How to Describe Shape, Form and Decoration

Table of Contents

Principles for describing shape, form and decoration

There are two motivations behind your choice of words when describing shape, form and decoration: firstly consistency, and secondly full precision.

Firstly you will want to use the consistent words that will allow your record to be retrieved. For example, there is a set of rectangular medieval buckle plates which have similar decoration, of a standing animal in profile with a curving tail ending in a tuft. This animal could be described as a quadruped, a lion, a beast, an animal, or zoomorphic. If we want to retrieve all of the records of this buckle plate type, we need it to be described consistently, using the same word(s) that we can build into our searches.

On the other hand, if every example is described using exactly the same words, the small differences between individual examples will not be fully described. There are conflicts between the two principles and so they must both be borne in mind all the time; use the consistent words, and give a full description. For more detail on how to write a description, see How To Write A Description.

Describing shape

You can describe your object in two dimensions or in three, whichever seems the most appropriate. For example, a cylinder is a three-dimensional shape, which can also be described by explaining it as rectangular from one point of view (side view, or view from above) and circular from another (in cross-section). A pyramidal object may have a square base and four flat triangular faces tapering towards an apex. Or an object with a circular base and a semi-circular cross-section may be described as plano-convex. For a difficult or complicated object you may want to use both styles of description to add clarity (see, for example, PAS-xxxxxx).

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’. ‘Section’ means a cut through the object, but it also means a part of the object, so use ‘cross-section’ in preference. A side view is exactly that – the shape when viewed from the side – so is, in theory, different to a cross-section. Many objects, however, will be the same shape in cross-section as they are in side view. 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; either avoid it, or explain what you mean by it. For more on this, see How To Write a Description.

Two-dimensional shapes

Precise shapes (in alphabetical order, both preferred and a few non-preferred terms)

Some shapes are fairly simple and easy to describe. The words below are all adjectives (see Grammar Note below) so they are ways of describing shapes. The relevant nouns are added in brackets. The list starts with some images of the most common simple shapes with the preferred words for them.

Simple shapes and the words to use for them
Simple shapes and the words to use for them

Circular: all points on a circle are equidistant from the centre, so you can draw its broad outline with a pair of compasses. (Noun: circle)

Elliptical: an ellipse is a mathematically regular shape, symmetrical and with all parts of its edge curved. All ellipses are oval, but not all ovals are elliptical. Few people are familiar with the word, so we tend to use ‘oval’ instead. (Noun: ellipse)

Lozenge-shaped: use this, or ‘lozengiform’, in preference to other terms such as diamond-shaped, or rhomboidal or parallelogram-shaped. This is because the contraction ‘lozenge’ can be used without confusion, unlike ‘diamond’ which can cause problems in the case of gem-set jewellery. The etymology of ‘lozenge’ is uncertain, but it appears to mean a squarish slab, and so came to be used for parallelogram-shaped items such as window panes and cough sweets. Compare ‘rhomboidal’ and ‘parallelogram-shaped’ – lozenge-shaped covers both of these. (Noun: lozenge shape)

Oblong: avoid using this word. It is sometimes used to mean rectangular, and sometimes used to mean sub-rectangular or oval. (Noun: oblong)

Oval: use in preference to elliptical. Oval is a more inclusive term, being just an elongated rounded shape. There is a fuzzy boundary between a rectangle with rounded corners and an oval. (Noun: oval)

Parallelogram-shaped: a parallelogram has four sides, in two parallel pairs. But there is no good adjective associated with it, so we use lozenge-shaped or lozengiform instead. (Noun: parallelogram)

Pointed-oval: use in preference to petal-shaped, or lentoid, or vesica-shaped. Petals can be of many different shapes, and few people are familiar with the other two words. Lentoid actually means shaped like a lens or lentil, and vesica is the Latin for bladder. (Noun: pointed oval)

Rectangular: having four sides, two of one length and two of another, and right-angled corners. (Noun: rectangle)

Rhomboidal: Technically a rhombus has all sides equal, so is a squashed square. Few people are familiar with the word, so we normally use lozenge-shaped or lozengiform instead. (Noun: rhombus)

Square: having four sides of equal length, and right-angled corners. Use only when it really is square, not rectangular. (Noun: square)

Trapezoidal: a tricky term. Technically, a trapezium is a four-sided shape with straight sides, two sides parallel; and a trapezoid is similar but with no sides parallel. These terms are used loosely, and usage differs between the UK and the US. As we tend to use adjectives in our descriptions (see Grammar Note below) and there is no good adjective for a trapezium, we tend to use ‘trapezoidal’ to mean a regular four-sided shape with straight sides, two opposite sides parallel and the other two sides symmetrical (so the corners make two pairs of equal angles). (Noun: trapezoid)

Trapezium: see Trapezoidal.

Triangular: with three straight sides. Triangles can be of many shapes including right-angled, equilateral, isosceles and scalene. (Noun: triangle)

Grammar note:

Nouns are words for the shapes themselves, and include a circle, a square, an oval, a rectangle, a triangle, a trapezoid. Adjectives are ‘describing’ words, and include circular, square, oval, rectangular, triangular, trapezoidal. Normally you use adjectives when describing. Some of these adjectives (oval, square) are the same words as the nouns. You don’t need to add ‘–shaped’ to turn the noun into an adjective. Triangle-shaped is the same as triangular, and oval-shaped is the same as oval.

Inexact shapes and looser terms

Inexact shapes, and some words which can be used for them
Inexact shapes, and some words which can be used for them

Annular: this literally means ring-shaped, and is used to mean a circle with a hole in the centre. Although the frame of a medieval annular brooch does not have to be circular, ‘annular’ when used as a shape does tend to mean circular or sub-circular, so don’t use it for another shape with a hole in the centre.

Rectilinear: any shape with right-angled corners, so including squares and rectangles. Use it if you need an imprecise word, or if you are describing a projecting area with two right-angled corners. Rectilinear decoration could include crosses, cross-hatching, etc. Compare ‘rounded’, which is perhaps the equivalent for curved edges. Before using, do first check that none of the more precise words fit better – try square, rectangular, trapezoidal or lozenge-shaped.

Round, and rounded: these are terms which need to be used with caution, because they are imprecise. Rounded can refer to both two- and three-dimensional shapes (circular, oval, spherical etc). Use if you need an imprecise word, or if you are describing a projection with curved edges, or something that hasn’t got a clear shape, such as a rounded end to something. But use a more precise term if you can; circular, or sub-circular, or oval if that is what you mean; or spherical, or globular.

‘Sub-‘ shapes: The prefix sub- before a shape means that it is not quite that shape. Sub-circular means rounded, but irregular; sub-circular and sub-oval overlap, and the former is to be preferred. Sub-rectangular should not be used for a regular trapezoid, but it can be used for a regular rectangle with rounded corners. A useful addition to all these ‘sub-‘ words is to describe the shape, e.g. a rectangle with rounded corners and all edges slightly incurved.

