Pins are long slender objects, normally tapering or pointed, with an expanded head at one end.  They can be made from a variety of materials, most often metal or bone. They have multiple functions, including as dress fasteners, hair accessories and sewing tools.

PAS object type(s) to be used

There are a number of functional types of pin available in the MDA thesaurus, including ‘Dress pin’ and ‘Hair pin’.  In view of the probable multiple functions of pins, the broader term PIN should be preferred for all pins, including hair pins, sewing pins and dress pins.

LINKED PIN can be used in cases where it is certain that the object was part of a set; this will normally only be the case for a few unusual middle Anglo-Saxon pins. Don’t assume that all early-medieval pins with perforations were linked.

If the pin was originally part of another object (such as a brooch or a buckle), it should be recorded under that object type, not as PIN.

There is a group of polyhedral terminals which can be confused with pinheads, but which are in fact from modern hooks. See NLM-B5DF46 for a complete example. Use HOOK for these.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

Cool groups can be used for Roman pins (Cool 1990). Use in this format: Cool group 4.

Crummy types can be used for Roman pins (Crummy 1983). Use in this format: Crummy type 2.

Ross types can be used for early-medieval Anglo-Saxon pins (Ross 1991). Use in this format: Ross type LXII.

Flixborough types can be used for middle Anglo-Saxon pins (Rogers in Evans and Loveluck 2009). Use in this format: Flixborough type 1.

Terms to use in the description

The parts of a pin are the shaft and the head, and many can have a ridge around the top of the shaft which is known as the collar.

Roman pins

Roman pins often have chunky shafts which can be deliberately bent. It can be very hard to distinguish Roman pins from middle Anglo-Saxon pins, but on the whole middle Anglo-Saxon pins have more slender shafts and tend to have collars beneath the heads.

Crummy (1983) illustrates a number of commonly found Roman pin types. Cool’s catalogue (1990) is a good source for the more decorative types of Roman pins, but is not an exhaustive list. Cool terms these pins ‘hairpins’, but it seems likely that many were also used as dress fasteners.

Objects which look like very short chunky pins, with globular heads and thick short tapering shafts, are common Roman finds (e.g. Crummy 1983, no. 2995).  Crummy believes that they are ‘almost certainly from furniture upholstery’ but similar bone examples are also known.  These should also be recorded as PIN.

Cool uses terms such as ‘cordon’ and ‘button’ that are not easily understandable, so avoid these.

Use Crummy (1983) and Cool (1990) for dating pins within the Roman period.


Cool 1990

Crummy 1983 can be downloaded free here:



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Early Anglo-Saxon pins

Pins are not common finds on early Anglo-Saxon sites, and are variable in appearance. They are therefore not easy to recognise when unstratified. MacGregor and Bolick (1993) has some examples pins found in graves, often with pierced heads; the perforation could be used for suspending a ‘spangle’ in the sixth century or, in the seventh, for linking two pins with a cord or chain.

Ross (1991) gathered together all the early Anglo-Saxon pins known at the time, and found that they did not readily fall into groups; some of his types have only one example. Despite this, it is a very useful study.

A recognisable pin type that can be found in 7th-century graves is that with two inward-curling spirals (Ross type LXVI); this type continues into the 8th century (the middle Anglo-Saxon period).  There is a difference between pin heads with inward-curling spirals and with outward-curling spirals; don’t use the term ‘spiral-headed’ without giving precise details.

A tapered, pointed object with a flattened, expanded head may alternatively be a stylus.

Early Anglo-Saxon pins are usually dated (from their occurrence in dated graves) to the 5th to 7th centuries. The only type that is confined to the 7th century is Ross type LXVI with inward-curling spirals.


MacGregor and Bolick 1993

Ross 1991 can be downloaded free here:


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Middle Anglo-Saxon pins

Pins are common finds on middle Anglo-Saxon sites, and they are different to those found in graves. They are generally easy to recognise, and there are three main types. One has a small head, is usually of slender proportions, and usually has a distinctive collar just beneath the head. Another has a large flat head with characteristic 8th- or 9th-century decoration. The third is the ‘ball-headed’ pin.

Occasionally the smaller middle Anglo-Saxon pins can be difficult to distinguish from some Roman pins. Both can also be bent in antiquity, to hold them into the clothing or hair, and both can have a shaft which is swollen part of the way down.  The jargon term ‘hipped’ is occasionally used for the middle Anglo-Saxon pins, particularly those with a sudden stepped swelling, but this term is difficult to understand, so use ‘swollen’ instead.  Luckily, middle Anglo-Saxon pins usually, but not always, have a collar; Roman pins do not, and this can help to distinguish them.

