Finger-rings

A finger-ring is a circular object worn on the finger, usually just as an ornament. It can be a complete circle or penannular (with open ends); it can be a plain hoop, or have a bezel.

Finger-ring designs can be simple and conservative, and so unstratified examples can be very hard to date.

PAS object type to be used

All finger-rings should be recorded as FINGER RING. Avoid using RING instead. A signet ring (a finger-ring with the bezel engraved for use as a seal matrix) is also a finger-ring (we put ‘signet’ in the classification field).

There is a group of Roman keys made in the form of finger-rings (see Johns 1996, 55-7). Guiraud includes them with her study of finger-rings under Type 5 (1989, 191-3). Catherine Johns argues that the primary use of these finger-ring keys is for locking and unlocking, rather than decorating the finger, and so they are covered under LOCKS AND KEYS.

Terms to be used in descriptions

The parts of a finger-ring are the hoop, bezel, shoulders and setting. All finger-rings have a hoop, but not all have the other parts.

The various parts of a finger-ring (HESH-B61048, NARC-3AE845 and SF-DFFF00)
The various parts of a finger-ring (HESH-B61048, NARC-3AE845 and SF-DFFF00)

The bezel is the part of the ring that sits on top of the finger, and is the most conspicuous part of the ring. Not all finger-rings have bezels.

The shoulders join the bezel to the rest of the hoop. They may flare, or be decorated. Sometimes the hoop joins the bezel without any clear shoulders.

The setting is a separate component added to the bezel. Most settings are made from glass or gem. Some will be intaglios (engraved gems). Many settings will be missing.

The rest of the finger-ring, the metal that runs around the finger, is the hoop. Some modern jewellers use the term ‘band’ or ‘shank’ for the hoop, but the PAS prefers ‘hoop’.

The part of the hoop opposite the bezel is sometimes called the ‘back’ of the ring. This is a tricky term, as it could be confused with the reverse of the bezel. Make it clear which part of the ring you are talking about.

How to take dimensions

For simple hoops, add the external diameter to the Diameter field. When this is repeated in the Description field, it must state that it is the external diameter. An internal diameter can also be quote, and/or the thickness of the hoop. The width of the hoop is how far it extends up and down the finger (see diagram) and this can be added to the Width field. The thickness of the hoop is measured away from the finger (see diagram) and this can be put in the Thickness field.

How to take the dimensions of a simple finger-ring
How to take the dimensions of a simple finger-ring

Many finger-rings have more complicated shapes and there is often no obvious way to take the dimensions. The Diameter field should always be filled in with the external measurement from side to side of the hoop, and this is the minimum needed for the record. The width and thickness of the hoop will vary around the circumference, so explain where you are taking the measurement. If the bezel is wider than the hoop, add its dimensions to the Description field and the width to the Width field.

How to take the dimensions of a more complicated finger-ring
How to take the dimensions of a more complicated finger-ring

If the ring is crushed, but you can estimate an original diameter, add this to the Description field.

Difficult finger-ring types

Rings that spiral or coil around the finger

These appear to start in the Bronze Age and continue, gaining popularity, through the Iron Age and Roman period. They also occur in early Anglo-Saxon graves.

It is likely to be difficult or impossible to tell Bronze Age from Iron Age from Roman spiral finger-rings. It is possible that earlier examples of prehistoric finger-rings may have more turns around the finger than later examples, so make sure that you record the number of turns. it is probably best to give them a wide date-range (say 1500 BC to AD 180) and a broad period of Iron Age, to ensure that they are picked up by as many researchers as possible.

There appears to be a tendency for early Anglo-Saxon spiral finger-rings to be made from thinner strip than earlier examples, which are more chunky. Those with stamped decoration are also almost certainly early Anglo-Saxon. There are some good illustrations in MacGregor and Bolick 1993, 169-71. The type does not seem to be used beyond the 7th century AD.

Rings with a spiral or knotted bezel

These can be found in Roman contexts; early Anglo-Saxon graves; with Viking-age decoration – and also can be of modern date. There are a few rules of thumb which can in some cases help to assign a date, but many examples will be very difficult. But as most of these rings are made from silver, the buck can be passed to the Treasure team and a BM curator!

