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Typographic Developments

Posted On April 06, 2021 | 11:17 am | by lainw | Permalink
Release of newest version of the Athena Ruby font by Dumbarton Oaks supports researchers publishing Byzantine seals and coins

By Lain Wilson 

When cataloguing Byzantine lead seals, dating can often depend not only on what an inscription says but how it is engraved: the specific variants of diagnostic letterforms, critical marks, and ligatures. The more faithfully a character set can represent the epigraphy on the object, the more explicit cataloguers can be in “showing their work” in dating a specimen. Nicolas Oikonomides, in his groundbreaking 1986 publication A Collection of Dated Byzantine Lead Seals, used epigraphy alongside typographic and stylistic criteria to extrapolate broader trends from a selection of seals datable to a very narrow range.

With our significant collections of Byzantine seals and coins, Dumbarton Oaks has long supported the development of typography for use in publications. These include hand-drawn type designs from the 1960s and 1970s for the Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, and a TrueType font—Athena—for seal inscription, first used in Oikonomides’s 1986 study and later in the first six volumes of the Catalogue of the Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art. These were supplemented in the 1990s with other digital fonts for books about numismatics and epigraphy: Grierson, Grierson Variants, Coin Art, Coin Greek, and Coin Inscription.

Beginning in 2011 Dumbarton Oaks directed the development of a new OpenType, Unicode-compliant font that would supplant these other epigraphic fonts. Joel Kalvesmaki, then managing editor, Byzantine Studies, oversaw the development of Athena Ruby, which launched in 2013. Designed by John Hudson, cofounder of Tiro Typeworks, the font won the 2013 Type Directors Club Design Award and has since been used extensively in Dumbarton Oaks publications and on the website, especially the online catalogues of Byzantine coins and lead seals.

The most recent version of the font, build 021, was released in March 2021 and adds eighteen glyphs, including variant letterforms, new ligatures, and critical marks. These additions provide cataloguers the tools to transcribe inscriptions more accurately than before, for example, on a 10th/11th-century seal (BZS.1955.1.2395) belonging to the asekretis John, prominently includes the pi-rho ligature () as part of the inscription identifying Saint John the Baptist (Prodromos, or “Forerunner”) on the obverse.

Seal of John asekretis (BZS.1955.1.2395)
Seal of John asekretis, BZS.1955.1.2395. The pi-rho ligature is visible on the obverse, above Saint John’s left shoulder.

This release is also accompanied by updated documentation and tools, including the visual keyboard developed by 2018–2019 humanities fellow Charles Webb. Visit our Athena Ruby resource page to download the newest build, and see how the font is used in our online catalogues of Byzantine coins and lead seals.


Lain Wilson is digital content manager.