Monday, February 24, 2014


Jean-Claude Cheynet, Turan Gökyildirim​, Vera Bulgurlu, Les sceaux byzantins du Musée archéologique d'Istanbul. İstanbul Araştırmaları Enstitüsü kitapları, 21​. Istanbul: Araştırmaları Enstitüsü​, 2012. Pp. 1095. ISBN 9786054642083.

Reviewed by Pagona Papadopoulou, Athens (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The catalogue of Byzantine lead seals kept at the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul adds to a list of recent publications on lead seals in Turkey.1 A small part of the Istanbul collection had been published by Jean Ébersolt in 1914 in the form of a catalogue of inscriptions without photographs, and in 2007, 350 were republished by Vera Bulgurlu.2 The present publication, however, stands out for its thoroughness and impeccable scientific methodology, qualities that led the French Academy to award it the 2013 Gustave Schlumberger Prize.

The book is partly bilingual – the introduction, the third chapter and the glossary are also translated into Turkish. It opens with an introduction divided into three parts: a brief commentary on previous publications of the collection; the principles of this publication; and a table with the provenances of the seals. Regarding the latter, the reader has at first glance the impression that this kind of information is available for only 75 seals (i.e. 5% of the collection), or even less, if one takes into account that the recorded provenance in most cases is either confiscation or purchase. This impression is due to the unfortunate choice of the authors to list the seals in the table with their museum inventory number instead of their catalogue number. As it turns out, each number usually corresponds to more than one seal (e.g. no 168a includes 61 seals). More importantly, however, the system renders any search of a seal with a particular provenance extremely time-consuming.3 The introduction closes with an extensive bibliography.

In the main catalogue are published 1523 artifacts [lead seals, tokens (nos 5.140, 8.228), amulets (nos 9.33, 9.34), blanks (nos 11.152a-c), a trial blank (no 8.178) and a modern copy (no 6.19)]. Each of them is accompanied by a description, date and commentary, where exact or close parallels are mentioned, and illustrated with good quality photographs (not to scale, but reduced or enlarged to a diameter of approximately 30 mm). The catalogue is divided into chapters. The first is devoted to imperial seals, a term normally referring to seals issued by the emperor and bearing his effigy. No chrysobulls (i.e. gold bullae, an imperial prerogative) are to be found in the catalogue.4 The imperial lead seals from Istanbul corroborate the image offered for this kind of material from recent publications.5 There is, for example, a preponderance of the seals of Romanos IV (1068-1071) and Alexius I (1081-1118), no doubt because of the important military and administrative reforms undertaken by these emperors. But the existing repertoire is also enriched. The collection includes a new variety of the "imperial" seal issued by the eleventh-century usurper Nikephoros Melissenos, on which he is styled basileus autokrator Romaion (no 1.41), as well as a new type of seal of the emperor Michael VII (1071-1078) (no 1.39). The latter is of particular interest, since it departs from common practice in two aspects: first, it does not reproduce a coin type of the depicted emperor as was customary with imperial seals; and second, it depicts not only Michael, but also his wife, Maria of Alania. Representations of middle Byzantine empresses on seals are not unknown, but are limited to those who ruled as sole monarchs [Irene (797-802), Theodora (1055-1056)] and the regents [(Theodora (842-856), Zoe (914-919), Theophano (963), Eudokia Makrembolitissa (1067 or 1071)] or to cases where the ruling emperor derived his power from his wife [Romanos IV and Eudokia Makrembolitissa (1068-1071)]. Maria, daughter of the Georgian king Bagrat IV, did not fall into any of these categories and the motives for her depiction on the seal – as well as on several coin types of Michael VII – should be sought elsewhere.

In the same chapter the authors decided to present other types of seals that at some period bore the imperial effigy, such as the seals of the kommerkiarioi and the archontes tou blattiou. They seem, however, to be inconsistent regarding their decision, since seals of kommerkiarioi are also included in the chapter on provincial administration, while the classification of the seals of pragmateutai, which never bore the imperial effigy, under the imperial seals is not justified.

The second chapter consists of seals of the central administration (civil servants and military officials). The seals of each office are preceded by a useful brief explanation of the office's responsibilities. Many of the seals mention members of renowned Byzantine families, while several belong to well-known historical figures: the military commander of Alexios I Eumathios Philokales , whose seal (no 2.202) adds to his cursus honorum the title of nobelissimus; the eleventh-century general Theophilos Erotikos, who revolted against Michael IV in Cyprus (no 2.242); a protospatharios and strategos named Isaakios Komnenos, quite probably the future emperor, whose seal was found during excavations in Sultanahmet (no 2.239).

The third chapter is devoted to the provincial administration. The seals follow a geographical arrangement, with each city or administrative unit (thema, tourma etc.) being introduced by a brief historical survey, also translated into Turkish. Chapter 4 includes the seals of the palatine officials and chapter 5 those of the dignitaries.

The sixth chapter of the catalogue is dedicated to the Church. It is noteworthy that there are surprisingly few patriarchal seals in the Istanbul collection, all dating from the eleventh to the thirteenth century (Constantinople: nos 6.1-6.5; Jerusalem: no 6.14). Other ecclesiastical seals belong to bishops from almost every part of the empire, clerics of different ranks, monks, nuns and monasteries. Of special interest among them is the tenth-century seal of Onouphrios, archbishop of Bizye in Thrace (no 6.21), because its obverse bears only the imprint of textile, a feature attested for the early seals of the kommerkiarioi, but absent from the later sigillographic record. Since the holder is an ecclesiastical figure, the authors form the plausible hypothesis that the seal was used on a cloth protecting a relic.

