How to Describe Shape, Form and Decoration

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 early-medieval


Style I

Style II – interlace, chipcarving, ring and dot

Middle early-medieval


Mercian style



Late early-medieval

Viking art styles





Late Anglo-Saxon art styles

Winchester style




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.