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Conservators recover books, coins, ammo from 1887 time capsule

Published: Dec. 28, 2021 at 7:12 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 28, 2021 at 7:52 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A portion of Richmond’s history was uncovered by a team of conservators at the Department of Historic Resources as they opened a copper box confirmed as the time capsule placed in the very Northeast corner of the Robert E. Lee monument on Oct. 27, 1887.

On Tuesday afternoon, conservators finished opening the 36-pound copper box in their conservation lab. State Archaeological Conservator Kate Ridgway said they used a tool to cut open the top of the box and put blotter paper inside the box to reduce the water condensation.

Several coins, buttons and ammo were found in the copper box believed to be the 1887 time...
Several coins, buttons and ammo were found in the copper box believed to be the 1887 time capsule placed in the Robert E. Lee monument.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

For more than 90 minutes, the conservators slowly took out the items left inside the copper box more than two decades after the Civil War.

Among the dozens of items found, conservators recovered the following:

  • An 1887 almanac
  • An 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly with an image of a figure grieving over Abraham Lincoln’s grave in the centerfold
  • A roll of 12 copper coins
  • A shell fragment believed to be from the Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Several minie balls, which were a form of ammunition in the Civil War
  • An 1881 guide to Richmond, Virginia by Daniel Murphy
  • Buttons
  • Newspapers, including an edition of The Daily Dispatch from 1868
  • Reports from the Chamber of Commerce from 1886-1887
  • Several rubber bands
  • Several pamphlets
  • A book entitled, “Army of the Northern Virginia Memorial Volume”
  • A book entitled, “Minutiae of Soldier Life” by Carlton McCarthy

“They were more waterlogged than we had hoped but not as bad as it could’ve been,” Ridgway said.

Crews find an envelope with Confederate money in the 1887 time capsule.
Crews find an envelope with Confederate money in the 1887 time capsule.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

Conservators also uncovered two small wood carvings.

“It was a tiny little Confederate flag carved out of wood, and a square and compass from the Masonic emblem carved out of wood,” said Richmond historian Dale Brumfield.

Brumfield believes these carvings were done from a tree that grew out of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s original grave in the Lexington cemetery.

Conservators find wood carvings in 1887 time capsule.
Conservators find wood carvings in 1887 time capsule.(Source: NBC | NBC12)

“That tree was ordered cut down by Jackson’s widow in 1884, and their house of sacrilege from some Confederates who said it shouldn’t be cut down,” Brumfield said. “They did cut it down, but they didn’t waste any of it. They divided it up to people, and they let other people make walking canes out of it. They made medallions. They made acorns.”

Conservators also uncovered a commemorative ribbon with Robert E. Lee’s picture on it.

Conservators find a commemorative ribbon with Robert E. Lee's picture on it.
Conservators find a commemorative ribbon with Robert E. Lee's picture on it.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

“That commemorative ribbon was handed out at the cornerstone laying ceremony on Oct. 27, 1887,” Brumfield said. “Hundreds of them were made, and they were handed out pretty much to everybody who showed up.”

The search for the time capsule started in September after Robert E. Lee’s statue was removed from its pedestal on Monument Avenue. On Sept. 8, crews searched for more than 10 hours in the Northeast cornerstone with hopes to find the box with no luck.

In December, crews started to remove the pedestal and resume their search efforts for the time capsule. On Dec. 17, crews found a lead box in the pedestal’s tower, about 20 feet in the air.

Last Wednesday, it took conservators from the Department of Historic Resources nearly five hours to pry open the lid of the box, which contained three books, a coin and a cloth envelope.

Of those three books, one was an 1875 almanac and an 1889 edition of, “The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion.”

Brumfield said the box found in the tower’s pedestal didn’t match the historical records of the time capsule placed in the monument in 1887.

On Monday morning, crews started looking for the copper box and found it nearly four hours after resuming their search efforts.

Conservators recover several books from the 1887 time capsule.
Conservators recover several books from the 1887 time capsule.(Source;NBC12 | NBC12)

Records from the Library of Virginia showed more than 60 objects were placed inside the copper box by 37 Richmond residents, businesses and organizations.

Brumfield said while it’s important to see what’s in the time capsule, he thinks it’s important to also look at what’s been left out of it.

“What was left out was any time of commemoration or recognition of Richmond’s Black community,” he said. “They were completely left out of this process, and Richmond had a thriving Black middle class in Jackson Ward at the time.”

The work to preserve the artifacts found inside the copper box continues as conservators work around the clock to stabilize the items.

Ridgway said metal objects, like coins and ammo, will be placed in containers with silica gel to dry them out.

Conservators also said they will take the waterlogged books and put them in the freezer. Paper items, including newspapers, will be flattened and dried between pieces of non-woven polyester fabric and blotting paper to draw out the moisture.

The artifacts will stay at the Department of Historic Resources temporarily until they are stabilized. Ridgway also said they will be working with the final owners of the artifacts to make sure they’re preserved in a way that works for their institution, which has not yet been determined.

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