Shapes that are like something else (analogies for shape)

On the whole, avoid describing something in terms of something else. This is because the object used for the analogy can change shape or go out of use altogether. Famous examples include the heater-shaped shield, which was self-explanatory in the days when heaters for flatirons were shaped like this, and the scent-bottle stopper sword pommel. So try to avoid terms such as kite-shaped, bun-shaped, tent-shaped, bell-shaped, doughnut-shaped, violin-shaped, tongue-shaped, kidney-shaped and so on.

It is better to describe the shape properly than use a shorthand and hope that your reader will get the gist. The same goes for translations into Latin (e.g. piriform for pear-shaped, umbonate for shield-boss-shaped) – these are even worse, as they add the further annoyance of having to be translated back into English.

There are many exceptions to this general rule. Here are a few:

Some analogous words for shapes
Some analogous words for shapes

Crescent-shaped, or crescentic: this should be part of a circle with both sides curved, so if you need to use the word for a shape with one straight side, this ought to be stated. ‘Lunular’ means the same thing, but is less easy to understand.

Cross-shaped: this is, on the whole, preferable to ‘cruciform’ which can have a precise technical meaning (e.g. an early Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooch). There is a large variety of crosses, some of which are better described in heraldic language and some of which are better described using normal English. If you don’t define your cross further, it will probably be interpreted as two lines of equal length centrally crossing each other at right angles.

Drop-shaped: all drops are the same shape. Don’t use ‘teardrop-shaped’ as teardrops are no different from any other drop, e.g. a raindrop. Definitely don’t use tear-shaped, as it is difficult to tell this apart from something that is shaped like a tear or rip, perhaps in paper or cloth. Don’t use ‘pear-shaped’.

Heart-shaped: this is now so widely used that it should be understandable. Real hearts are, of course, not heart-shaped.

Lozenge-shaped: see above under ‘Regular shapes’.

Pelta-shaped, or peltaic: this is a jargon word which may however come in useful occasionally, especially when describing Iron Age, Roman or early-medieval art. It is used for a crescent which has the concave edge extended out into a central point.

Letters can be used to evoke shape, but use them carefully. Terms like S-shaped, T-shaped and U-shaped should mean just that. If a line forms a series of W shapes, consider using the term ‘zig-zag’ instead. Consider the alternatives, such as ‘diagonal cross’, or ‘saltire’ for ‘X shape’. C shapes can alternatively be curves or part-circles, D shapes semi-circles, and V shapes chevrons. The adjective is X-shaped, the noun X shape (see Grammar Note above).

There are others that may be used occasionally, but again, think carefully. Shell-shaped should only be used for medieval items which are based on the scallop shell of St James the Great; do not use it for other shell shapes such as limpets or winkles! Very occasionally onion-shaped can perhaps be used (meaning globular with a pointed top).

A selection of shells of different shapes
A selection of shells of different shapes; scallop, razor-shell, limpet, whelk.

Specific exceptions can be made in a few cases where the term has become well known. Here you are aiming to be able to find all the records again by using a consistent word; you also need to describe the shape fully. Leaf-shaped can be used for flint arrowheads and Anglo-Saxon spearheads; propeller-shaped for late Roman belt-mounts; and stirrup-shaped in the case of medieval finger-rings. The term scutiform (which literally means shield-shaped) should only be used for circular early Anglo-Saxon pendants with bossed centres. Shoe-shaped can also continue to be used for early Anglo-Saxon belt-mounts.

Objects that are often described in terms of something else: a leaf-shaped arrowhead (NARC-6DA314), a propeller-shaped mount (SUR-788AA2), a stirrup-shaped finger-ring (ESS-0EAD95) and a shoe-shaped mount (LIN-D1332F)
Objects that are often described in terms of something else: a leaf-shaped arrowhead (NARC-6DA314), a propeller-shaped mount (SUR-788AA2), a stirrup-shaped finger-ring (ESS-0EAD95) and a shoe-shaped mount (LIN-D1332F).

If you make an exception to the ‘no analogies’ rule, try as best you can to describe the shape fully as well. Putting ‘tree-shaped’ is fine as shorthand, so that the reader quickly gets the rough outline in their mind, but do add a proper description so that the reader can then develop this picture towards the actual shape.

Foils and lobes

Trefoil, quatrefoil, cinquefoil, sexfoil, septfoil, octofoil, multifoil can be used for two-dimensional shapes as illustrated in Egan and Pritchard (1991, 163). ‘Bilobed’ is a useful addition for something that is divided into two rounded parts.

Shapes with multiple lobes or foils
Shapes with multiple lobes or foils

The use of further varieties of ‘lobed’ (e.g. trilobed, 7-lobed) overlaps with the -foils, and should be used only if a distinction is needed. ‘Lobe’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘a broad, especially rounded, segmental division or branch or projection’. See below, in Areas or parts of objects, for more on the use of the word ‘lobe’.

Three-dimensional shapes

Regular shapes

Common shapes are defined and illustrated below, but note that on their own they do not tell us whether or not the item is solid or hollow. You will need tell us that the item has a flat reverse, or hollow reverse, or explain it clearly in some other way.

Bi-convex: used for a shape which is has two convex (domed) faces, both lower than a hemisphere. Although most bi-convex items are circular, they do not have to be. The two convex halves do not have to be exactly the same shape. It is a useful term for buttons and pin heads, etc.

Conical: with a circular base, rising to a point. (Noun: cone)

Cubic: with six identical square faces, so both vertical and horizontal cross-sections are squares. (Noun: cube)

Cuboid: a squashed or elongated cube, with one or both cross-sections being a rectangle. (Noun: cuboid)

Cylindrical: with parallel sides and circular cross-section. Cylinders can be long (with the length/thickness greater than the diameter of the cross-section) or short (with the length/thickness shorter than the diameter of the cross-section). (Noun: cylinder)

16th-century pin with biconvex head (LIN-488423). Conical Roman bell (LANCUM-1B03EC). Cube and cuboid (die SWYOR-74A0E8 and weight YORYM-F2B925). Cylindrical early Anglo-Saxon bead (IOW-BC7168).
16th-century pin with biconvex head (LIN-488423). Conical Roman bell (LANCUM-1B03EC). Cube and cuboid (die SWYOR-74A0E8 and weight YORYM-F2B925). Cylindrical early Anglo-Saxon bead (IOW-BC7168). Note that the oblique photos of the cube and cuboid show the shapes well, but do not work as record photos. See ESS-898C51 for an example of a good set of record photos which records every face and their correct relationship.

Domed: another word for convex (see bi-convex above, and plano-convex below).

