Experts open time capsule found at Gen. Lee statue site in Virginia

Conservation experts in Virginia’s capital Tuesday pulled buttons, coins, 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, copper, match historical accounts, so they believe it’s the 1887 time capsule they’ve been looking for.

“It does appear that this is the box we expected,” she told reporters.

Conservators had already made several cuts before the media was invited to observe Ridgway make the final cut.

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 found 36 pounds, was found in water in a little alcove of the pedestal.

The contents were damp, but “it’s not soup,” Ridgway said.

“They found it! This is likely the time capsule everyone was looking for,” Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted Monday after the box was plucked from the rubble.

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 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.

Northam’s office said the newly discovered box underwent an initial analysis Monday. Its dimensions match the size listed in the historical record and X-rays showed it appeared to include items such as books, coins, buttons and perhaps a type of Civil War-era ammunition, according to a news release.

Historical records also have led to some speculation that the capsule might contain a rare and historically significant photo of deceased President Abraham Lincoln.

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. One line from a newspaper article also listed among the contents “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin."

Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar, previously told The Associated Press he believes it’s highly doubtful that the picture is 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.

More likely, Holzer said, it could be a popular Currier & Ives lithographic print of Lincoln lying in state in New York or a sketch done by an artist who may have witnessed Lincoln’s body during a two-week tour the president’s body was taken on before his burial in Springfield, Illinois.

Tuesday’s opening could start to provide an answer — depending on the conditions of the objects inside.