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Introduction to Sigillography

I validate the letters of Eustratios hypatos, vestes, and judge of Thrace and Macedonia . . . Andrew, first-called disciple of Christ, seals the letters of John, metropolitan of Patras . . . The seal closing the letters of the monk and scribe Nicholas from Abydos . . . I am the seal of the metropolitan of Nicomedia rendering in two forms the life-giving symbol of the Cross . . . Peter, hypatos and general kommerkiarios of the warehouse of the two Cappadocias, Lykaonia, and Pisidia . . . Mother of God, help thy servant Basil, imperial protospatharios and doux of Calabria . . . Martyr, pray watch over me, Isaac, descendant of the Komnenoi and Doukai on my mother and father’s sides, son of the daughter of one sebastokrator, brother-in-law to another.

A handful of inscriptions, picked at random, present the function, character, and variety of the objects studied by sigillographers—small discs made of lead, bearing inscriptions and images, that singly and collectively can tell us a great deal about the Byzantines and their lives. 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.

On a more immediate and engaging level, however, 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.

To be of maximum utility to historians and art historians, the seals require accurate transcription and decipherment. Training in sigillography involves familiarization with the types of lettering and abbreviations used to put a great deal of information into a very small space. The reading of seals is in most cases a fairly straightforward process, but the state of preservation can pose problems, as can the secure restoration of family names or toponyms—often the most valuable information a seal conveys, and maddeningly recorded in abbreviation. Attention to the lettering is important as a means of determining an approximate date for a seal, especially in the absence of any other evidence. The images on seals likewise require scrutiny, both for secure identification and for instances of variations on a familiar type.

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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