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Lasting Impressions: People, Power, Piety

Each lead seal is a small witness to an individual Byzantine and how they chose to present themselves. In exploring what seal owners said about themselves and how designs changed over a millennium, this exhibition evokes the world in which Byzantines, from empresses to bathhouse attendants, lived.

For over one thousand years Byzantines from every walk of life used lead seals to guard and authenticate documents and objects, and to identify themselves and present their credentials to the world. The designs and inscriptions pressed into seals were personalized by their owners to present information about their status, position, piety, and family. Each seal is thus a testament to someone living in the Byzantine Empire. By piecing together the seals of individuals we can explore their lives and family histories, evoking the world in which their owners lived. The images and inscriptions on seals illuminate developments in popular piety, the evolution of concepts of status in the empire, and the inner workings of the Byzantine state. No other single source provides so much information about such a broad range of individual Byzantines.

Dumbarton Oaks is home to 17,000 Byzantine seals, the largest collection in the world. Since the arrival of the first seals at Dumbarton Oaks in 1947, five generations of scholars have worked to understand and catalogue these objects and apply this data to enhance our understanding of the Byzantine Empire. Learn more and search the collection.

 

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