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Online Catalogue of Byzantine Seals

An ongoing project to record the 17,000 Byzantine lead seals held by Dumbarton Oaks and publish them online. Browse the collection, learn about sigillography, and explore highlights.

For centuries the Byzantines, from humble monks and laymen to highly placed grandees and emperors, used lead seals to “lock” official and private correspondence and to validate or authenticate documents. The details contained on the thousands of seals preserved shed light on many aspects of the Byzantine world, principally the structure of its civil, military, and ecclesiastical administrations, the careers and locations of its officials, and the responses to the ever-changing fortunes of the empire over its millennial existence.

The inscriptions on the seals echo, as their images reflect, the beliefs and perspectives of people who but for the survival of their seals would be lost to history. The seals often provide the key evidence needed to outline a career, to chart the rise and decline of a family, or to confirm the presence of an individual at a given place or time. The invocations or prayers in which so many inscriptions are phrased combine with a remarkable range of iconography express personal piety in a devoutly religious society, one in which all people, from the sovereign to the lowliest subject, entrusted their earthly welfare and hopes for salvation to a vividly conceived array of tutelary or intercessory powers. And although the inscriptions and images on seals tend to conform to standard patterns, unique compositions in the form of short poems or singular examples of images or scenes stand out as attempts to make an individual’s seal truly distinctive and memorable.

The creation of an online catalogue is a means to a greater end, since the task of interpreting the data on the seals and extracting their full significance demands wide, comparative reading. Parallel specimens in other collections can restore or confirm provisional readings on the seals included here; collation of the data on seals in the Dumbarton Oaks collection with evidence from other sources will advance research in many areas, notably prosopography, philology, art history, economic, institutional and administrative history, and historical geography.

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