Ball-headed pins occur in both the middle Anglo-Saxon and early post-medieval periods. Anglo-Saxon examples are decorated with filigree spirals and can have inlaid garnet or glass; early post-medieval examples have filigree circles. There are also middle Anglo-Saxon ball-headed pins without filigree.

There are a few common shapes for small middle Anglo-Saxon pin heads, and a great many more uncommon shapes. These terms should be followed:

  • globular heads; where the head is spherical, or nearly so
  • globular with flattened top
  • polyhedral; explain exactly which polyhedral shape is involved (usually a cube or cuboid with the the corners cut off) and say how many faces the polyhedron has
  • biconical
  • biconical with median band; where the two cones are separated by a short cylindrical area
  • flattened biconical; flattened top and long tapering conical lower part, running down to the shaft

Describe other head shapes fully.

Polyhedral pinheads are often decorated with ring-and-dot motifs. Globular pinheads can be decorated with a series of deep slanting or spiralling grooves; these are sometimes known as ‘wrythen-headed’, but if you use this jargon term, please explain it.

Broken shafts can occasionally have a sharp L-section break, probably due to their manufacturing technique. Note this if you see it.

The larger flat pinheads can be recognised as middle Anglo-Saxon by their chip-carved interlace or distinctive animal or vegetal art. They often have small rivet holes to attach a separate shaft (often one in the centre and one near the edge). Holes near the edge can also be used to attach linking chains or plates. Linking plates (e.g. WILT-B11376) should be recorded as ‘Linked Pin’.

Occasionally it can be hard to tell a large pinhead from a small brooch.

The date-range usually quoted for middle Anglo-Saxon pins is 8th or 9th century. Small, solid-headed pins with collars are found in later contexts in towns such as York and Winchester, and at Flixborough, but it seems likely that they are residual in these contexts as they are not found in sites that do not have substantial middle Anglo-Saxon activity.


Evans and Loveluck 2009

Ross 1991

Hinton 1996


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Late early-medieval pins

Pins appear to decline in use in the late early-medieval period and those that are found appear to be Anglo-Scandinavian or Irish rather than Anglo-Saxon (although there are exceptions, such as the Winchester-style CAM-51823B).

The most easily recognisable of the Anglo-Scandinavian types is the ‘kite-headed’ pin. This type, with lozenge-shaped knopped head, is thought to have originated in Ireland, and is most common in northern England (Mainman and Rogers 2000, 2580).

Ringed pins are also an Irish type popularised by the Vikings, and several are known from York (Mainman and Rogers 2000, 2580-2).

There is no agreed typology for late early-medieval pins, but ‘kite shaped’ and ‘ringed’ can be used in the classification field.


Mainman and Rogers 2000 which can be downloaded free here:


Medieval pins

Medieval dress or hair pins are not particularly easy to distinguish from pins of other dates, especially when they have solid heads. Separate heads are common in medieval pins; wound-wire heads and heads made from two convex halves soldered together may be medieval or early post-med. Pins with acorn heads are known from the 15th century, and there are some animal headed pins on the PAS database which may be medieval. Shafts, where they survive complete, tend to be long.

Larger pins have been summarised in Egan and Pritchard 1991, and there is also useful information in Biddle 1990 and Ottaway and Rogers 2002.

Tiny sewing pins are commonly found in medieval contexts on excavations, but they are not generally found by detectorists – perhaps they are too small and fragile to survive. If you record one, add ‘sewing’ to the classification field for sewing pins.


Biddle 1990

Egan and Pritchard 1991

Ottaway and Rogers 2002 can be downloaded free here:



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Early post-medieval pins

The only pins easily recognisable as early post-medieval are quite ornate.

Ball-headed pins


Tudor ball-headed pins with filigree decoration are notoriously confusable with ball-headed pins of middle Anglo-Saxon date. Those with filigree spirals, and with inlaid glass or garnet, are middle Anglo-Saxon; those with groups of three filigree circles, and sometimes loops below the head, are early post-medieval. The early post-med ones seem to be related to hooked tags decorated with three bosses, and are very much more common than the middle Anglo-Saxon ones. Ball-headed pins most often have spherical heads, but can occasionally have other shapes such as hemispherical, or with a conical lower half. See Margeson 1991 for more on these.

Add ‘ball headed’ to the classification field.

Head-dress pins

Also easily recognised are early 17th-century head-dress pins, usually made from silver but also occurring in copper alloy. These have rectangular cross-sections, a long rectangular perforation, and are decorated on both faces. See Margeson 1993, 8-10 for more on these.

Do not use BODKIN as an object type for the head-dress pins, although you can use it as a term in the Description field. Use PIN, and add ‘head dress’ to the classification field.

Other pin types

Other pin types in use in the early post-medieval period appear to continue from the late medieval period, notably those with heads made from two convex halves soldered together, often with a hard whitish filling.


Margeson 1991

Margeson 1993


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