A bell is a hollow object, which can be spherical, conical or of various domed shapes. It can be sounded by an internal clapper, an external hammer or (for spherical bells) an internal pellet or pea. A bell is more musical than a rattle, although the two are related.
An open bell normally has a clapper, and can be a variety of shapes. Conical bells can have straight or slightly concave or convex sides; if the sides are strongly convex, the bell may be hemispherical instead. A church bell typically has a low conical top above concave sides, and this shape can be found in smaller bells as well. Fragments of large bell can be mistaken for fragments of cast vessel.
PAS object type(s) to be used
Always use BELL. The PAS database avoids ANIMAL BELL because in most cases we are unsure about the function of any particular bell. CROTAL is only used for a very rare Bronze Age object.
Bells with rectangular cross-sections
Roman bells have been studied by Ward (1911) and Clarke (1971). Clarke concentrates on bells with square or rectangular cross-sections and small feet, 50-70mm tall. They have integral loops, generally lozengiform externally and with a circular perforation. Excavated examples tend to come from first-century contexts. A good example on the PAS database is HAMP-ADCEE3.
Roman bells of other shapes
Clarke (1971) points out that simple hemispherical and conical bells are known from both Roman and post-Roman contexts and considers unstratified examples of these as undatable. Concentric line decoration and a circular cross-section can be found on bells from Roman contexts (e.g. from Colchester, Crummy 1983, no. 4166) but also on 7th- to 8th-century Scottish bells (Schoenfelder and Richards 2011, 153). Most English or Welsh finds of similar bells, however, can be recorded as probably Roman.
In their article on early-medieval ‘Norse’ bells of late 9th- to late 11th-century date, Schoenfelder and Richards (2011, 153-4) discuss bells with openwork decoration, bells with a circular cross-section, and those with decorative concentric lines. Openwork conical bells have a pronounced southerly distribution which differs from the ‘Norse’ bells, and although there is at present no dating evidence for them, we are recording them for the time being as Roman. See NMS-E837B5 for an example (illustrated below).
5th- to 8th-century bells
Both of the bells illustrated in MacGregor and Bolick (1991) are likely to be Roman in date.
A small (28mm high) copper-alloy bell with circular base, large semi-circular loop and iron chain and clapper was found in the early 7th-century grave of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo (Bruce-Mitford 1983, 893). So far we have no similar bells on the PAS database, so it may be an import.
A wide hemispherical bronze bell 40mm high was found in cremation 1281 at Spong Hill which can be paralleled in another cremation from Little Wilbraham (Hills and Lucy 2013, 91-2). Both may be Continental imports of the 5th to 8th centuries.
Concentric lines and a circular cross-section (in other words, a conical shape) can be found on 7th- to 8th-century Scottish bells (Schoenfelder and Richards 2011, 153) as well as bells from Roman contexts (e.g. from Colchester, Crummy 1983, no. 4166).
‘Norse’ bells have been studied by Schoenfelder and Richards (2011) in an article which usefully includes some discussion of how to distinguish them from small copper-alloy Roman bells. Bells stratified in contexts of the late 9th to late 11th centuries are characterised by integral loops of various shapes, hexagonal cross-sections and straight tapering sides. The hexagonal facets may be slightly concave in cross-section and the lower edge may be scalloped, with the lower corners sometimes having feet. Ring-and-dot decoration is frequently found. The height range appears to be c. 27-37mm.
Other early-medieval bells
Schoenfelder and Richards (2011, 153-4) also consider bells with openwork decoration, bells with a circular cross-section, and those with decorative concentric lines. Openwork bells have a pronounced southerly distribution which differs from the ‘Norse’ bells, but there is no dating evidence for them. At the moment we are recording these openwork conical bells with a broad period of Roman, as this seems the most likely date.
Concentric lines and a circular cross-section (i.e. a conical shape) can be found on bells from Roman contexts (e.g. from Colchester, Crummy 1983, no. 4166) and on 7th- to 8th-century Scottish bells (Schoenfelder and Richards 2011, 153).
Medieval and post-medieval bells
Medieval and post-medieval bells include a large number of spherical examples, either cast or made from sheet. Fragments of larger cast bells can also be found, but are difficult to distinguish from cast copper-alloy vessels.
Cast spherical bells
Post-medieval cast spherical bells are often known as ‘crotal’ bells (and sometimes as ‘rumbler’ bells). They are very common finds because they are robust and easily recognised. Make sure that these are recorded with the object type BELL. Well dated examples are scarce, but it seems that these were in use for many centuries with slow tiny changes in detail. Because of this, we need to carefully describe the shape of the loop (externally and internally), the number and shape of the sound holes, the slot, the seam or ridge between the two halves and any decoration. Look carefully for makers’ marks as these have the potential to help in dating. Often there is a mark of a founder’s hammer instead of, or as well as, an individual maker’s mark.
