Sphragistics

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Sphragistics

 

(also called sigillography), an auxiliary discipline of history that studies seals and stamps. Stamps are carved on a solid material such as stone, metal, or bone; the engraved surface is called the die, or matrix. The seal is the impression of the stamp on gold, silver, tin, wax, sealing wax, or paper.

Seals used to confirm the authenticity of documents were first used in Egypt, Sumer, and other countries of the ancient East. This type of seal consisted of a cylinder covered with designs and inscriptions; it was rolled over a wet clay tablet containing the text of a document in order to make an impression on it.

The signet ring, which made impressions in wax and various resins, was used in ancient Greece and Rome. In medieval Western Europe, Byzantium, and Rus’, pendant seals with special dies were used. They were impressed on gold, silver, lead, wax, and sealing wax and were attached to a cord suspended from a document. Those impressed on gold were called chrysobulls, those on silver, argyrobulls, and those on lead, molybdobulls. Beginning approximately in the 14th or 15th century, the pendant seal was gradually replaced by a one-sided seal affixed to a document and made of wax or resins; dyes were later used to color these substances. This type of seal has remained in use. Pendant seals are still used at the Vatican.

The discipline of sphragistics was established in the 18th century as a branch of diplomacy. It limited itself to dating documents and determining whether they were authentic by examining their seals. In the late 19th century, many ancient seals were unearthed that could not be related to specific documents; they included Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Parthian, and Russian seals. These became the object of scholarly study.

Sphragistics developed into a discipline that studied the establishment and growth of ancient state institutions. The method used was the chronological classification of all available seals, which accurately revealed changes in government. This new concept of sphragistics was reflected in the work of such scholars as G. Schlumberger (France) and N. P. Likhachev.

The findings of sphragistics are important sources for the study of applied art, heraldry, numismatics, epigraphy, and onomastics and for clarifying ancient archival materials. In the USSR, sphragistics is becoming increasingly important owing to the excavation of many seals in Novgorod and Pskov.

Russian sphragistics is divided into two areas. The first deals with the period of pendant metal seals (tenth to 15th centuries). These are represented mainly by excavated lead bullae; the main collections are in the Hermitage, the State Historical Museum, and the Novgorod Museum. The second area deals with the period of affixed seals, which begins in the 15th century.

Russian seals of the tenth to 15th centuries were used only by the highest authorities. They included the seals of princes, bishops, posadniki (governors of medieval Russian city-states), tysiatskie (commanders of the militia; Novgorod’s second highest officials), and namestniki (vicegerents). Early Russian seals were particularly prevalent in Novgorod in the 12th to 15th centuries. From the study of these seals, scholars have obtained valuable information on relations between the prince and the republic of Novgorod. Study of the seals has helped determine the main stages in the development of the republic’s state system, such as the periods of reform of the late 13th, mid-14th, and early 15th centuries. Beginning in the 15th century, seals became more common in Russia and were used even by private individuals.

REFERENCES

Likhachev, N. P. Iz lektsii po sfragistike. St. Petersburg, 1899.
Likhachev, N. P. “Drevneishaia sfragistika.” In his Lektsii po diplomatike. St. Petersburg, 1906.
Likhachev, N. P. Materialy dlia istorii vizantiiskoi i russkoi sfragistiki, fasc. 1. Leningrad, 1928.
Cherepnin, L. V. Russkie feodal’nye arkhivy XIV-XV vv, part 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Ianin, V. L. Novgorodskie posadniki. Moscow, 1962.
Ianin, V. L. Aktovye pechati drevnei Rusi X-XV vv, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1970.
Kamentseva, E. I., and N. V. Ustiugov. Russkaia sfragistika i geral’dika. Moscow, 1974.
Schlumberger, G. Sigillographie de l’empire byzantin. Paris, 1884.
Laurent, V. Le Corpus des sceaux de l’empire byzantin, book 5 [vols. 1–2]. Paris, 1963–65.

V. L. IANIN