Fine square-section wire, especially in a double strand, is likely to be modern. See YORYM-71CDE2, LANCUM-55C5F6 and DENO-470362 for examples.

Other modern rings can be made from circular-section wire, but double-strand hoops, loosely looped bezels and the detail of the design still betray their recent origins; see copper-alloy examples (LVPL-5FE1C1, SWYOR-ABC1234, LANCUM-1A22C5 and DENO-A15253) and one similar of gold (PAS-DD75F1).

Thicker lozenge-section wire may indicate a Viking-age date; see CAM-A32F23, which has punched annulet decoration.

Bronze Age finger-rings

Some Bronze Age rings may have been used as finger-rings, especially in the middle Bronze Age. See the entry for Rings in the Bronze Age objects guide.

Spiral finger-rings may, at their earliest, be Bronze Age; see one in the British Museum from the Bronze Age collection found in Heathery Burn Cave. There are also examples on the PAS database of securely dated Middle Bronze Age hoards containing several finger-rings; see WILT-038191 and SUSS-C5D042 for examples.

Whether or not the infrequent Bronze Age examples can be distinguished from the more common Iron Age or Roman spiral finger-rings is uncertain. It is important to record the number of turns that the ring makes around the finger, as it is possible that these may be significant, perhaps decreasing over time.

Iron Age finger-rings

Finger-rings are known from Iron Age contexts, but are not common. Spiral finger-rings are known from the middle Iron Age (e.g. one now in the British Museum from Garton Station, Yorkshire) but become commoner in the late Iron Age (e.g. one now in the British Museum from the late Iron Age cemetery of King Harry Lane, Verulamium; Stead 1991, 103-4, no. e3) and continue into the Roman period. Whether or not Iron Age examples can be distinguished from Bronze Age or Roman spiral finger-rings is uncertain (see above, under Rings that spiral or coil around the finger).

Spiral finger-rings usually have two, three or four turns around the finger. The hoops are usually either circular or rectangular in cross-section, and the terminals can be slightly thickened. Good examples of late Iron Age or Roman spiral finger-rings include WAW-8B2932, SOMDOR-89E565, CPAT-CB6BE6, DUR-00F326 and HESH-A3BB08.

Late Iron Age or early Roman spiral finger-rings (WAW-8B2932, DUR-00F326 and HESH-A3BB08)
Late Iron Age or early Roman spiral finger-rings (WAW-8B2932, DUR-00F326 and HESH-A3BB08)

A few examples of a gold Iron Age finger-ring type are known from the middle Iron Age, 400-200 BC. They are thought to be Continental imports. The type is known as the V-shaped finger-ring, as the hoop zig-zags around the finger. Examples can be seen at KENT-5235BB (with further references) and DENO-D90604.

Roman finger-rings

Finger-rings are one of the most common Roman finds (second only to brooches and coins) and there is a huge variety of Roman finger-rings. Some of the more common types have been described by Johns (1996, 41-73) and there is a useful short and simple study (but in French) by Guiraud (1989), covering French finger-rings of Roman date.

Henig also covers finger-rings in a few pages in his book on engraved gems (BAR 8, with several editions (Henig 1974, which comes in 2 vols; Henig 1978, 2nd edn in one vol with updates; Henig 2007, 3rd edn, one vol, dodgy glue in spine). In the 2007 edition, all you will need to photocopy is p. 9 and pp. 11-14, but Henig’s typology and schematic pictures are rather harder to use than Guiraud’s.

PAS classifications and sub-classifications to be used

It is worth mentioning Henig or Guiraud types if the parallel is close. Note that Guiraud uses Arabic numerals and Henig Roman numerals. Equally, if you have a close fit with a Johns type, add this to the classification field.

Rings with engraved bezels (whether engraved stone or glass settings or engraved metal bezels) are signet rings. Put ‘signet’ in the sub-classification field.

Other finger-rings will be fairly easy to group by using the words in the description (spiral, wire, glass, gem, snake, etc.). It would be useful to have some detailed study of the types of Roman finger-ring recorded on the PAS database with a view to recommending the most useful words to include in the classification field.