Hemispherical: a perfectly regular half-sphere (see below). Generally our objects will not be that perfectly regular, so this word is rarely used. (Noun: hemisphere)

Plano-convex: One face is convex, the other flat. This is traditionally used for the low or high domes of spindle whorls. and implies a fairly regular circular shape and a solid, not hollow, construction.

Pyramidal: a pyramid has a square base. A similar shape with a triangular base is a tetrahedron. (Noun: pyramid)

Spherical: a perfectly round three-dimensional shape. Compare ‘globular’ below. (Noun: sphere)

Irregular (inexact) shapes

Again, using these terms does not tell us whether the item is solid or not, so don’t forget to put that in.

Globular: like ‘spherical’, but less regular.

Half-round: traditionally used to describe the knobs of cruciform brooches which are rounded on one face and flat on the other. For a more regular circular shape domed on one face, use ‘plano-convex’ or ‘circular, D-shaped in cross-section’, or even ‘hemispherical’ for a very regular shape.

‘Sub-‘ shapes: Sub-spherical can be used, but globular often sounds better.

Shapes that are like something else (analogies for shape)

The same caveats apply as for two-dimensional shapes. Drum-shaped is often used for short cylinders, but (as usual) drums can be of many shapes, and ‘short cylinder’ is better. Barrel-shaped has been used for cylinders with convex sides, but if you use this you must also fully describe the shape.

Relative terms for form and shape

On the whole, relative terms are not easy to visualize, and tend to need further description. Slim, slender, thin, flat, thick and so on are all relative terms, and it’s hard to know what they mean without measurements. It can also be hard to know which aspect of the object they refer to – is a ‘slim’ strap-end a particularly flat one in terms of thickness, or a particularly narrow one in terms of width? It can be helpful to give dimensions to back up your assertions.

‘Flaring’ and ‘tapering’ are two useful words, which can be supplemented with ‘expanding’ and ‘narrowing’. ‘Waisted’ implies a shape that tapers to a narrow waist, then flares again. It will usually be necessary to specify the direction of the flare or taper (e.g the buckle plate is basically rectangular with a slight taper towards the attachment end).

Areas or parts of objects

More on this subject can be found in the guide How to Write a Description.

Elements or components of a single object can be integral or separate; when talking about the whole object, the phrase ‘made in one piece’ is useful.

It can be hard to know how to describe the distinct areas on an object which has been made in one piece. As long as it is made clear that the object is made in one piece, the terms ‘area’, ‘part’, or ‘lobe’ and ‘plate’ can be used for distinct areas (but check that words such as ‘lobe’ and ‘plate’ are not needed elsewhere in the description).

Below are some tricky words, in no particular order.

Edges, sides and faces should not be used interchangeably. If an object is flat and rectangular it has two faces, each with four edges. If one face has a central longitudinal line, there might be decoration on each (or either) side of this. ‘Side’ is such a useful word that it shouldn’t be wasted by using it where face could be used instead.

The term ‘outside edge’ is not helpful where it merely means edge. It is helpful in the case of buckle frames and similar items such as key bows, where the different edges need to be distinguished from each other.

‘Obverse’ and ‘reverse’ are less ambiguous terms than ‘front’ and ‘back’, but ‘obverse’ tends to be reserved for coins. On the whole, ‘front’ and ‘reverse’ are best, because ‘back’ is also used for part of a human or animal body. Because we use ‘front’ for the obverse of an object, don’t use ‘front’ for the outside edge of a buckle frame. Sometimes ‘obverse’ and ‘back’ will be useful; equally, occasionally ‘upper’ or ‘upper surface’ may be useful. Consistency is important, but should not be allowed to get in the way of precision and clarity.

Attachment holes should be referred to as such unless you are pretty certain that they were indeed rivet holes or sewing holes. The countersinking of holes in copper-alloy objects is a good indicator of late post-medieval date.

A rivet is a small rod-like item which fixes one part onto another. Do not use pin or stud, or tack. Technically speaking, a rivet should have a rove or a burred-over end to secure it; if the end is pointed and merely driven into the other part, it is a spike. Spikes are often bent over to hold the elements of an object together, particularly on early post-medieval mounts where the spikes attach the mount to the leather of a strap.

Loops can be decorative or functional. Because of this, it is useful to describe a suspension loop as such, not just as a loop, unless its use is uncertain.

Flange means a lowered, raised or otherwise projecting edge. It may be useful for describing the turned-up edges of something (although the ‘side’, e.g. of a seal-box or mirror case, may be a better word) or a flatter step at the edge of something. Don’t use it for anything else, unless you thoroughly explain.

Shank literally means leg, and has been used so liberally in the past for so many different parts of an object (e.g. the hoop of a ring, or the shaft of a pin, or the stem of a key) that I feel it is now best avoided where possible. It is useful for a fairly short bar of unknown use (such as the shanks on the reverse of some Roman mounts) and it is used for the central iron part of a linch-pin.

Folded implies having a sharp crease. If there is a curve instead, it is bent or rolled.

Hinges revolve around bars and move through less than 360 degrees; swivels move freely through more than 360 degrees. So a buckle or book clasp or harness pendant has a hinge, a purse frame has a swivel.

Terminal is often used for the ends of things (but don’t use this word as an Object Type). It is a better word than ‘terminus’ or ‘finial’. ‘Finial’ is a good word for a projecting three-dimensional decorative feature, preferably with some pointy element, for which the word ‘knob’ seems insufficient; the gables of houses can have finials at their apexes. But it is a vague term, so be sure that you provide some supporting information.

Projecting or protruding areas are a challenge. Don’t use terminal unless the projection(s) really do form the end of something. Use knob for something very three-dimensional, especially globular, and knop for something flatter (even though etymologically ‘knop’ is just a Dutch version of ‘knob’). ‘Lug’ is a traditional word for projections around the edge of Roman brooches, but it has many other uses as well, so try to avoid using ‘lug’ when another term could be substituted.

Lug is a word that probably means ‘something that can be gripped or pulled’ (or lugged) and has been used for an ear or a tuft of hair. We tend to use it for an element that projects out at right angles to the plane of the rest of the object.

The word slot is useful for a long, usually rectilinear hole, such as that on the underside of cast spherical bell. It is also useful in the term ‘pin slot’, a long rectilinear gap between the hinge loops of a buckle plate. But be careful how you use it in other contexts; let the reader know whether you mean a perforation, or an indentation.

A rebate is literally a groove cut to receive an edge, and a recess is just an indentation or niche. These are difficult words to understand, and if you find yourself reaching for them, add another explanation too to ensure that you are understood. Describing an area as ‘recessed’ can be particularly difficult to understand – is the surface lower, making it flatter (or thinner), or is the edge incurved or indented?

Describing decoration

It is often hard to know where to start (but for hints, look at the guide to How to Write a Description). For flat circular things, the o’clocks are a very good way of orientating features. For long thin things, ‘transverse’ means across the short axis and ‘longitudinal’ means along the long axis.

