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Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Seals Online Catalogue

Lain Wilson and Jonathan Shea

Lead seals are among the most numerous artifacts to survive from the 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire: between seventy and eighty thousand individual specimens are estimated to have survived. Until recently, however, their publication was limited to specific categories, for example, seals with place names, family names, and particular iconographies, offices, and titles. These publications are expensive, and are not widely available outside of university libraries with extensive Byzantine Studies sections.

The Byzantine Seals Online Catalogue ( is an effort to catalogue all the seals in the Dumbarton Oaks and Fogg Museum of Art collections—almost 17,000 specimens. The online publication of these seals is important for undergraduate and graduate students as well as subject-area specialists, and in three respects their online presentation is especially useful for the purposes of teaching and outreach.

First, for undergraduate and early graduate students, the limited Greek inscriptions provide a useful starting point for the subject of Byzantine Greek epigraphy. High-resolution photography together with diplomatic and expanded transcriptions of the inscription, translations, and commentary allow students with no experience to see the steps by which sigillographers read a seal and interpret the often-abbreviated inscription.

Second, the catalogue gives students with limited Greek the opportunity to make use of a large corpus of primary materials. For many students, Byzantine history is necessarily limited to translations of chronicles and histories along with, perhaps, art historical or archaeological materials. The online catalogue introduces students to an important and ubiquitous element of material culture that intersects, and thus can serve as a primary source for, numerous topics in Byzantine Studies: prosopography and family networks, personal piety, art history, and military and administrative history, to name a few. A faceted search on various metadata fields allows users to find quickly all seals matching the criteria relevant for their research interests.

Finally, an integral part of the catalogue’s development has been the creation of ancillary materials, such as online exhibits related to Byzantine emperors and New Testament narrative iconography, as well as an extensive bibliography. The exhibits, along with the catalogue, have been added to multiple undergraduate and graduate course syllabi. They together serve as one entry-point, available to students and specialists everywhere, for the study of a rich and complex civilization.

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