ESS-E396B1: 2011 T855 Early Medieval Ring

Rights Holder: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
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Unique ID: ESS-E396B1

Object type certainty: Certain
Workflow status: Published Find published

Non-destructive X-ray fluorescence analysis of the surface of a signet ring from north west Essex, indicated a metal composition of 92-94% gold, 5-6% silver, the remainder of the alloy being copper. The ring was manufactured by casting and engraving/punching, and shows little sign of wear. There is extensive cracking around the bezel. There is no evidence that it is hollow but there may be a solder join at the point where the ring has cracked. The ring weighs 20.10g.

Description: Gold finger-ring with rectangular bezel and large, weighty hoop. The hoop is bent slightly out of shape, and now measures approximately 25.3mm from the top of the bezel to the back of the hoop, and 26.6mm perpendicular to this. The internal dimensions are approximately 20 x 22mm.

The bezel measures 12.5mm wide and 14.4mm long, and is 2.2mm thick; it is decorated with a grooved border, and in the bottom of the groove are deeper dots. There are 21 dots across the top of the rectangular panel, 23 down each of the long sides, and 24 across the bottom, although this last number is slightly uncertain due to damage (counting the corner dots each time). Within this border is an engraved human figure holding a cross-staff in one hand and a bird in the other, with a second bird seen in profile above.

The human figure is depicted standing and in profile, facing left. There is no indication of any clothes, and it may be that the figure is naked. There is a line across the waist, probably indicating a belt. The figure's right leg is longer, and is crossed behind the left. The top half of the figure is turned towards the observer and the right hand holds the cross, the left the bird. The head is looking upwards, with a pointed nose almost touching the cross, a smaller pointed chin below, and hair running backwards from the face. There is no eye. The hands seem to each be divided into three fingers.

The cross has a long lower arm and three shorter arms. Each arm has a slightly expanded squared-off end, like a serif. Both birds have curled beaks, indicating their predatory nature; the bird above is larger and shown in more detail, enabling it to be identified as in the early Anglo-Saxon art style known as Style II. It has an angled headframe at the back, a dot eye, and a ribbed tail with the lines looking very like the hair on the man's head. Under the bird is a line pointing forwards which ends in three parallel lines and a single line at right angles to these so pointing backwards, probably representing a leg ending in claws.

The smaller bird is much more schematic. There is a groove dividing the flared tail from the body, and another dividing the body from the head; there is no detail added otherwise to tail, body or head.

The long sides of the bezel are both decorated in the same way but are now worn to different degrees, that on the edge nearest the cross much more than the one opposite. The less worn edge is decorated with a band of two rows of punched beading flanking a plain strip: the beading closest to the finger is least worn, whereas that closest to the surface of the bezel is very worn. The short sides of the bezel each have a step before they meet the hoop, and there is a distinct crack across the top of the hoop on the bird side, which is partly visible on the inside, too. There is also a faint crack beneath the step at the other end of the bezel. There is a crease and partial crack or groove across the centre of the reverse of the bezel, which may be a feature of the mould and there are other casting faults inside the hoop.

The hoop is D-shaped in cross-section, and at its narrowest point is 6.2 mm wide and 2.5 mm thick. It has relief decoration in five panels separated by transverse ribs. The panel on each shoulder is filled with a motif apparently representing a pair of schematic animal heads in profile. The conjoined heads are rounded and almost entirely filled with a large circular depression, which might represent an eye. They are each divided by double ridges and grooves from the long, widely splayed jaws which fill the space in the shoulder, while the inner jaws curve round to join each other in a U-shape. A central beaded ridge in each mouth may represent a tongue, both of which are similarly joined, so the animals are in effect sharing a tongue.

The shoulders are then each separated from the next, side panels by a pair of plain ridges flanking a very worn, beaded rib. The side panels are divided by plain ridges into two fields, each of which contains a relief bird in Style II, now very worn, with a pair of crossed wings nearest the shoulder, that are decorated with three, or four, longitudinal lines and topped with a profile head with a right-angled headframe. The latter cuts right across the bird, giving the effect of a cross, or division into four fields instead of two. The heads are very worn, but have distinct upper and lower jaws, short triangular tongues and tiny dot eyes.

The central field on the hoop is divided on either side by a very worn, beaded rib. It is filled with abstract, symmetrical relief interlace, with a larger looser loop in the centre and smaller loops and tighter interlace at either end of the panel. The ends of the ribbon do not meet, but both stop at the edge of the hoop on the same side as the cross on the bezel.

