Tau cross head

Anglo-Saxon, early 11th century AD
From Alcester, Warwickshire, England

Head of a crozier once decorated with gold and precious stones

This cross head in the shape of a 'T' (the Greek letter 'tau') was discovered in the garden of a rectory at the beginning of the twentieth century. It would originally have been fixed to a wooden staff to form a crozier, the powerful symbol for a senior official in the Church. It is an example of the finest Anglo-Saxon ivory carving with deeply undercut decoration.

The cross head is made of walrus ivory. It has a hexagonal socket from which spring two curled volutes carved in high-relief. The decoration of the sides is dominated by flowers and foliage inhabited with beasts, perhaps representing the creation. Great beast heads with open jaws form the end of the arms, next to small interlace panels. The volutes terminate in the heads of griffins (one of which has broken off) biting at acanthus foliage. In the centre on one side is a damaged depiction of Christ crucified. On the other side the risen Christ is shown in triumph, trampling a lion and dragon, representing sin and death.

This is a magnificent piece, very close in style to contemporary book decoration. It would originally have looked more magnificent. There are traces of gold foil which once covered a great part of the surface. Also, damage at the top suggests that it was originally crowned with a finial. The pierced outer edges of the volutes may well have had precious stones or pearls hung from them.

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Tau cross head

  • Reverse



More information


D.M. Wilson, Anglo-Saxon art (London, Thames and Hudson, 1984)

J. Beckwith, Ivory carving in Early Medieva (London, Harvey, Miller and Medcalf, 1972)

J. Backhouse, D.H. Turner and L. Webster (eds.), The golden age of Anglo-Saxon, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1984)


Width: 14.300 cm
Height: 5.150 cm

Museum number

M&ME 1903,3-23,1


Gift of the Friends of the British Museum


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