Annual commemorative ornament celebrates one of Miami’s most well-known traditions
By Jesús Jiménez, assistant director of editorial services
All Miamians know the rule: Don’t step on the seal.
The Great Seal is a unique spot on the campus of Miami University with possibly the most interesting superstition: Those who step on the seal are believed to be punished by failing their next exam.
The Great Seal is featured by the Miami University Alumni Association (MUAA) with its annual official commemorative ornament.
For the past 31 years, the MUAA has offered limited edition commemorative ornaments celebrating “the most beautiful campus that ever there was.”
Anyone familiar with Miami can tell you the superstition. But do you know the history?
The Great Seal’s history has been referred to as “a tale of three seals.” Officially recognized today is the seal bearing “Sigillum Universitatis Miamiensis,” while the others remain a mystery.
The Seal of the Miami University
The earliest reference to a Miami seal was mentioned in the “Act to Establish the Miami University,” passed by the Ohio legislature in 1809. It stated that the corporation “shall have and keep one common seal which they may change, break, or renew at pleasure.”
All that remains from that seal is a description that was set forth when trustees ordered its completion:
“Around the outer part of the seal between the two circles are engraven in capital letters these words, ‘The Seal of the Miami University,’ within which and near the bottom of the seal is a square table on which stands a terrestrial globe. On the one side of the table and globe stands a tutor holding an open book in one hand, and with the other hand pointing to the glove; on the other side stand two pupils looking on the globe and appearing as though they received instructions from the tutor. And above these is represented the sun apparently just rising over the top of a mountain, intending figuratively to represent the sun of literature and science rising over the mountains of ignorance and superstition.”
Sigillum Universitatis Miamiensis
Only two years after the university’s opening, however, for unknown reasons, the trustees formally “broke and annulled” the existing seal and adopted a new one, which incorporated the book and the globe from the old seal. The words “The Seal of the Miami University” were now translated into the Latin Sigillum Universitatis Miamiensis. The seal also features the Latin words “Prodesse Quam Conspici,” meaning, “to accomplish without being conspicuous,” but it is unclear if they were a new element or carried over from the original seal. Along with the globe and open book appears a telescope.
- The book symbolizes the past, the accumulated wisdom of the centuries which is passed to the present generation through their reading.
- The globe represents the present, signifying that people who live in various continents, countries and cultures of the earth need to know about the rest of the world.
- The telescope represents the future, people’s continuing quest to find the meaning in the universe.
In an excerpt from “Miami University: A Personal History,” then university President Emeritus Phillip Shriver wrote, “The key to life is achievement, not boasting about it; we are known by what we do rather than what we claim.”
This seal, adopted in 1826, remains the seal we recognize today. However, a third seal appeared at the turn of the 19th century, and for a time it appeared almost to supplant the second seal.
The ‘serpent’ seal
The third seal can be found over a period of years on the covers of the University Catalog, The Miami Student and the Recensio yearbook, beginning with the editions for 1900-1901, 1902 and 1905, respectively.
The outer circle with the words identifying it as the university seal were initially omitted and two serpents encircling a sphere distinguish this third seal.
It has been suggested this seal probably originated as a design for the diamond anniversary celebrated in 1899. This design first appears on the letterhead commemorating “The Diamond Anniversary, June 14th and 15th, 1824-1899,” as seen in then Miami President Thompson’s letter of resignation dated June 24, 1899. It is also found on the cover of the Diamond Anniversary Volume, as well as the centennial edition of the Alumni Catalog, in the former case including the 1824 date, while the catalogue date was changed to 1809 in keeping with the centennial celebration. The 1824 date is most frequently found incorporated in the design. However, the library book plate is one of the several exceptions.
Although the “serpent” seal was rarely used after 1924, it remained a familiar sight to many Miamians. A 1967 article from the Miami Alumnus described how the “serpent” seal was still featured on the bookplates of the more than 400,000 volumes in Alumni Hall.
Where can you find the seal?
The seal we know today can be found in three places on campus.
- The most famous is the Great Seal at the hub of campus. Made of cast bronze, development of the seal began in 1968. The seal was completed in the spring of 1969.
- Located in a pediment over the doorway of Alumni Hall is a seal of Miami made by Rookwood Pottery.
- Since the opening of the new Armstrong Student Center in 2014, a 3-dimensional version of The Great Seal has been one of its most attractive features, created with real objects containing students’ words and artwork.
Robert Keller ’73, university architect emeritus, came up with the idea to make this seal 3-dimensional. The project was funded through the support of the William and Dorothy Yeck Foundation.
“One of the neatest things about the whole project is that so many people have been involved,” Keller said. “Each piece has a story.”