A time capsule estimated to be more than 130 years old, unearthed from the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was opened Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia, and the artifacts showed a snapshot of life in the Confederate capital.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam watched intently as historians used tools to painstakingly open the corroded box. After hours of working to unseal it, the team — wearing blue gloves — pulled out the first artifact: a thin maroon-colored book.
“It’s very wet,” Kate Ridgeway, a conservator with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said as she peered into the rusted time capsule.
“We are trying to preserve what we can of this book,” Ridgeway said.
Conservators pulled out other items: what appeared to be a coin, a few books of varying size and color, what appeared to be an envelope. Some of the items were difficult to identify given their condition.
Teams quickly worked to “stabilize” the artifacts, Ridgeway told reporters in the room, so that they could be worked on. As for how long it takes to stabilize them, historians said it depends on how wet the items are.
The time capsule was found by construction crews in early December. Crews taking apart the removed statue’s base came across an area that looked “different,” according to a release from Northam’s office, and chiseled out a section of the 2,000-pound granite block to reveal it.
The capsule is estimated by experts to date back to 1887. According to the governor’s office, records show that, “37 Richmond residents, organizations, and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, many of which are believed to be related to the Confederacy.”
The pedestal stood beneath a bronze statue of Lee on horseback that was removed in September 2021, following nationwide racial justice protests after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.
The statue’s removal was slowed by lawsuits from some residents who opposed it being taken down, but the state’s Supreme Court okayed it.
“This monument and its time capsule reflected Virginia in 1890 — and it’s time to remove both, so that our public spaces better reflect who we are as a people in 2021,” Northam said in a September press release. “The past 18 months have seen historic change, from the pandemic to protests for racial justice that led to the removal of these monuments to a lost cause. It is fitting that we replace the old time capsule with a new one that tells that story.”
The state has selected 39 individuals to add artifacts to the 2021 time capsule, which are expected to include nods to the 2020 racial justice protests, as well as items, including face masks and vaccination cards, related to the COVID-19 pandemic.