Simple closed hoops

Simple closed hoops are Guiraud (1989) Type 8 (circular) and Type 9 (polygonal). Unstratified Type 8 finger-rings are relatively featureless and so quite hard to recognise as Roman; a wide date-range is probably sensible for these. Henig (1974, 50; 2007, 9 and 14) suggests that polygonal rings (his Type IX) are a third-century type.

Guiraud Type 8 ring, of possible Roman date (WMID-3A5FC7). Guiraud Type 9 rings (HAMP-54BEB0 and NMS-F3403A).
Guiraud Type 8 ring, of possible Roman date (WMID-3A5FC7). Guiraud Type 9 rings (HAMP-54BEB0 and NMS-F3403A).

Wire rings

Wire rings with spiral or knotted bezels are known from the Roman world, with two at Colchester (Crummy 1983, 1756 and 1757) and several illustrated by Guiraud (1989, 193-4) as her Type 6. These are also found in the early Anglo-Saxon period, particularly in the 7th century AD.

Spiral and snake rings

The late Iron Age spiral finger-ring continues into the early Roman period, with one being found in a late first- or early second-century deposit at Colchester (Crummy 1983, no. 1759). They are not particularly common. It may be impossible to distinguish unstratified simple spiral finger-rings from the Bronze Age, Iron Age or Roman periods.

Guiraud groups all open finger-rings, including penannulars, spirals and those with snake’s-head terminals (PAS-942FE3), together as her Type 7 (Guiraud 1989, 195-6).

Johns has constructed a typology of snake rings, based on the over 40 examples in the Snettisham hoard (Johns 1997, 34-39). This hoard appears to have been from a single workshop, and the typology may not necessarily have any wider relevance. It is also based on complete rings, with Type A consisting of a single snake, Type B having two snake-head terminals and Type C two or more complete snakes. Most of our snake-rings are incomplete (usually terminals only) making them difficult to type. In addition, the PAS database contains several snake-rings which do not fit into John’s classification.

Type Ai is a single snake coiled or spiralled around the finger in a straight line (e.g. PAS-19A7A8) and Aii has the head and tail turned outwards or backwards. Types Biv and Bv correspond to Aii and Ai respectively, but with two snake-heads.

Roman snake-rings (BH-C96B34, WMID-6DC3A7, and SF-0D87F5)
Roman snake-rings (BH-C96B34, WMID-6DC3A7, and SF-0D87F5). BH-C96B34 may be a Type Ai or Bv, depending on completeness; the other two are Type Biv.

Types Bi and Bii are penannular, and are the commonest snake-rings on the PAS database. In theory, Bi is thick and three-dimensional and Bii flat and stylised; in practice they are difficult to tell apart, as many rings have three-dimensional hoops and flattened snake’s head terminals.

Roman enannular snake-rings (BH-EEC554 and PAS-942FE3)
Roman penannular snake-rings (BH-EEC554 and PAS-942FE3)

The two snake-heads of Type Biii form the shoulders of the ring, with a bezel between them (e.g.  LIN-C6F401, SUSS-6F88F1 and  NLM-6E5B11).

Most silver snake-rings on the PAS database consist of terminals only which cannot be typed, and which look very like tadpoles.

Roman snake-ring terminals (DENO-2DC956, ESS-1857A7, ESS-DA0320 and SUR-B7D5B4)
Roman snake-ring terminals (DENO-2DC956, ESS-1857A7, ESS-DA0320 and SUR-B7D5B4)

Gem-set rings and related rings

The catch-all term for a glass or gemstone, engraved or not, is a setting. The technical term for an engraved gem is an intaglio. Rings with engraved bezels (whether engraved settings or engraved metal bezels) are signet rings. When describing a signet ring, whether with an engraved gem or an all-metal engraved bezel, make it clear whether you are talking about the ring itself or the impression.

Both Guiraud and Henig’s typologies can be used both for gem-set rings and for similar rings with all-metal bezels.

Type 1 (Guiraud) and Type I (Henig) have tall bezels rising straight from the widest part of the hoop, and most are set with gems. They are ‘Hellenistic’ (of Graeco-Roman Mediterranean origin) and not common in Britain. Guiraud dates them to 50 BC to 100 AD, and Henig appears to agree, pointing out that those in Britain may have been antiques when they arrived here (2007, 11-12). The few examples on the PAS database appear to all be set with glass or enamel.

