How to Write a Description

What is the description for?

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

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

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

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

Principles

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

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

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

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

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

Getting started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to include

Here are a few ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Names for parts of an object

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambiguous descriptions and difficult words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grammar, punctuation and writing style

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

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

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

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

Quoting parallels

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

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

Copying other descriptions

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

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

Dimensions, date, material, completeness

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

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

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

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

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

When you have finished writing the description

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

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