Below are some remarks on commonly used or troublesome words, in no particular order.


Many objects are decorated with lines (or you might call this linear decoration). But this word is not enough on its own. Is the line a groove, or a ridge?

Zig-zag refers to short lines that alternate in direction. Herring-bone is sometimes used for groups of zig-zag, or sometimes used for zig-zag where the ends of the lines overlap. If you use herring-bone, please explain exactly what you mean.

Cross-hatching is sometimes used for groups of crossing lines; areas left undecorated on a background of cross-hatching are sometimes called reserved.

When engraved zig-zag lines are all slightly curved, we call this rocker-arm engraving. Good examples can be seen on the catchplate of a Roman brooch at HAMP-B4E0C6, and on a medieval strap-end at DEV-9856F4. The term rocker-arm is also occasionally used when a line has been engraved by rocking or jerking the tool slightly from side to side for a tighter but less regular set of zig-zags. It is common in Ringerike-style engraving of the 11th century, but can be found in all periods. There are good examples at NMS-E36C91 and NMS-57080A.

Curves and curls, spirals and scrolls

Curls, spirals and scrolls are all used for curving lines that gradually become tighter towards the centre. ‘Scroll’ is probably the hardest to understand of these words.

Curves can be concave or convex, if they are used for the edge of something. A curved line (groove or ridge) can be orientated by referring to its ‘back’ or its open ‘front’.

Trumpet; curves flaring to a pointed oval end, looking like a cone but with curved rather than straight sides


– tressure

Stamped decoration and interrupted rocker-arm

Stamped decoration is one of the options in the Surface Treatment drop-down list. Please use this to keep all stamped or punched decoration together (although David Williams pointed out years ago that if we all use the term ‘stamped punchmarks’ then we include both terms anyway). It’s a moot point whether simple dots count as stamps; use your judgement.

There is one common form of decoration which still baffles us and so there is no widely accepted name for it. It appears to consist of paired punchmarks, (often triangles) but they are so closely and perfectly paired that it seems to have been made with a wheel or roulette. Names that have been used include back-to-back triangles, addorsed triangles, double rows of punchmarks, rouletting, and interrupted rocker-arm.

The advantage of the jargon term ‘rouletting’ is that it is an unusual and easily searched-for word, but it is difficult to see how a roulette could have been applied firmly enough to produce the effect. Interrupted rocker-arm suggests that a rocked tool could have been used with a central strip left bare, and at least provides an explanation of how the effect may have been produced.

Relief decoration


– repoussé



– champlevé

– cloisonné

– reserved (in respect of enamel)

Decoration and decorative techniques

Then we need some period-specific decoration. – art styles

Major art styles through the ages

Iron Age

Triskele, trumpet spiral


Trompetenmuster (lit. trumpet pattern)

Early Medieval 

Anglo-Saxon art can appear daunting – strange jumbles amongst which odd bits of animals can be seen: it’s all very confusing – purposely so: riddles and ambiguities were an essential part of the Anglo-Saxon world view.  What we see was not just decoration: Anglo-Saxon people were visually highly literate and could recognise the meaning in images in a way lost to us. This complex art drew on many traditions: Germanic, Classical, Celtic, Scandinavia, Byzantine, pagan and Christian, all fused in a dynamic cultural melting-pot.

The metalwork cannot be seen alone, motifs and styles were shared with other media, manuscripts, sculpture, ivory, textiles and coins as part of a changing cultural tradition. When discussing a find you need to look outside of metalwork for parallels (the list at the end of these pages cites some sources). Dating can be problematic and for many finds we have to be content to assign them to a broad period: it is better to do this than to resort to specious precision. Finally, these pages don’t cover the types of Anglo-Saxon object that are found; these are discussed in detail elsewhere in PAS County Pages. A decision has been made to show most of the finds against a black back-ground as it was found that this made it easier to see the details of the decoration. Small, inset images have also been included to illustrate motifs.

 Belt set from Mucking, Essex, first half of the fifth century, AD, 48mm wide, copper alloy inlaid with silver wire, with some areas of silver plating (Marzinzik, 2012, 44: Image: British Museum, Collection Online BMCoL).
This highly elaborate set of belt fittings from an Anglo-Saxon grave forms a useful starting point. The chip-carved decoration and stylised animals are Late Roman and appeared on military accoutrements:  examples were acquired by Germanic peoples in the north and reinterpreted, inspiring new styles of decoration.

Early early-medieval

Two styles of decoration appeared in England during the fifth century: the ‘Quoit Brooch Style’ and the ‘Saxon Relief Style’ both of which drew on Late Roman art. The former takes its name from its use on annular, quoit-like brooches and is mostly found south of the Thames; the latter gets its name from the decoration deeply cut into its surface. Neither style survived the fifth century although some motifs, like running spirals, continued to be used on Saxon saucer brooches.

Quoit Brooch Style

Quoit brooch from Sarre, Kent, silver gilt (diameter 77mm). Quoit brooch style decoration is lightly engraved or punched into the surface and consists of highly stylised animals along with human faces and Late Roman geometric motifs – spirals, palmettes etc. (Marzinzik, 2012, 50: image British Museum, Collection Online BMCoL).
Quoit brooch motifs, lightly engraved into the surface often with speckled ‘fur’. (Image Webster, 2012, fig. 27).
Fragment with Quoit brooch style decoration, copper alloy with applied silver panels. The animals are accompanied by geometric decoration. PAS Record SUR-029B13, 50mm, Cheriton, Hampshire. (Image: Surrey County Council, License: CC-BY-SA).
This belt or buckle plate is in Quoit Brooch style, or possibly a Continental variant, showing the use of geometric elements with animals’ heads flanking the disc. PAS Record WREX-AEACCA. 52. Camdovers, Hampshire (Image: National Museum Wales, License: CC-BY).