Type 2 (Guiraud) includes all finger-rings with no clear break between hoop and bezel; Henig divides these into Type II (with circular cross-section to hoop and smooth curve into bezel), and Type III (with flatter cross-section to loop and slight angle between hoop and bezel). These shade into each other to a certain extent, and into Henig’s Types VI and X (more massive versions of Types II and III respectively) and Type V, a larger but flatter version of Type III.

Roman finger-rings of Guiraud Type 1 (SOM-FA5FA9) and Type 2d and 2e (BH-0FF534 and BH-737CD3)
Roman finger-rings of Guiraud Type 1 (SOM-FA5FA9) and Type 2d and 2e (BH-0FF534 and BH-737CD3)

Henig’s Type VII is similar to his Type V, which is similar to his Type III, but has a ‘narrow ridge running round the edge’. We do not have many Type VII rings identified as such on the PAS database.

Many Guiraud Type 2 rings  have all-metal bezels, and these have their own sub-groups (Type 2g-i). This type also includes some ‘keeled’ rings, with angles at the widest part of the hoop, as long as they have flat bezels (raised bezels are placed in the next group). Guiraud dates Type 2 rings to the first to early 3rd centuries AD (1989, 181); Henig suggests his Types II and III are first or second century, and Type X is perhaps 3rd century (2007, 12-13).

Roman finger-rings of Guiraud Type 2g (HAMP-73CD76 and SOM-1C2529) and Type 2h (SF-BEE252)
Roman finger-rings of Guiraud Type 2g (HAMP-73CD76 and SOM-1C2529) and Type 2h (SF-BEE252)

Type 3 (Guiraud)  has a bezel placed above the line of the ring, breaking the line, and with distinct shoulders. Often these are concave or cutaway shoulders, although Type 3 also includes ‘keeled’ rings (with angles as the widest part of the hoop) where the bezel is raised. Henig’s equivalent type is perhaps the Type VIII, which appears to include ‘keeled’ rings and those with concave or cutaway shoulders. Guiraud dates Type 3 rings to the end of the 2nd and first three-quarters of the 3rd century (1989, 185) and Henig dates Type VIII to the 3rd century (2007, 13).

Guiraud Type 3 rings (WILT-BEFE17, YORYM-BE1AEB and LVPL-3EDB47)
Guiraud Type 3 rings (WILT-BEFE17, YORYM-BE1AEB and LVPL-3EDB47)

Type 4 (Guiraud) is a more various group with distinct bezels set on narrow hoops, often with pellets at the shoulders. This type includes rings with collared bezels,  rings with more than one setting, and all-metal rings, often with engraved bezels. Type 4d has embellished shoulders which can lead it look a little like Type 3. As the rings of Type 4 are various, so are the dates. Type IV (Henig) is confined to those with pellets at the shoulder; Henig points out that although pellets tend to be thought of as a late Roman fashion (and can be found on high-status early-medieval rings too) they can occasionally date as early as the first century AD.

Guiraud Type 4 rings: BERK-51ECCF, SUSS-441C76, PUBLIC-EE9E12 and SOM-E7E65C
Guiraud Type 4 rings: BERK-51ECCF (Type 4a), SUSS-441C76 (Type 4e), PUBLIC-EE9E12 (Type 4c) and SOM-E7E65C (Type 4d)

Type XIV (Henig) includes rings with large, ornately decorated shoulders, some with pellets, and is a 4th-century type. There is no real equivalent in Guiraud’s scheme and none appears to have been recorded yet on the PAS database.

Henig’s remaining types, XI-XIII, are made from copper alloy and termed ‘trinket-rings’. Type XI is the same as Type V (but made from copper alloy) and XII is similar but smaller. Type XIII is as Type IV, but generally without pellets.

Brancaster-type rings

Henig’s final type, Type XV, has a square or rectangular bezel and is often known as the ‘Brancaster type’. Johns (1996, 53-5), and most recently Gerrard and Henig (2016), also discuss these rings and date them to the late fourth and fifth centuries. They usually have engraved decoration which can include Christian iconography.

