

How to describe a medieval seal matrix

Descriptions of seal matrices normally follow a standard formula. The overall form comes first (i.e. flat or conical) and then the description of the reverse is completed. For a flat matrix this will include details of any pierced or unpierced lug, raised rib or decoration (normally cast in relief).

Features on the reverse of a flat seal matrix
Features on the reverse of a flat seal matrix. Left: SUSS-BF0F87. Right: YORYM-86DF46.

For a conical matrix, it will include details of the handle, the terminal, and any orientation mark, which helps to locate the top of the matrix’s design.

Parts of a conical seal matrix
Parts of a conical seal matrix. Left: WAW-C6FCA1. Right: SWYOR-09A80B.

If incomplete, say whether the matrix has been deliberately cut (to cancel it) or accidentally broken.

Once everything else has been described, the die comes last.

The central design

Normally we start with the central design (also called the central motif). This can be described as seen on the die itself or on the impression, but if there is a difference you must explain which you are describing (e.g. a lion facing right on the matrix, and facing left on the impression). Usually all aspects of the die have been made by punching or engraving, but sometimes the central design has some cast elements; if you see this, please note it.

The description of central designs should concentrate on the animals or figures that you can see, and only secondarily contain a jargon or technical term; e.g. ‘lamb with foot curved to hold a square flag (Agnus Dei)’ or ‘a pelican in her piety, i.e. a bird in an untidy nest feeding three chicks by pecking at her own breast’.  The technical term allows similar motifs to be searched for, but describing what you see allows an individual matrix to be described with more precision. Seal matrices with the same motif can be very different in detail and all must be described individually.

There is often a division between the central design and the inscription, consisting of a plain groove or a beaded line. Please note this down if it is present – and be very certain to note if it is not present, because this may be an indicator of relatively early date.

The inscription

The inscription is transcribed exactly as it appears on the impression (normally clockwise from the top), together with any abbreviation marks, dots between letters, and any initial mark (this is usually a cross on 13th-century matrices and a star or asterisk on 14th-century matrices). Spaces can be added to make it easier to understand, but you don’t need to add inverted commas around it. Please add a translation if you can. The inscription should be copied across to the Inscription field exactly as it appears (with spaces added if necessary) but do not add the translation here.

Unusual aspects of the inscription may need to be briefly described, e.g. if an N is reverse-barred, or if two letters are ligated, or if the lettering is unusually crude, or if the inscription does not start at the top of the matrix. If there is a gap in the inscription, add […]

The language of an anonymous inscription can be French, English or Latin. To help reconstruct or understand an anonymous inscription, Harvey and McGuinness 1996 has a list of mottoes towards the back; there is also a brief list of the commonest mottoes below.

If the inscription starts with an S, it will probably be a personal seal matrix, with a personal name. These are normally in Latin, and the S stands for sigillum (seal). To help read or understand a personal seal matrix, there is a list of common first names (or given names) below.

There are also good resources to be found on line. Perhaps the quickest and easiest is http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~oel/givennames.html; simply type the letters you can see into a search box and see what you get. Alternatively, several resources can be found grouped together at https://www.s-gabriel.org/names/english.shtml and a list of women’s given names can be found at https://www.s-gabriel.org/names/talan/reaney/.

After the first name, there will probably be a surname (also sometimes called a by-name). The most common are patronymics, which begin with FIL’ or F’ (son/daughter of…). There are also place-name surnames, often starting with DE or D’ (of…); and occupation names, often starting with LE (the…). Lastly some other names can be pure nicknames.

For surnames the best source is Reaney and Wilson’s Dictionary of English Surnames (often abbreviated to DES). There are lots of editions of this, and a copy can be cheaply obtained second-hand. Use it to check medieval versions of surnames.

Women’s seal matrices

Somewhere between 20% and 25% of all matrices recorded on the PAS database with readable names are those of women. It’s useful to try to use the word ‘woman’ or ‘women’ somewhere in the record so that we can retrieve all the records together.

Common personal names on seal matrices

The names on seal matrices look different to names we use today firstly because they are in Latin, and secondly because they are in the genitive (also called the possessive). For a name like Henry Richardson, we would write in English ‘Seal of Henry, son of Richard’ but in Latin, Henry is Henricus and Richard is Ricardus, and in the genitive this becomes Henrici and Ricardi. So the inscription becomes ‘Sigillum [seal] Henrici [of Henry] filius [son] Ricardi [of Richard].

Not only that, but all of the words tend to be abbreviated. you can’t look for a familiar name, e.g. Adam or Thomas, or even Henricus, and expect to find it written out like this. The commonest genitive ending for a masculine name is -i, and the commonest ending for a feminine name is -e, but they vary and there are many exceptions. The commonest names and their abbreviations are below.

