Conservation experts in Virginia’s capital have pulled books, money, ammunition, documents and other artefacts from a time capsule found in the remnants of a pedestal that once held a statue of US Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway, said the measurements and material of the box, copper, match historical accounts. As the contents inside were unpacked, they appeared to match the description of the 1887 time capsule they had been looking for.
“It does appear that this is the box we expected,” she told reporters on Tuesday.
Records maintained by the Library of Virginia suggest dozens of Richmond residents, organisations and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, including Confederate memorabilia.
The box was discovered and carefully extracted from the monument site a day earlier, marking the end of a long search for the elusive capsule. Ridgway said the box, which weighed 16 kilograms, was found in water in a little alcove of the pedestal. The contents were damp, but “it’s not soup,” Ridgway said.
“I think it’s in better shape than we expected,” she said.
Historical records had led to some speculation that the capsule might contain a rare and historically significant photo of deceased President Abraham Lincoln. One line from a newspaper article listed among the contents a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin”.
On Tuesday, conservators found a printed image from an 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly in the time capsule that Ridgway said seemed to show a figure grieving over Lincoln’s grave, but did not appear to be the much-anticipated photo.
The contents of the tightly packed box had expanded from the damp and stuck together, making unpacking difficult, so conservators decided to relieve pressure by cutting down one side.
After Ridgway and other team members meticulously extracted each object, other conservators would then cart the pieces to the back of the lab for further study and cataloging. The team made sure to photograph each object in the box before manipulating it.
Many of the paper items were damaged from water and time but still at least partly legible.
Along with several waterlogged books, pamphlets and newspapers, the box contained an envelope of Confederate money, which conservators carefully separated, and two carved artefacts — a Masonic symbol and a Confederate flag said to have be made from the tree that grew over General Stonewall Jackson’s original grave.
Conservators also pulled buttons, coins and Minie balls, a type of bullet used in the Civil War, from the box. A bomb squad had checked the capsule Monday, partly to make sure there was no live ammunition.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the enormous equestrian statue of Lee removed in 2020, amid the global protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Litigation pushed back his plans, and the statue was not removed until September, after a court cleared the way.
Contemporaneous news accounts from the late 1800s detailed the placement of the time capsule in the foundation of the pedestal, and imaging tests conducted earlier this year appeared to confirm its existence. But a lengthy search during the September statue removal came up empty.
Earlier this month, Northam ordered the pedestal removed as well, and crews working on the project again started to search for the artefact.
A time capsule was discovered two weeks ago, generating excitement, but hours of painstaking and ultimately anti-climactic examination suggested that artefact was placed by someone else, perhaps someone involved with the construction.