Saxon Relief Style

Part of a gilt copper alloy ‘wide equal-armed’ brooch in the ‘Saxon Relief Style’ showing the animal and geometric decoration which draws on Late Roman metalwork, PAS Record FASW-948D00, 78mm, near Maidenhead, Hampshire (Image: Stuart Laidlaw, License: CC-BY-SA).
NMS-647B60, 51mm, Warham, Norfolk, 425-475, a less refined, but still clearly recognisable equal-armed brooch decorated in the Saxon Relief Style, PAS Record, NMS-647B60, 51mm, Warham, Norfolk (Image: Norfolk County Council, License: CC-BY-SA).
Copper alloy ‘saucer brooch’ showing the survival of geometric relief decoration. PAS Record HAMP-6667BE, 33mm, Cheriton, Hampshire (Image: Winchester Museums Service, License: CC-BY).
While most Early Medieval bracteates are made from gold this example is silver. Bracteates were made from impressed sheet metal, the rear bearing a mirror-image of the face. This ‘C’ bracteate shows a rider, facing right, with a tiny horse’s head in front of his triangular nose. The animal’s body is represented by a typical ‘W’ motif below the rider’s head. PAS Record FAKL-500088, 29mm, Bridlington, East Yorkshire (Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Style I

Anglo-Saxon Styles I and II were defined by the Swedish archaeologist Bernard Salin in 1904 (his Style III was not used in England). Both are zoomorphic but the animals are shown in quite different ways. Style I developed in southern Scandinavia and North Germany, appearing in England in the later fifth century, probably arriving through Kent. It developed from Late Roman metalwork of the type represented by the Mucking belt-set (above) but the animals become still more stylised and are moved from the edges to the centre of the objects. They are ‘chip-carved’, being defined by sharply cut grooves and are both disjointed and displaced, the Germans referring, aptly, to the style as Tiersalat’  ‘animal salad’. The bodies of the animals consist of curved blocks marked by ribbing; birds of prey are represented, as are strange human/animal hybrids.

Gilt copper alloy mount bearing a Style I animal, the head is to the left (finding the eye is a good start). On the right-hand-side is a hip, a leg, and a three-toed foot, with a second leg above it. Parts of the body are marked by ribbing (no details available).
These fragments from Holton-le-clay, Lincolnshire show what has been called the ‘helmet and hand’ style. Although described as ‘chip-carved’ the sharply faceted decoration was cast (North Lincolnshire Museum, reproduced here with permission).
Silver-gilt great square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, Isle of Wight showing Style I zoomorphic decoration (Webster, 201215-17: Image: British Museum, Collection Online BMCoL).  Human faces can be clearly seen on the foot-plate and above and below the bow. Bands of Late Roman-type scrolled decoration run down the sides of the head-plate. The animals are more difficult to find, the expanded panels showing:
A             One of the two, back-to-back, crouching animals from across the top of the head-plate, the circular eye is set within a ‘U’ shaped head in front of which is a beak. The hind-quarters are clearly marked.
B             The two panels in the centre of the head-plate each containing two creatures separated by an S – shaped scroll. When inverted, human faces appear, shown in profile and accompanied by disjointed zoomorphic elements. Between the two panels, and in front of the human face over the bow, Is a further, highly simplified animal.
C             The human face below the bow is flanked by two animals, their tiny, C – shaped heads have a central eye, and are linked by a bar to widely gaping, W shaped, jaws, at each end of which is a further animal’s head. Similar C – shaped heads flank a human mask in the centre of the foot.
Gilt copper alloy disc, probably from the bow of a square-headed brooch. This fine mount was inlaid with garnets set on patterned foils to scatter the light. Each of the three panels contains a Style I animal, PAS Record FAKL-9411D4, 36mm, Skirpenbeck, East Yorkshire (Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).
It is possible that these ‘keystone garnet’ brooches developed from the discs applied to the bows of square-headed brooches. This silver-gilt brooch retains some vestiges of Style I decoration, the maker managing to cramp a head and leg into the space between the garnets.  PAS Record KENT4837, 27mm, Lympne, Kent (Image: Kent County Council, License: CC-BY).
This cruciform brooch from Scampton, Lincolnshire shows other features seen on Style I metalwork. Despite the claim that the Anglo-Saxons tried to decorate every space it shows their use of blank areas, emphasised by silver appliqué. Each of the knobs was flanked by powerful eagles’ heads, the knobs were made separately from the head-plate. These brooches can sometimes bear enamel inlay. (Image: Kevin Leahy).
At first glance the decoration on this Style I belt mount appears incoherent but, on closer examination, animals clearly appear.  It is impossible to say what sort of creature was represented. The setting in the centre contains a glass gem. PAS Record, FAKL-DEBA03. 25mm, Skirpenbeck, East Yorkshire (Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

Style II 

Anglo-Saxon (Salin) Style II has been described as the ‘ribbon style’ which does summarise much of it. The Style appeared in southern Scandinavia sometime after the middle of the sixth century coming into use in England towards the end of the century. It was probably a development of Style I and, while Germanic, it contained classical influences, particularly the use of symmetrical, non-zoomorphic, interlace. Style II animals are much more coherent than Style I, their elements, although often interlaced, being in correct anatomical order.

Group of finds from the Staffordshire hoard. Found in 2009, the hoard massively increased the number of examples of fine metalwork and revolutionised our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon Style II. (Image: Birmingham Museums Trust/ Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).

Style II occurred during a period when gold was available in England and the Staffordshire hoard reflects this brief abundance. Gold is a supremely workable material lending itself to the use of filigree and cloisonné garnet work. Many gold objects are hollow, with a box-like structure, easily achieved and making economical use of this valuable metal. The Staffordshire hoard provided a key to English Style II metalwork allowing Chris Fern and George Speake to place our understanding on a firmer basis. They divided the finds from the Hoard into four phases:

Staffordshire Hoard, Phase I: 

This dates from the later sixth century and contains silver objects in Anglo-Saxon Style I and Early Style II metalwork, some of which was already old when buried, probably representing heirlooms.

Sword hilt collar decorated in Style I and representing the first Phase of the Staffordshire Hoard. (Image Fulcrum TV, reproduced here with permission).
Staffordshire Hoard Phase 2:

This represented early Style II and dated from c. AD 570 – 620, most objects were gold with filigree decoration forming zoomorphic and interlace designs. There was some use of cloisonné garnets.

While looking like a bowl of spaghetti the filigree interlace on this pommel cap is zoomorphic: the give-away is the L – shaped line of filigree with a slight hook at one end which represents the back of the animal’s head. This motif is clearer on other examples. A, U-shaped, pitch-fork like line extending from the line representing the head marks the animal’s jaws. The decoration is symmetrical around the centre-line. (Image BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Hidden in the filigree on this gold hilt-fitting are two birds, garnets represent the eyes below which are shield-shaped hip-joints (as will be seen elsewhere) and the talons, raised to strike
(Image BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
This mount from the Staffordshire hoard shows two back to back eagles, the L-shaped lines behind the heads can be clearly seen. This bi-lateral symmetry was popular in Early Anglo-Saxon art. (Image: BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Buckle from Faversham, Kent, showing the L – shaped line behind the eagles’ heads and two intertwined snakes, each biting the end of the other’s tail.( Marzinzik, 2012, 122: Image: The British Museum, Collection Online, BMCoL).
Close-up of a filigree animal from the Staffordshire hoard (the scale, bottom right is 1mm). The skill involved in working on this scale is incredible. However, while small, there is nothing in the hoard that could not be seen with someone with normal eye-sight. (Image: BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Staffordshire Hoard, Phase 2,‘Cumberland-hilt Style’, c. AD 570 – 630:

This represents another aspect of Phase 2 and consists mainly of small zoomorphic gold mounts and interlace filigree fittings, with some use of cloisonné garnet inlay.