Small and large Brancaster type rings: NMS-065376 and GLO-30DC46
Small and large Brancaster-type rings: NMS-065376 and GLO-30DC46

Rings with enamelled settings

These can include some reserved metal to make a pattern. Adam Daubney began work on a typology of these some years ago, and it would be well worth attempting this again. Until then, here are some interesting examples.

Enamelled Roman finger-rings: GLO-8D4167,
Enamelled Roman finger-rings: GLO-8D4167, SUR-C22657, SUR-31E165 and WILT-9A0EB3

Other Roman finger-rings

This is not an exhaustive list! Rings set with coins exist, but are not common on the PAS database. DOR-B43092, LIN-A8E677 and WILT-B0C652 are set with denarii of the early 3rd century. There are also rings with openwork hoops or shoulders, and of course the ring-keys, a guide to which can be found under LOCKS AND KEYS.

Early-medieval finger-rings

Early Anglo-Saxon finger-rings

Finger-rings are not particularly common in early Anglo-Saxon graves. The most common type is made from a flat strip, usually of silver, spiralling around the finger. See LON-C41144 and HAMP-FF2456 for examples (both copper alloy), or MacGregor and Bolick (1993, 169-71) for silver examples from graves. The early Anglo-Saxon examples are perhaps flatter and thinner than similar prehistoric or Roman spiral rings. Those with stamped decoration are also almost certainly early Anglo-Saxon. The type does not seem to be used beyond the 7th century AD.

Another type which is found in early Anglo-Saxon graves is the wire ring with a tight spiral knot at the bezel, again normally in silver (e.g. NARC-3AE845). It should be noted though that there is also evidence for this type of ring in the Roman world (see above, and WILT-9D4288 for references).

Both of these types are fragile, and rarely survive in the ploughsoil.

Middle and late Anglo-Saxon finger-rings

Recognisable middle and late Anglo-Saxon finger-rings often have wide flat oval or lozenge-shaped bezels. They are normally dated by their art styles, so look out for Mercian-style or Trewhiddle-style animals, and panels divided by lines of ladder pattern (e.g. SWYOR-6A72D3 and YORYM-0248F2). It is likely that some wide bezels with ring-and-dot ornament are middle to late Anglo-Saxon (e.g. NMS-042912).

Finger-rings decorated in Mercian style (YORYM-CB6717) and Trewhiddle style (HAMP-C25EF3)
Finger-rings decorated in Mercian style (YORYM-CB6717) and Trewhiddle style (HAMP-C25EF3)

Viking-age finger-rings

Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian finger-rings tend have hoops which swell or widen gently to a centre which does not have a bezel.

The simplest form is a penannular hoop with tapering ends, usually made from a lozenge-shaped or circular-section copper-alloy rod. It seems possible that a few examples may have been decorated (e.g. NMS-F77027). They often do not look as if they would have been comfortable on the finger. There are excavated parallels from Thetford (Rogerson and Dallas 1984, fig.110, nos.17-21).

Viking-age penannular finger-rings with tapered terminals (SF-13670F,SF-50DB52 and NMS-E26C94)
Viking-age penannular finger-rings with tapered terminals (SF-13670F, SF-50DB52 and NMS-E26C94)

A more distinctive type is made from two pieces of thick wire twisted together, often in this case with the ends hammered together to form a circular hoop. These can be more ornate and some are made from silver or gold (e.g. YORYM-F67716).

Late early-medieval twisted finger-rings (YORYM-BBDF3F, NCL-40E866, YORYM-F67716)
Late early-medieval twisted finger-rings of copper alloy (YORYM-BBDF3F), silver (NCL-40E866) and gold (YORYM-F67716)

A third type is made from flat strip tapering at the ends, which are twisted around each other. This type can have punched decoration.

Late early-medieval wide strip finger-rings of copper alloy (NMS-D6A72C), silver (SF9727) and gold (SWYOR-56EA98)
Late early-medieval wide strip finger-rings of copper alloy (NMS-D6A72C), silver (SF9727) and gold (SWYOR-56EA98)

Medieval and post-medieval finger-rings

There are nearly as many medieval finger-rings recorded as there are Roman, but the variety is perhaps not quite so enormous. During this period rings could be worn on upper joints of the finger, so can be quite small.

There is a good section on the marking of rings in Oman 1974 (chapter 2), which explains why so few are hallmarked.

