Experts Open Time Capsule Found at Gen. Lee Statue Site

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
December 28, 2021 Updated: December 29, 2021

RICHMOND, Va.—Conservation experts in Virginia’s capital Tuesday pulled books, coins, ammunition, documents, and other artifacts from a time capsule found in the remnants of a pedestal that once held a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway, said that 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.

Records maintained by the Library of Virginia suggest that dozens of Richmond residents, organizations 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 36 pounds, 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.

time capsule
Workers recover a box believed to be the 1887 time capsule that was put under Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue pedestal in Richmond, Va., on Dec. 27, 2021. (Eva Russo/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

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 also listed among the contents “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—which did not appear to be the much-anticipated photo.

Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar, had previously told The Associated Press he believed it highly unlikely that the time capsule contained an actual photograph of Lincoln in his coffin because the only known photo of Lincoln in death was taken by photographer Jeremiah Gurney in City Hall in New York on April 24, 1865.

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.

“Not ideal but it’s the way it is,” Ridgway said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the enormous equestrian statue of Lee removed in 2020. 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 artifact. A time capsule was discovered two weeks ago, generating excitement, but hours of painstaking and ultimately anti-climactic examination suggested that artifact was placed by someone else, perhaps someone involved with the construction.