The function of these tiny gold fittings would be unknown were it not for the discovery of a horn sword hilt from ‘Cumberland’ which has mounts of this type. (Images: BMCoL and BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Staffordshire Hoard Phase 3, ‘Late Anglo-Saxon Style II’ AD 610 – 650:

This is represented mainly by gold cloisonné garnet sword fittings and mounts along with some silver inlaid with niello. This material is contemporary with the gold work from Sutton Hoo, Mound I which, if it is the grave of king Raedwald, will be AD 624-625. It is useful to draw on Sutton Hoo when considering this material.

Sword pommel-cap inlaid with mushroom-shaped, cloisonné garnets and a pyramid set with cloisonné. The function of pommel-caps is clear – they covered the end of the tang on the sword blade. The role of pyramids is less clear, they are hollow, their undersides being open. Across the opening is a narrow bar which probably held a strap. (Image: BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Detail of cloisonné cell-work in the Staffordshire Hoard, one of the cut garnets has broken to reveal the waffle-patterned foil beneath the stone. This, is turn, was set on a levelling layer made from lime cement or, in some cases, wax. Tapping the top of the cell-walls would expand them and secure the stones in place. (Image: BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Two examples of figurative cloisonné work, the sword hilt-collar is decorated with a row of typically interlaced Style II animals. The technique used was ‘lidded cloisonné’ in which some of the cells were capped with gold to provide a contrast. The pyramid is set with garnets which form two crossing birds. (Image: BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Two pommel caps employing similar motifs but different in shape and execution. The one on the left shows two confronted animals, their jaws locked in battle. They are depicted using lidded cloisonné. The cap on the right is incised in silver with niello inlay, it also shows two battling animals but they are crossing to bite each other’s bodies. (Image: BMT and PMAG. reproduced here with permission).
Silver-gilt cheek-piece from the Staffordshire hoard helmet with a detail of one of the animals. (Image: BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
Plate from a buckle pin with lidded cloisonné forming two interlaced snakes. KENT-AC1CE6, 14mm, Thurnham, Kent (Image: Kent County Council, License: CC-BY).
The Kingston, Kent, brooch. Although dominated by the cloisonné work the decoration contains good, Style II elements, the tiny filigree animal, as seen, inset, at the top, has the typical L – shaped line behind the head, its jaws around its own body. (Image: National Museums Liverpool World Museum, reproduced here with permission).
The great buckle from Mound I at Sutton Hoo. What looks like a jumble of interlace contains coherent, elegant, animals, picked out in niello, a black silver/copper sulphide.  One of the eagles’ heads is shown enlarged and a zoomorph has been drawn, between these, is the head of another zoomorph the body of which can be found in the interlace. The crouching beast on the end of the buckle plate has also been drawn. This motif can be paralleled on a silver mount from Caenby, Lincolnshire (inset) (Images: BMCoL: British Museum, Guide to Anglo-Saxon Antiquities’, 1923).
34    A seax hilt guard from the Staffordshire hoard decorated with a procession of biting animals, the same design being found in the Book of Durrow, a Hiberno-Saxon manuscript dated to around AD 680 (inset) and on the great buckle from Sutton Hoo (see previous). (BMT and PMAG, reproduced here with permission).
The gold and garnet shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo are a masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon metalwork; snake-like animals weave around each other and, at the top, are two crossing boar; their curly tails on the sides of the panel and their tusked heads either side of the centre. (Marzinzik, 2012, 104-105: Image: The British Museum, Collection Online BMCoL).
The great cross from the Staffordshire hoard. The decoration was chased (hammered down) into the thin sheet gold of the face, its rear then covered with a plain sheet backing.  The cross is decorated with panels bearing two, intertwined, S-shaped animals, identical to those seen on mounts on maple bowls at Sutton Hoo (inset). Christianity brought new ideas and designs but still drew on existing art forms. (Image: BMT and PMAG /British Museum, reproduced here with permission).
Staffordshire Hoard, Phase 4, ‘Early Insular Style’ AD 630 – 660AD: 

Objects made from silver and copper alloy decorated with mat-like interlace used on mounts and weapon fittings. Although not common, objects decorated in this style occur as far north as the Mote of Mark in Dumfriesshire where they were being made.

Three objects from the Staffordshire Hoard decorated in the woven, mat-like interlace of the ‘Early Insular Style’.  The similarly decorated disc (bottom right) was found in Mound 2 at Sutton Hoo. (Image: BMT and PMAG /BMCoL, reproduced here with permission).

While it has been said that the Anglo-Saxon did not practice figurative art there are indications that this was not the case as we are seeing some seventh century figurines. These may have been a pagan reaction to the rich imagery of Christianity but many reflect a tradition of wooden idols.

Human figures: Left: Caistor, Lincolnshire, 50mm. PAS Record NLM-A243C8 (Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY-SA). Centre: Carlton Colvill, Suffolk,) 43mm (Image: The British Museum, Collections Online BMCoL). Right: die for making Pressblech foil mounts, 56mm, Fen Drayton, Cambridgeshire. PAS Record NLM-468D41 (Image: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY-SA).

Middle early-medieval

Christianity was now firmly established leading to increasing contacts with the Continent and eastern Mediterranean. A stable currency was established and the kingdoms of England were coalescing into larger units. The end of accompanied burial in the early eighth century left the middle and later Anglo-Saxon periods something of a blank, but finds are now revealing a remarkable, rich culture.

Mercian Style

The Mercian Style is characterised by graceful animals with whip-like interface. The style draws on exotic, eastern imagery coming in through ivories and textiles.

The Witham pins, found at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire, date from the mid-late eighth century and epitomise the ‘Mercian Style’ of decoration with graceful animals surrounded by whip-like interlace. The pins are silver-gilt; during the eighth century, gilding was the preferred finish on both silver and copper alloy. While in an Anglo-Saxon idiom this style draws on exotic, eastern imagery coming in through ivories and textiles. Their designs differ; they were not originally a set and the linking pieces are markedly inferior.(Webster, 2012, 138-146, Image: The British Museum, Collection Online BMCoL, edited).
The function of this silver-gilt boss is unknown but it represents a superb example of Mercian style animals and interlace. PAS Record, LEIC-15A132, 29mm, Melton, Leicestershire (Image: Leicestershire Count Council, License: CC-BY-SA).
Three pieces of eighth century silver work. All bear animals and interlace, motifs that appear on manuscripts and sculpture which, unfortunately is often as difficult to date as are these pieces.
Left: Silver-gilt brooch, Melton Ross, Lincolnshire
Centre: Fragment of a mount, PAS-E90054, 25mm, Surlingham, Norfolk (Image: The British Museum, License: CC-BY-SA).
Right:  Silver-gilt pin-head, Swallow, Lincolnshire.