Discussion: The ring is an example of a standard Frankish form with a square bezel and broad hoop of Hadjadj's type 3b, for which there is a close parallel in the ring in the British Museum's collection from Mulsanne, France, of the later 6th-7th century, decorated with crudely incised human figures (registration no. 1937,1118.1; Hadjadj, R., 2007, Bagues mérovingiennes. Gaule du Nord, Paris, 251-2, no. 292). There are different opinions regarding the origins and significance of the decoration of the new find, however, since, on the one hand, there can be little doubt that the cross is Christian in intent, while the human figure and birds may have either Christian, or North European pagan connotations, apparently representing a remarkable instance of syncretism.

A model for the figure holding a cross-staff to the left may perhaps have been provided by Roman gold coins depicting a winged Victory bearing a cross-staff on the reverse, e.g. a number found in the grave of the Frankish King Childeric, and it is conceivable that the bird behind the figure reflects a misunderstanding of the wing of the Victory (Wieczorek, A., PĂ©rin, P., von Welck, K., and Menghin, W., 1996, Die Franken. Wegbereiter Europas, Mainz, fig. 129). A number of Frankish rings are set with Roman gems engraved with standing figures, including one of type 3c from Saint-Laurent-sur-Othain, which seem likely to have influenced the revival of intaglio engraving in Francia (e.g. Hadjadj op.cit., 208, nos. 214-5). In the sculpture and metalwork of the post-Roman period there are also numerous depictions, often very crudely drawn and schematic without any attempt to show clothing, of Christ, saints and military martyrs holding such crosses as a symbol of victory.

But it should also be noted that some Scandinavian examples of B-bracteates show groups of standing figures with birds over their heads and staffs, or objects that resemble cross-staffs, e.g. from Skovsborg, Denmark, and another unprovenanced. Small gold foil plaques from Scandinavia as well ('guldgubbar') are embossed with standing figures that are similar to the figure on the ring in style. The designs of many bracteates of the 5th-6th centuries also, though, derive from Roman prototypes, so there would appear to be two putative directions of long-distance influence on the design of the ring: either from Francia or northern Europe.

Some comparable objects can also be found from the early Anglo-Saxon world. The standing figure on an early 7th-century gold buckle from Finglesham in Kent appears to be naked except for a belt (Webster, L. and Backhouse, J. (eds), 1991, The Making of England, London, fig. 2); the upward-pointing nose and pulled back hair of the finger-ring are also seen on kneeling or running figures on impressed silver foils from the Staffordshire Hoard (StH 1529 and StH 1556). A further Anglo-Saxon parallel is the 'Baldehildis' finger-ring fragment found near Norwich (PAS-8709C3), also a gold signet ring, which has two standing, apparently naked, figures on the reverse.

Date: The parallels cited above, and the use of Style II, suggest a date very late in the 6th century or in the first half of the 7th, c. 580-c. 650 AD.


As the object is made of more than 10% precious metal and is over 300 years old, it constitutes potential Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996.

Find of note status

This has been noted as an interesting find by the recorder.

Subsequent actions

Current location of find: Saffron Walden Museum
Subsequent action after recording: Acquired by museum after being declared Treasure

Treasure details

Treasure case tracking number: 2011T855


Broad period: EARLY MEDIEVAL
Subperiod from: Early
Subperiod to: Early
Date from: Circa AD 580
Date to: Circa AD 650

Dimensions and weight

Quantity: 1
Height: 25.3 mm
Width: 26.6 mm
Weight: 20.1 g

Discovery dates

Date(s) of discovery: Saturday 26th November 2011

Personal details

Found by: This information is restricted for your login.
Recorded by: Laura McLean
Identified by: Dr Helen Geake
Secondary identifier: Dr Helen Geake

Other reference numbers

Treasure case number: 2011T855
Museum accession number: 2014.1

Materials and construction

Primary material: Gold
Completeness: Complete

Spatial metadata

Region: Eastern (European Region)
County or Unitary authority: Essex (County)
District: Uttlesford (District)
To be known as: North West Essex

Spatial coordinates

Grid reference source: GPS (from the finder)
Unmasked grid reference accurate to a 10 metre square.

Discovery metadata

Method of discovery: Metal detector
Current location: Saffron Walden Museum
General landuse: Cultivated land
Specific landuse: Character undetermined

References cited

No references cited so far.

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Timeline of associated dates

Audit data

Recording Institution: ESS
Created: 6 years ago
Updated: 4 years ago

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