Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Byzantine Seals Catalogue at Dumbarton Oaks

Over the first four weeks of my internship at Dumbarton Oaks, I’ve learned that there are more seals here than a Navy wedding off the coast of Alaska (Get it? I’m here all summer, folks! As an aside, I’m sure a necessary qualification for being a Byzantinist and/or a sigillographer is enduring and even embracing this pun. Jonathan Shea, for example, has a picture of two pinnipeds on his office door!).

I tried to find a Seel on a seal, but this was the best I could do.

I tried to find a Seel (the Pokémon) on a seal, but this was the best I could do.

Anyways, I hope I haven’t lost you yet. My job for the last month has been to put the fourth volume of the Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue of Byzantine Seals online, which can be accessed here. The seals in the collection are made of lead, and are thus quite durable, often outliving all other evidence of their original owners. This makes them very valuable for historians, and thus makes my task of putting them online for the world to see that much more heroic.

Each entry for each individual seal, which comes with its personal accession number, requires the completion of several fields, which include a description of the obverse and reverse, a commentary, a date, a physical description, a bibliography, and a transcription and translation of any inscriptions. This is a lot of work!

I enjoy concrete tasks where I can easily track my progress and efficiency. After struggling through entering in a meager quartet of seals on my first day, I realized that I would get speedier. Quadrupling that value the next day, I felt more hopeful. Still, I tried to think like a 19th century American to find out what ways I could optimize my task. Probably the most effective solution – switching to wireless Internet – was unfortunately not in my control, so I had to settle on switching the variables that I could alter. Here’s what I came up with:

1. The Cottage Industry is outdated.

Basically, trying to do each seal individually slowed things down. I quickly learned that I had to make an assembly line, clumping together certain tasks. I imagine this is how some teachers grade tests! When editing a seal, the website requires you to fill out certain required fields, save the information, and then reopen the editing tab in order to add in the inscriptional information. The transcription of the inscription (this description is a prescription for disaster!) comes in two forms. First, in Athena Ruby, which, while a layperson might see it as the Byzantine iteration of Wingdings, is actually an incredibly sophisticated font developed right here at Dumbarton Oaks!

The Athena Ruby Palette

The Athena Ruby Palette in all of its numinosity

An inscription in Athena Ruby ends up looking like this:

The obverse inscription of Fogg 928.

Next I have to type up the inscription in normal Greek letters. There is a lot of switching of keyboards and searching the palette for strange letter forms, so it is far more efficient to tackle the inscriptions of several seals together! Assembly line!

2. The Pomodoro Technique

I did not invent the Pomodoro Technique, but you should definitely check it out. Basically, it posits that working in a goal-oriented fashion for 25 minutes, followed by a brief, 5 minute break increases productivity. This is an excellent strategy not just for cataloging Byzantine seals, but for doing chores, homework, or really anything productive! Instead of having a set 25 minute limit, I like to enter in five seals at a time, and I count that as one Pomodoro unit! If you don’t ascribe to the Pomodoro Technique, you’ll be playing ketchup with all your coworkers (Alright, that one was terrible. I apologize.)

3. Have a good supervisor and a good Supervisor.

If anything strange comes up on a seal, I have the luxury of asking my boss, Jonathan Shea, who is so knowledgeable concerning Byzantine seals that he probably has his own custom one. The seals are often very formulaic, but sometimes some very strange things will come up, such as one metropolitan who decided to label himself ἐλάχιστος, literally “the smallest” metropolitan, a rather befuddling epithet. This was neatly resolved by the adjective “humblest,” which I think is slightly less amusing.

Next, to increase productivity, my office, somewhere in the basement of Dumbarton Oaks, has no windows, no natural light, and no decoration except for a reproduction of this mosaic from Constantinople.

Fun fact: Christ is actually holding "Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art, Volume 4"

Fun fact: Christ is actually holding “Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art, Volume 4.”

So if I ever have the temptation to lose focus during a “Pomodoro,” I have to do it in front of a quite imposing figure of JC, flanked by the Emperor and Empress, no less!

4. Have smart friends.

One painstaking part of my job was that I have to post both the Greek text with certain epigraphical notations (like parentheses) [and brackets] as well as the clean, unadulterated Greek text to be translated into English. For a while, I would simply manually erase all the parentheses, which caused quite a bit of eye strain. I recently had the bright idea to ask my good friend from high school about whether this could be automated, and within five minutes he had made me a program to automatically remove certain marks! Observe:

He wasn't being condescending with the labels... I'm that bad at technology.

He wasn’t being condescending with the labels… I’m that bad at technology.

Anyways, this saved a ton of time! Thanks again, Jack!

I hope that this insight into how I approached my first task here at Dumbarton Oaks wasn’t too boring; maybe you can use some of my strategies when thinking about how to best manage your own time! Using these strategies, I’m able to enter in around 170 seals a week! Once I finish the fourth volume, I’ll be moving onto something a bit more narrative based, which should hopefully include some more outside research! I’ll keep you guys updated, and leave you with my favorite seal so far (BZS.1958.106.1843)!

It's a sphinx. I like the owner's style (Photios, a 10th century tax collector in modern day Turkey)

It’s a sphinx! I like the owner’s style… (Photios, a 10th century tax collector in modern day Turkey)

About me: I’m a rising senior at Harvard in the Classics department from Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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