Finds from Lindsey, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in northern Lincolnshire, which provide a useful over-view of the material in use during the eight century. Animals and interlace dominate but there was some use of geometric decoration including ‘Greek-key’ type motifs. England remained open to wide-ranging cultural influences.

The illustrations on this and the following plate come from: Leahy 2007)
1: Silver disc-headed pin with animals and interlace in what is a simplified version of what we see on the Witham pins, Horncastle
2: Gilded copper alloy disc from a triple pinset, Flixborough
3: Copper alloy Pressblech die for making foil mounts in Hiberno-Saxon style, Stickford.
4: Gilded copper alloy pin head from a set of linked pins, , Flixborough
5: Gilded copper alloy pin (or brooch) with ‘Greek key design’, Welton le Marsh.
6: Pin head with interlace, not gilt, Welton le Marsh.
7: Copper alloy pin with gilded head in the form of an interlace decorated cross, West Ravendale.
Further eighth century finds from Lindsey (Leahy, 2007):
1: This finely decorated fragment may have come from a book or shrine, Horncastle
2: Silver gilt pin-head, two confronted birds and interlace, West Ravendale
3: Gilded copper alloy mount, silver plug in end of nose, the animal has red glass eyes, Flixborough,
4: Silver-gilt pin, confronted animals and interlace continued to be popular. The shank is ‘hipped’ (expanded), Flixborough.
5: Silver-gilt pin in the form of an animal’s head, Hatfield. Pinheads in the form of three dimensional animals are not common but are found.
6: Silver-gilt pin in form of a gryphon’s head , Flixborough.
7: While competently executed this silver-gilt pin still bears tooling marks, and was not finished when gilded. Flixborough.

Trewhiddle Style

The Trewhiddle hoard, was found near St Austell, Cornwall and dated, by associated coins, to AD 868. The hoard gave its name to the eponymous style of decoration which developed from the Mercian style.  The style appeared around AD 820 and consisted of animals, plants and geometric motifs set within small, often beaded, frames. A change in fashion occurred, gilding lost its popularity and was replaced by silver or silver finish, set-off by black niello inlay (Webster, 2012, 146-159).

Finds from the Trewhiddle hoard made from silver and copper alloy. The hoard also contained a silver chalice and a woven-wire whip. (Image: British Museum, 1923, edited).
Trewhiddle style motifs, there is a joy to these tiny birds and animals, skilfully fitted into frames, which themselves were incorporated into the main design. Many of the animals had speckled bodies (Image: Eva Wilson’s ‘Early Medieval Designs – British Museum Pattern Book’, 1983  Fig. 47).
Many pieces of Early Medieval metal work are difficult to date, particularly after grave goods ceased to be used around the end of the seventh century. These two finger-rings are an exception: the upper one bears the names of Æthelwulf, king of Wessex, (839-858) and, below, his daughter, Æthelswith, queen of Mercia (853-874). While decorated in Trewhiddle style the motifs are of Continental origin. (Image: British Museum, 1923, Fig. 120).
Detail of the Trewhiddle style decoration on the Strickland brooch, mid-ninth century. (Image:  The British Museum Collection Online, BMCoL).
Once thought to be a forgery, the Fuller brooch dates from the late ninth century and is a masterpiece of Trewhiddle style decoration.  It is silver with niello inlay, the decorative scheme representing the five senses; smell, touch, hearing, taste with sight in the centre. (Image: The British Museum Collection Online, BMCoL).
Trewhiddle style decoration is most commonly seen on strap-ends. This one is made from silver and the niello inlay can clearly be seen. WMID-4462B7, 39mm, Wootton, Staffordshire. (Image: Birmingham Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).
A range of Trewhiddle style decorated strap-ends from Lindsey, (Image:  Leahy, 2007). In some cases the zoomorphic element is reduced to facets on the foot, but the progression is clear. A visual guide to Gabor Thomas’ classification of these strap-ends has been prepared by David Haldenby and will be available on the PAS County Pages.
1: Caistor, decorated with three fields of Trewhiddle leaf-tendril design, maybe base silver, Thomas Type A1bi/A1bii.
2: Melton Ross, copper alloy with silver rivets, four panels, two containing Trewhiddle style inlaid with niello, terminal has blue glass eyes, Thomas Type A1bii
3: Torksey, silver, multiple panels of Trewhiddle decoration inlaid with enamel. Fragment very thin and represents only the face of the strap end. Thomas Type A1biii.
4: Welton le Marsh, square billets around animal, Thomas Type A1xi variant.
5: Torksey, copper alloy, neat strap-end decorated with leaves around a central stem, no inlay, Thomas Type A1axv.
6: Welton le Marsh, copper alloy with lattice decoration, Thomas Type A2h
7: Bardney, copper alloy, no inlay, geometric decoration. Thomas Type B7d .
8: Winterton, plain strap end
9: Stallingborough, plain ‘bow tie’ strap end with an animal head terminal. Thomas Type A2h
10: Winterton, copper alloy with silver inlay, a crude, blundered version of a Trewhiddle animal. Thomas Type A1aix ‘other looping animals’.
11: Caistor, copper alloy, geometric decoration, incised, Thomas Type A2a ‘curvilinear decoration’.
12. Torksey, silver with niello, animal with blue glass eyes, high grade workmanship.1
Double-hooked tag from PAS Record: DOR-36DDA4, 35mm, Charminster, Dorset. (Image: Somerset County Council, License: CC-BY-SA).

Late early-medieval

Late Anglo-Saxon art styles – Carolingian Style

The tenth century brought fresh influence from the continent, particularly Carolingian metalwork. This consisted mostly of strap-fittings, often gilded and bearing deeply moulded patterns of acanthus leaves.

Five, silver-gilt strap-mounts with Carolingian acanthus leaf decoration. This material may have been brought to England by the Viking armies or may have come through cultural or commercial activity. These are: 
1: FAHG-123AB4 37mm, Cambridgeshire:
2: ESS-BE9A25, 32mm, Glemsford, Suffolk (Note the use of a separate bar over the top of the strap; a feature of these strap-ends).
3: ESS-109B16, 24mm, West Hordon, Essex
4: LIN-3ACE41, 27mm, Aby with Greenfield, Lincolnshire
5: Buriton, Hampshire, not all Carolingian metalwork was great art, the decoration on this strap-end had been simplified to the point of crudity.

Late Anglo-Saxon art styles – Winchester Style

Carolingian decoration contributed to what is known as the English ‘Winchester style’ which was used on manuscripts, ivories, sculpture and metalwork. The Winchester style was typified by lush scrolls of acanthus leaves but also incorporated birds and animals. Strap-ends were now broader and tongue-shaped bearing bolder designs.