Name in Latin in genitive: Common abbreviations found in inscriptions: Full Latin name in nominative: Translates into English as:
 
Male names in –us change to –i in the genitive:
WILLELMI WILL’, WILL’MI Willelmus William
ROBERTI ROB’, ROB’TI Robertus Robert
HENRICI HEN’ Henricus Henry
RICARDI RIC’ Ricardus Richard
GALFRIDI GALF’, GALFRID’ Galfridus Geoffrey
PHILIPPI PH’LI Philippus Philip
IULIANI IULIAN’ Julianus Julian
WALTERI WALT’ Walterus Walter
ROGERI ROG’ Rogerus Roger
RADULFI RAD’ Radulfus Ralph
RANULFI RAN’ Ranulfus Ranulph
PETRI Petrus Peter
REGINALDI REG’ Reginaldus Reginald
GILBERTI GILB’TI Gilbertus Gilbert
NICHOLAI NICOL’I Nicholaus Nicholas
ALANI Alanus Alan
ALEXANDRI ALEX’I Alexandrus Alexander
STEPHANI Stephanus Stephen
Common exceptions to this rule:
ADE, ADA Adamus Adam
Male names in –es change to –is in the genitive:
JOHANNIS IOH’IS Johannes John
Male names in –as change to –e in the genitive:
ANDREE ANDRE’ Andreas Andrew
THOME THOME Thomas Thomas
Anomalies
HUGONIS HUG’ Hugo Hugh, Hugo
SIMONIS Simon Simon
Female names in –a change to –e in the genitive:
ALICIE Alicia Alice
MARIE Maria Mary
IULIANE Juliana Juliana
PHILIPPE Philippa Philippa
DIONISIE Dionisia Denise
JOHANE Johanna Joan
CLARICIE Claricia Clarissa
EMME Emma Emma
ISABELLE ISAB’ Isabella Isabella
SARE Sara Sarah
AVICIE, AMICIE etc Avicia, Amicia Avice, Avise, Amise
CISSILIE, CECILIE, etc Cecilia Cecilia or Cecily
MARGERETE MARGAR’ Margareta Margaret
Common exceptions to this rule:
AGNETIS or ANGNETIS Agnes Agnes
MATILDIS MATIL’ Matildis Matilda
BEATRICIE Beatrix Beatrice
CRISTINA Christina Christina

Common mottoes on anonymous seal matrices

Again, a lot of the words used in anonymous mottoes can be abbreviated.

Malcolm Jones has pointed out that inscriptions starting IE SV (I am, in French) benefit from ‘amuletic ambiguity’, because they can also be read as starting JESU, and so invoking the name of Jesus.

Inscription Language Translation
ALAS BOWLES uncertain uncertain
ALAS IE SV PRIS French Alas, I am caught
ALONE I RIDE I HAVE NO SWAYNE English Alone I ride, I have no swain
AMVR ME TIENT French Love holds me
AQVILA IOhIS Latin Eagle of John
AVE MARIA GRACIA PLENA Latin Hail Mary full of grace
CAPVT IOhIS Latin Head of John
CAPVT SERVI DEI Latin Head of a servant of God
CREDE FERENTI Latin Believe (or trust) the bearer
CREDE MIChI Latin Believe in me
CROV ME DAY English Crow me day
ECCE AGNUS DEI Latin Behold the lamb of God
EST AMOR ME (around IHC) Latin (Jesus) is my love
ESTO FIDELIS Latin Be faithful
FAVCVN IENTIL French Gentle-falcon (i.e. peregrine falcon)
FRANGE LEGE TEGE Latin Break, read, conceal
HAYL OWL HAYL or HAIL APE HAIL English Hail, owl, hail; or Hail, ape, hail
hER IS NO MORE [or LASS] BVT APE OWL ASS English Here is no more [or less] than ape, owl, ass
HEV OV RVMILOV English Possibly ‘heave ho rumbelow’ (a rowing chant)
I CRAKE NOTIS English I crack nuts
I WAS A MAN English I was a man
IE SV DEGISE French I am disguised
IE SV PRIVE French I am private
IE SV SEL D AMI LEL French I am a seal of a loyal (or true) friend
IE SV SEL D AMVR LEL French I am a seal of true love
IE VOYS A BOIS French I see in the wood
IESVS MERCI French Thanks be to Jesus
LEGE TEGE Latin Read, conceal
LEL AMI AVET French You have a loyal (or true) friend
LEL SV French I am loyal
LEO PVGNAT CVM DRAGONE Latin Lion fights with dragon
LOVE ME ANDE I YE English Love me and I thee (Y = TH)
MATER DEI MEMENTO MEI Latin Mother of God, remember me
MATER DEI MISERERE MEI Latin Mother of God, have mercy on me
PENSET DE MOY French Think of me
PRIVE SV French I am private
PRIVE SV E POY CONV French I am private and little known
SIGILLVM SECRETI Latin Seal of secrets
SIGILLVM AMORIS Latin Seal of love
SIGNVM SALVTIS Latin Sign of salvation
SIGNVM VERITATIS Latin Sign of truth
SOHOV ROBIN English Soho Robin
SOHOV SCVT English Soho hare
SOHOV SOHOV English Soho Soho
SVM LEO FORTIS Latin I am a strong lion
SVM PELICANVS DEI Latin I am the pelican of God
TENET LA FOY French Keep the faith
TIMETE DEVM Latin Fear the Lord
TIMETE DOMINVM Latin Fear God
WAKE ME NO MAN English Wake me no man

Post-medieval seal matrices

Post-medieval seal matrices are recorded in much the same way as medieval seal matrices. Most importantly, any inscription should be copied across to the Inscription field, even if it only consists of initials in the centre of the die.

If it is thought useful, the term ‘fob seal’ can be used in the Object Description field, but it is not necessary. The term is sometimes used for 18th- to 20th-century matrices with dies of glass or gemstone, and copper-alloy handles which can often be of openwork and sometimes fold flat. A ‘fob’ was originally a small pocket, for a watch or similar; it was also used for the chain holding the watch (short for ‘fob chain’), and this is the sense used by the mda thesaurus.

'Fob' seal matrix of post-medieval date
‘Fob’ seal matrix (LVPL-735D37) of post-medieval date