Some work has been done on the manufacture of cast spherical bells, and some makers and makers’ marks, published on the UKDFD website.
Other cast copper-alloy bells
There is a small group of distinctive medieval bells that are broadly spherical, but with an openwork lower half and therefore sounded by a clapper rather than a pea. The upper half has eight slightly flattened surfaces, four of which have shields of arms as decoration. The arms have received several interpretations, but are thought to be those of Edmund, 2nd Early of Cornwall, showing a double-headed eagle (referring to his claim to the Holy Roman Empire after his father was elected King of this in 1257) impaled with three chevrons, the arms of his wife Margaret de Clare. They married in 1272, making this the earliest possible date for these bells. See WILT-397A82 and SOM-AF84B6 for examples; also SF-A43191, which retains its clapper.
Sheet spherical bells
Small spherical bells made from copper-alloy sheet seem to have been used as dress accessories, or on hawks’ or dogs’ harness. As human dress accessories they were worn on belts, collars or sashes; there is a useful short chapter on medieval examples in Egan and Pritchard 1991 (336-341). They appear to come into use on human dress in the 14th century in Winchester (Biddle 1990, 725) and the late 14th century in London (Egan and Pritchard 1991, 336), although they were apparently in use as early as the late 13th century on animal harness (Egan and Pritchard 1991, 336-338, with examples from ceramic period 9, c. 1270-c. 1350).
These small sheet bells are still made, particularly for use on cats’ collars, and so unstratified examples are in theory hard to date more precisely. But, given that the fashion for humans wearing bells seems to have declined (apart from perhaps on children; Egan 2005, 57) and larger, heavier cast spherical bells began to be used for animals, it is likely that many of our examples will date to the late medieval period, perhaps into the 16th century.
Other sheet copper-alloy bells
There is a group of sheet ‘rumbler’ bells which are not spherical. They have a tall upper part with a butted-together (perhaps originally soldered) seam down the reverse, and a loop at the top which is pierced from side to side and which often projects forwards. The upper part can be gently tapering, or can be a narrow stem. The lower part is similar to sheet spherical bells, and has a separate pea. See KENT-1EABA5 and NMS-C700A1 for examples.
The loop is similar to that found on horse-harness pendants, and it may be that these bells had a similar function. Griffiths 1986, fig. 20 shows bells used on an elaborate horse-harness pendant set; see SF-D74876 for a bell mounted on a suspension mount and LIN-FD3808 for a bell attached to a plate. Whether their date is much the same as the spherical bells (late 13th to perhaps 16th century), or much the same as other horse-harness pendants (mid 12th to mid 14th century), is currently uncertain.
Tin or tin-alloy bells
There is a group of 13th-century bells from London which, when analysed, have proved to be of tin or tin alloy. There are a few similar examples on the PAS database, mainly from Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, which tend to be recorded as being of lead or lead alloy. These bells are cast in one piece, have four projections which may have been bent inwards to retain a pea, and are often decorated. Their use is uncertain; they can never have made a very nice sound. See Egan and Pritchard 1991, 338-340, nos. 1668-1671, and examples on the PAS database at YORYM-E51788, SWYOR-F92A53, etc.
As with other sheet spherical bells, the type made from four bent-in projections are still made (often sold today as ‘craft bells’). SWYOR-909DB1 is a copper-alloy example which looks very post-medieval, but how much later in date it may be is hard to say. Unstratified, undecorated, undiagnostic examples are therefore impossible to date precisely.
There are also occasional examples of tin-alloy bells made in the same shape as the later copper-alloy sheet spherical bells. These are cast, either in one piece or in two halves later soldered together, and are presumably of the same date as the copper-alloy examples (late 14th century onwards). See Egan and Pritchard 1991, 338-341, nos. 1672-1689, and examples on the PAS database at HESH-8F0DAE and BH-837BE7.
Lastly, a few clapper bells recorded on the PAS database have been identified as Canterbury bells. Canterbury bells are discussed by Spencer (1998, 123-125, nos. 126-128) who illustrates two from London with inscriptions linking them to Thomas Becket. Analysis has shown that the alloys used for these tend to be at least 90% tin (Spencer 1998, 125). PAS examples tend to be identified as lead or lead-alloy, and include PAS-2EE133, KENT-EC8680, LON-806D1C, LON-C82858 and LEIC-6F1903.
PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used for medieval bells
For spherical bells, put ‘cast spherical’ or ‘sheet spherical’ in the classification field. For Canterbury bells, and any other bells which might be pilgrim souvenirs, put ‘pilgrim’ in the classification field. For all other medieval bells, leave the classification and sub-classification fields empty.
Bruce-Mitford, R.L.S. 1983. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial Vol. 3 (British Museum Press)
Clarke, D.V. 1971. ‘Four Roman bells from Scotland’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 103 (1971), 228-31
Ward, J., 1911. The Roman Era in Britain (Methuen), 217-219.