Strap-fittings decorated in the Late Anglo-Saxon ‘Winchester style’
1: SOM-9E34D4, 23mm, Manston, Dorset, elegant silver gilt strap-end
2: DEV-264F62, 33mm, Folke, Dorset
3: NARC-0FF365, 37mm, Crick, Northamptonshire
4: Torksey, Lincolnshire, 5: Caistor, Lincolnshire, 6: Maltby, Lincolnshire, 7: Ravendale, Lincolnshire, 8: Laughton, Lincolnshire (Images: Leahy, 2007).
Although made from lead, some of these strap-ends bear quite accomplished Winchester style decoration. All are from Lincolnshire (Image: Leahy, 2007).
1: Owersby, 2: Harpswell, 3: Cadney, (note the Winchester style birds), 4: Winceby, 5: Sturton by Stow, 6: Willoughby by Alford.
Late Anglo-Saxon brooches from Lincolnshire. (Leahy, 2007). The small brooches showing a lion looking back over its shoulder are an East Anglian type but extend across Lincolnshire into Yorkshire. Number 5 is a nummular brooch, these copy or incorporate coins, in this case a coin of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious.
1: Swallow, 2: Roxby, 3: South Ferriby, 4: Osgodby, 5: Barnetby le Wold.

Viking and Anglo-Scandinavian Styles

To be continued…

Reading List for Early Medieval art styles:

While, during recent years, much has been published on Anglo-Saxon metalwork what concerns us here is art, not just metalwork.  The best, and most up-to-date publication on the topic is:

Leslie Webster’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’ British Museum Press, 2012. This is the product of a career working with Anglo-Saxon finds.

Sonja Marzinzik’s ‘Masterpieces: Early Medieval Art’ British Museum Press, 2012, contains much useful material shown on a large enough scale to be useful.

David Wilson’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Art:  700-1100’ Thames and Hudson, 1984, contains much that is useful as does his ‘Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork’ Catalogue of Antiquities of the Later Saxon Period 1, British Museum, 1964. This shows just how much our knowledge has increased over recent years.

The British Museum’s ‘Guide to Anglo-Saxon Antiquities’ 1923, although old, is still a useful source.

There are some useful exhibition catalogues:

Leslie Webster and Janet Backhouse ‘The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600-900’ provides a good over-view.

‘The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066’ Janet Backhouse, D.H. Turner and Leslie Webster eds. British Museum Publications, 1984 looks at the later Anglo-Saxon material.

While very heavy on the manuscript side to things ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ Claire Breay and Joanna Story eds. British Library, 2018 is a lovely book and contains some useful material.

Chris Fern, Tania Dickinson and Leslie Webster eds. ‘The Staffordshire Hoard an Anglo-Saxon Treasure’ Society of Antiquaries of London, London, 2019 covers this momentous find. Well written and illustrated, it is a good read.Finally, some of the illustrations used here came from Kevin Leahy’s book ‘The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Lindsey’ History Press, Stroud, 2007 in which he published some of the finds he had recorded during 29 years at the North Lincolnshire Museum. This provides a useful guide to Anglian material culture.




Describing animal decoration

mask vs face

paw vs foot

anything else?

For guidance on identifying fabulous and mythical beasts, and man/animal hybrids, see How To Identify Fabulous and Mythical Beasts. For guidance on describing heraldry, see… Heraldry – just a link to a good website?


Which metals can be engraved, how about casting.

Add the things on Handout 5:

Cloisonné is a French word meaning ‘partitioned; divided up; compartmentalised’. The cloisons or cells in cloisonné work are formed by soldering metal walls upstanding from the base, and can hold inlays of garnet, gemstone, etc., or enamel. If the cloisons are filled with enamel, then add ‘inlaid with enamel’ to the Surface Treatment field. If they are filled with garnets or other gemstones, add ‘Gem’ to the Secondary Material fields; similarly, if they are filled with glass, add this to the Secondary Material field. This is slightly inconsistent, but works. If an object has several materials in the cloisons (e.g. enamel, gem and glass) then fill in the Surface Treatment as ‘Multiple’ and add details to the Object Description field.

Champlevé comes from the French, meaning ‘raised field’. In this technique, recesses within the thickness of the metal are filled with enamel. The recesses can be cast, or can be cut out or engraved.

Filigree refers to lengths of beaded and/or twisted wire which are soldered to the base. It is most common in fine Anglo-Saxon and 16th-century metalwork, and is less common at other times.

Granulation is found alongside filigree decoration in both the Anglo-Saxon and Tudor periods, and refers to spheres (granules) soldered on individually.

Chip-carving is a term borrowed from wood-carving, where the chisel is held at an angle to remove small faceted ‘chips’. The term is chiefly used for Anglo-Saxon metalwork, particularly in the later 5th and 6th centuries when grooves were produced that are V-shaped in cross-section, or in the 8th century when recesses in the shape of inverted pyramids were produced.

Ring-and-dot motifs can be made by stamping the whole motif in one process, or stamping the dot and incising/engraving the circle around. The circles are always neat, so presumably compasses were used. The ring-and-dot motif was used in all periods from Roman to late post-medieval, so it is not diagnostic of any particular date.

Collets are tall settings for glass or gemstones. Technically a collet is a cup, rim or collar, either cylindrical or tapering. They can have claws to hold the stone more securely and, as the collet is generally shaped to fit the stone, it can be of different shapes. The word is most often used for medieval items.

Repoussé is a term whose meaning is argued over. On the Portable Antiquities Scheme (following Egan and others) we use it to mean a raised design with a hollowed reverse, whether produced by stamping over a die (which is called Pressblech by some) or freehand. It is usually very difficult to tell the difference between these two techniques anyway.

By the way, don’t use the term ‘embossed’ without explanation. It means ‘having a raised design’ but is hard to understand. It is better to say that the object has a raised or relief design and to tell us about whether the reverse is flat or hollow than to use too much jargon.

Relief comes from the Italian rilievo, from rilevare, to raise, and should be used as a generic term for raised decoration.

Grooved can be used as a generic term for sunken decoration, whether cast, engraved or incised.

Painted can be used for pottery (see below for a specialist list for pottery surface treatments). Otherwise it should be used rarely, e.g. for medieval sculpture fragments or post-medieval buttons or lead soldiers. Do not use for a black coating – use ‘black coated’ in the Surface Treatment field.

Ground/Polished – for a Neolithic ground or polished stone axehead, put ‘Ground/Polished’ in the Method of Manufacture field, whether or not it has a degree of knapping surviving as well.


“a cut that is made in wood or some other material, usually at a 45° angle to the adjacent principal faces”


  1. the inclination that one line or surface makes with another when not at right angles.
  2. a surface that does not form a right angle with adjacent surfaces.

The two seem to be synonyms.