The oblivion of history

The Byzantine Seals collection of Dumbarton Oaks is one of the institution’s many hidden gems, in this case, literally tucked into a corner of the labyrinthine basement. Dumbarton Oaks has over 17,000 seals, the largest collection in the world. These small pieces of lead represent a fantastic window into the complexity of Byzantine culture, stamped by officials often more than a millennium ago to seal and dignify their correspondence. The tragedy of the seals collection, as Jonathan Shea always says, is that because these seals contain an interior channel through which a string passed, they are slowly degrading from the inside, a process that we have not been able to stop with modern conservation technologies, though not through lack of trying.

I’m working on digitizing some of D.O.’s monogrammatic seals, which are stamped with at least one monogram giving the seal-owner’s name, titles, or offices, in addition to other inscriptions, invocations to the Virgin Mary or to Christ, and iconography, generally of a religious nature. Monogrammatic seals are of the early Byzantine period, and are often quite simple in comparison to seals from latter centuries. Most seals in Greek, the predominant language of the Empire, while some are in Latin, holdovers of the fallen Western Roman Empire, yet a fraction are in Arabic, Syriac, and other languages spoken by the various populations living within the imperial boundaries.

These little seals can be quite complex, though the monogrammatic seals are generally much less complex than leaden seal of the Middle Byzantine era: often, stamped onto one 20 mm lead blank there will be a portrait of the Virgin Mary, a monogrammatic invocation to her, an inscription containing the seal owner’s name(s), and an additional monogram containing multiple titles. However others can be quite simple, perhaps with just a cross on one side and a simple monogram on the other. Most contain common names of the period: Constantine, John, Peter, Theodore, etc., though others contain stranger names and names that are even completely unattested otherwise; these leaden seals show emperors and generals, but also tax officials and silversmiths: all too often they are the only extant evidence of the very existence of these citizens, of the very life they once led and deeds they once accomplished, of the fleeting honors and titles that these citizens and officials of the Byzantine Empire, otherwise completely lost in the oblivion of history, once reveled in.

Solving these monograms and cataloguing them provides the brunt of my daily labor, as part of Dumbarton Oaks’ effort to make an accessible, online catalogue of our giant collection as a tool for academics and budding sigillographers to utilize wherever they might be. As the metal within these seals slowly degrades, this catalogue, including fantastic high definition photos taken by our very own Joe Mills, becomes a more and more important scholarly resource, to preserve these relics of Byzantine administration, and of people lost and forgotten in the history books.

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