Basement Sigillography

by Lain Wilson, June 15, 2012

This summer I am working as the Dumbarton Oaks seals intern, which involves adding content to the new online catalogue, launched in spring 2012. I first came to seals through coins. Participating last year in the Byzantine coins and seals summer school, I worked primarily with the gold hyperpyra of two Byzantine emperors, but in and out of seminar I gained some of the experience and knowledge necessary to read, interpret, and use the vast trove of seals–17,000 specimens from over a thousand years–preserved in the collection at Dumbarton Oaks. They, together with coins, provide a vantage, spanning almost the entire duration of the empire’s life, from which to appreciate the social, economic, administrative, and institutional history of Byzantium.

This project takes the important first step of making the collection available broadly to individuals outside of DO and–more importantly–those who have to travel here to view the collection, and beyond the fraction already published in six volumes. It includes sophisticated and expansive search criteria, as well as a feature whereby seals may be selected, saved to a list of “Favorite Seals,” and there compared side-by-side. This will be the first project of its kind–an open, digital catalogue–among the various centers around the world that possess large seal collections, and it represents a great step forward in making broadly available a source that has long been the preserve of specialists. The first stage, which I’m working on this summer, is bringing online those entries from the six published volumes, but also integrating new, high resolution photographs, expanded commentary, transliterations (in the new Athena Ruby font) and translations of the inscriptions.

It’s very exciting to take part in bringing to light these great, albeit small, witnesses of the past. Although it is only possible to contextualize a bare handful of the tens of thousands of seals surviving in the world today, one can imagine them sealing correspondence both humble and exalted–letters between friends, complaining about the weather, or imperial orders to provincial officials–or certifying the security of a monastic treasury, or affixed to the bottom of a chrysobull given to a great landowner.

Obverse of Seal of Romanos I, Constantine VII, and Stephen (931–44). Romanos, center, assumed the throne in 920 during the minority of Constantine, left, who would not attain sole rule until 945.



As I have worked my way through the Catalogue of Byzantine Seals volume 6, which is given over entirely to some of the most impressive specimens in the collection, my mind has been much on the broader political narrative of Byzantium, in which the names of these seals’s owners loom large.

Reverse of Seal belonging to Synetos and Niketas, apo eparchon and general kommerkiarioi of the apotheke of Constantinople (713/14). This side has no engraved markings, but instead retains an impression of a burlap sack, filled with goods which the seal certified, and against which the seal was struck.





But it is, in part, and with great effort, from some of the humblest and roughest pieces of lead that the histories of the offices and institutions, foundations and families, which altogether lent Byzantium its social and economic shape, have been written.



About Me:

I am currently a graduate student at Princeton University, working on the social and economic history of cities in the middle Byzantine period (ca. 900–1204), as well as history of local elites.

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