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Byzantine Seals Milestone

Posted On September 13, 2016 | 13:16 pm | by lainw | Permalink
Online catalog reaches 6,000 entries

In the basement of Dumbarton Oaks, the most extensive collection of Byzantine seals in the world rests in a nondescript metal cabinet, a little more than three feet high. Though the complete collection—totaling roughly seventeen thousand seals, each of which is sheathed in a white paper envelope—fits comfortably in the cabinet, efforts have been underway for the past several years to transfer the seals, bit by bit, to another home: the web.

Since 2011, a rotating team of catalogers has digitized thousands of the seals, which range in size from the dime-like to slightly larger than a half-dollar. Recently, at the end of August, they reached a milestone, having uploaded information on six thousand discrete seals—a little more than one-third of the collection—to the online catalog of Byzantine seals.

“Six thousand was quite an important number for us,” says Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University who has worked with the seals project since its inception. “For a long time, we had been laboring at this mostly for internal goals, and this is the first goal we’ve reached that really has external importance.”

While the number of seals available online has been steadily increasing for years, users will now have access to a truly representative sample of the physical collection for the first time. Or, more simply, in Shea’s words: “We’ve tried to put a bit of everything up there—and a lot of everything up there, in some cases.”

Because the identification and study of seals involves an intensely comparative approach, the online catalog radically simplifies working with the collection. Whereas comparing similar traits between seals previously relied in large part on the memories of individual researchers working with card catalogs, now a quick online search can reveal connections between seals that might have gone unnoticed before.

The aim of the project has always been to make the seals, a relatively untapped resource, easier to use and more accessible to researchers around the world. With the online catalog now boasting such a large spread of the collection, a great variety of research questions can now be pursued more quickly and more thoroughly.

And of course, the online catalog continues to grow, day by day.

Find out more about Byzantine seals and the collection at Dumbarton Oaks in the video below.