Time Capsule in Virginia Yields a Trove of Memorabilia, but No Prized Picture
Historians had hoped to find a rare, century-old photo of Abraham Lincoln in a box discovered beneath a pedestal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was not to be.,
Historians had hoped to find a rare, century-old photo of Abraham Lincoln in a box discovered beneath a pedestal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was not to be.
Conservation experts recovered a copper box buried more than a century ago from a pedestal that once held a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia.CreditCredit…Sarah Rankin/Associated Press
An air of expectancy hung over the gathering: Virginia historical conservators, state officials, reporters and a digital audience of more than 5,000 reunited on Tuesday to see if a century-old box — this century-old box — was the time capsule that held the treasures they anticipated.
“It does appear to be the box we were expecting,” Kate Ridgway, a Virginia state conservator, said of the copper container they were about to open, the second container that had been hidden below a Robert E. Lee statue erected in 1890.
A rare photograph of a deceased Abraham Lincoln in his coffin was speculated to be the prime treasure nestled in the capsule. “We won’t know until you know,” Ms. Ridgway said.
A team of experts pried open the mottled rectangular box and carefully removed its contents, just as they had six days earlier with a previously discovered time capsule. Over the next two hours, conservators gently unearthed miscellaneous items and Confederate memorabilia hidden from view since 1887.
There were silver coins, their luster gone; a waterlogged Bible; a compass; paper money; bullets; and yellowed newspapers long out of print. Various items were consistent with donations from past residents of Richmond, Va., according to historical records for the capsule’s inventory.
But there was no Lincoln photo. Instead, there was a very damp issue of Harper’s Weekly, dated April 29, 1865, showing a printed picture of what appeared to be an individual next to Lincoln’s body.
“It was not an original,” said Sue Donovan, a conservator at the University of Virginia. “There was no photograph, per se.”
Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said that the question over the capsule from 1887 could now be “put to rest.” She added that she “never necessarily expected” it to contain the original photo of Lincoln.
Finding not one, but two time capsules was the more interesting tale, she noted.
The search for the capsules was prompted by the September removal of the Lee monument. Gov. Ralph Northam had ordered the statue to be taken down as a divisive symbol of a system that enslaved human beings. A first box was found and opened last Wednesday, revealing sundries like a damp book of fiction and a photograph of the stonemason who worked on the 1,500-pound granite pedestal the capsule had been stored in.
The random assortment perplexed experts, though its contents fueled further intrigue and anticipation for the second box, which was found on Monday.
It turned out to be a “fun thing by the people who built the structure,” said Grant Neely, a spokesman for the governor. Mr. Northam had avidly chronicled the capsule excavations and openings on social media.
Experts will now work to stabilize the artifacts and dehydrate them, a process that generally involves packets of silica gel, but differs depending on the material to be treated.
The artifacts were “more waterlogged than we had hoped but not as bad as they could have been,” Ms. Ridgway said, adding that the time capsules were actually cornerstone boxes placed in pedestals, since they lacked an intended opening date.
The dual discoveries now leave an open question about ownership. Final ownership of the capsules is still to be determined, one state official remarked at the Tuesday news conference, while noting that it would likely be the state of Virginia.
As for the elusive Abraham Lincoln photo, it could still be out there, Ms. Langan said.
“That’s part of what makes history so interesting,” she said, “we don’t have it all figured out.”