The next two chapters include seals without any mention of office or title, bearing the name and family name (chapter 7) or only the first name of the holder (chapter 8). Chapter 7 offers valuable information on important or less important Byzantine families.

Chapters 9 and 10 present two types of seals that do not identify their owner. Anonymous seals bear metrical or non-metrical inscriptions on both faces, while iconographic seals are characterized by the exclusive presence of religious iconography – for the most part representations of the Virgin, the Archangel Michael and popular saints. The catalogue closes with a section on seals of uncertain reading classified according to the groups established in previous chapters.

Besides several useful indexes (personal names, offices and titles, place names, metrical inscriptions, iconographic themes, noteworthy expressions), the book also provides us with a glossary, where the reader can conveniently recur to find short explanations of the offices and titles mentioned in the catalogue. The glossary is rightly one of the parts chosen to be translated into Turkish. Unfortunately, the use of Gallicized forms for the offices and dignities in the main catalogue makes the concordance with the Turkish glossary sometimes difficult, since the listing here is usually, but not always, made in the original, Greek form [e.g. Comte de l'Étable – Komes tou stavlou, but Logothète du prétoire – (Valilik) logothetes'i].

The small inconsistencies and omissions listed previously (as well as minor errors in Greek and Romanian titles in the bibliography and in legend transcriptions) are insignificant compared to the volume of the presented material and the high standards of scientific research and editorial presentation – the latter due in large part to the Istanbul Research Institute. The catalogue is of exemplary nature not only as far as scientific methodology is concerned, but also as a model of collaboration between Turkish and non-Turkish scholars,6 that will hopefully find many followers in the near future, thus bringing into light valuable evidence from the heart of the empire.

Table of Contents

Introduction (6-12)
Giriş (14-20)
Abréviations (22-38)
Chapitre 1: Sceaux impériaux (41-80)
Chapitre 2: L'administration centrale (81-246)
Chapitre 3: L'administration provinciale Yerel yönetim (247-363)
Chapitre 4: Les fonctions palatines (365-385)
Chapitre 5: Les dignitaires (387-528)
Chapitre 6: L'Église (529-625)
Chapitre 7: Sceaux patronymiques (627-719)
Chapitre 8: Prénoms (721-839)
Chapitre 9: Sceaux anonymes (841-858)
Chapitre 10: Sceaux iconographiques (859-900)
Chapitre 11: Sceaux incertains (901-974)
Glossaire (976-990)
Sözlükçe (992-1006)
Index des noms de personnes (1008-1031)
Index des fonctions et dignités (1032-1062)
Index des noms de lieu (1064-1074)
Légendes metriques (1076-1082)
Index iconographique (1084-1090)
Expressions remarquables (1092-1095)

Note: Jean-Claude Cheynet participated as an examiner in the defence board of the author of the present review in 2007, a fact that did not affect her impartiality as a reviewer.


1.   Cheynet J.-C., Les sceaux du musée d'Iznik, Revue des Études Byzantines 49, 1991, 219-235; Id., Sceaux byzantins des musées d'Antioche et de Tarse, Travaux et Mémoires 12, 1994, 391-478; Id., Sceaux de plomb du musée d'Hatay (Antioche), Revue des Études Byzantines 54, 1996, 249-270; Id., Les sceaux byzantins du musée de Manisa, Revue des Études Byzantines 56, 1998, 261-267; Id., Les sceaux byzantins du musée de Selçuk (Éphèse), Revue numismatique 154, 1999, p. 317-352; Bulgurlu V. – Ilaslî A., Seals from the Museum of Afyon (Turkey), Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 8, 2003, 131-149; Métivier S., Sceaux inédits des musées de Kayseri et de Niğde (Turquie), Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 10, 2010, 61-74; Bulgurlu V., Seals from the Kadikalesi/Anaia excavation, Stavrakos Ch. – Papadopoulou B. (eds), Epeironde. Proceedings of the 10th International Symposium of Byzantine Sigillography, Wiesbaden 2011, 277-291. Forthcoming publications of excavated material include the lead seals from Amorion (O. Karagiorgou) and the Yenikapı excavations (V. Bulgurlu).
2.   Ébersolt J., Sceaux byzantins du Musée de Constantinople, Revue numismatique 18, 1914, 207-243, 377-409; Bulgurlu V., Bizans kurşun mühürleri, Istanbul 2007. Several specimens from the Istanbul collection were also included in publications by V. Laurent, W. Seibt and A. Müller-Hennig.
3.   Moreover, there are seals with known provenances (e.g. nos 2.1, 2.239, 5.137 and 6.140), which are omitted from the table.
4.   It is not clear whether the Istanbul collection lacks these artifacts or whether the authors could not trace them among the rich numismatic holdings of the museum, where, as a rule, this kind of seals used to be kept until recently. Grierson Ph., Byzantine Gold Bullae, with a Catalogue of Those at Dumbarton Oaks, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 20, 1966, 239.
5.   Sokolova I.V., Pečati vizantijskih imperatorov: katalog kollekcii / Byzantine Imperial Seals. The Catalogue of the Collection, Saint Petersburg 2007; Nesbitt J. with the assistance of C. Morrisson, Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art. Volume 6. Emperors, Patriarchs of Constantinople, Addenda, Washington D.C. 2009.
6.   The catalogue forms the first Turkish contribution to the Sigidoc project, an international initiative aimed at establishing a database of Byzantine seals. ​

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