Treasure cases are dealt with by Judy Rudoe at the BM, who is a mine of information and has an extremely good reference collection.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

For rings with settings, put ‘gem’ in the classification field, even if the gem is in fact glass (the material can be flagged up in the Materials fields). Put ‘gem’ in the classification field even if it is missing (the white adhesive may be visible beneath; at the moment this white adhesive appears to be confined to medieval rings). If the ring is stirrup-shaped, add this in the sub-classification field.

Finger-rings with a clasped-hand motif (sometimes called ‘fede’ rings) need the standard term ‘clasped hands’ in the classification field.

Signet rings are also flagged up in a standard way, with ‘signet’ in the classification field.

For posy and mourning rings, which may also be set with gems, put ‘posy’ or ‘mourning’ in the sub-classification field (leaving the classification field for ‘gem’ if need be).

Medieval and post-medieval gem-set finger-rings

Medieval gems are polished rather than cut, and so the ring sometimes has to accommodate an unevenly shaped gem.

‘Stirrup-shaped’ rings have a tall triangular bezel, and can only accommodate a small stone. They date from the end of the 12th century onwards and are contemporary with similar rings with simple gem-set bezels. These can have the stone set in a collar, or can occasionally use claws. The stirrup shape can be combined with a collar, or with claws.

Medieval rings CAM-71FF34, SOM-138A64, LVPL-967BA5 and LVPL-BDC0C3
Medieval rings CAM-71FF34, SOM-138A64, LVPL-967BA5 and LVPL-BDC0C3

Gems cut into  simple shapes seem to have been introduced during the late 15th century, and gem-cutting techniques became much more sophisticated during the course of the 16th century.

Finger-rings with cut gems
17th-century ring with cut gem (WMID-0F2605) and 17th- or 18th-century mourning ring with cut gem (SWYOR-DB246B).

Post-medieval gem-set rings can be hard to identify due to the few lower-status examples yet known.

Signet rings

The usual type of signet ring found has an oval, circular or octagonal bezel engraved with a merchant’s mark, a rebus, a heraldic badge or (most commonly) with an initial, perhaps crowned, with a branch to one or both sides. These date to the 15th or early 16th centuries. Later 16th century signet rings can have two initials and an openwork knot. In the 17th century the signet ring is sometimes combined with a pipe tamper. Put ‘signet’ in the classification field and be absolutely sure to add any inscription (e.g. a single initial) to the inscription field.

Late medieval or early post-medieval signet rings SOM-0169B4 and NMS-F36D46
Late medieval or early post-medieval signet rings SOM-0169B4 and NMS-F36D46

Other decorated medieval and post-medieval finger-rings

Rings without gems can have bezels divided into broadly grooved fields set longitudinally, transversely or obliquely. These fields can contain geometric or floral or foliate decoration, or most famously ‘iconographic’ decoration.

The ‘iconographic’ ring is so called because it has the figures of saints engraved on the bezel. It dates to the late 14th and 15th centuries and tends to be made from precious metals. Popular saints to depict are St Barbara, St Christopher, St George, John the Baptist and the Virgin and Child. Put ‘iconographic’ in the classification field.

Enamel comes into use on finger-rings in the fourteenth century. It is associated with the rise of iconographic and signet rings, but continues to be used on the shoulders of rings well into the post-medieval period.

Rings with clasped hands on the bezel are very hard to date. They occur in the Roman world, apparently re-appear in the medieval world by the 12th century, and continue until modern times. Put ‘clasped hands’ in the classification field.

Finger-rings with inscriptions

Posies can be engraved on any finger-ring, but are more usual on those without gems. See Objects with Inscriptions for information on lettering and languages. Norman French was more common in the medieval period, with English slowly gaining popularity in the later part. Put ‘posy’ in the sub-classification field (leaving the classification field for ‘gem’ if need be).

Make sure that all of an inscription is photographed. This may mean taking five or more photos of the ring, at an oblique angle for an internal inscription.

Another type of inscribed ring is the mourning ring. These become popular in post-medieval times and can have the name or initials of the deceased, with a date (very useful!) and/or a suitable motto. Put ‘mourning’ in the sub-classification field (leaving the classification field for ‘gem’ if need be).