A Time Capsule Found Beneath Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Monument Confounds Historians

An almanac, a silver coin and a cloth envelope were among the intriguing artifacts found in the box

Governor Ralph Northam watches conservators remove the contents of the time capsule
Virignia Governor Ralph Northam (center) looks on as conservators Kate Ridgway (left) and Sue Donovon (right) remove the time capsule's contents. AP Photo / Steve Helber

In September of this year, after more than a year of protest and legal struggles, workers in Richmond, Virginia, took down the towering 19th-century statue of Robert E. Lee, the last of six controversial Confederate memorials to be removed from the city’s Monument Avenue. A time capsule dated to 1887 was subsequently discovered in the statue’s pedestal—and on Wednesday, following five hours of delicate work by historic preservation experts, the lead box was pried open, revealing a curious assortment of artifacts.

Among the items preserved in the 134-year-old capsule were a British silver coin, an 1875 almanac, three books and a cloth envelope, according to the Associated Press. A letter and a photograph of James Netherwood, a stonemason who worked on the statue’s pedestal, was also uncovered, reports Eduardo Medina for the New York Times.

The artifacts were water damaged from moisture that had collected inside the box and “will be put in the freezer to prevent any further deterioration,” Katherine Ridgway, a conservator at Virginia Department of Historic Resources, tells WTVR.

The capsule was found last week inside a 1,500-pound block of granite located in the tower of the pedestal, around 20 feet above ground level. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who was given the honor of lifting the box’s lid, called the occasion “an important day for the history of Richmond and Virginia”—even though the contents don’t seem to have much historical significance and the capsule recovered was not in fact the one experts had been hoping to find.

Newspaper accounts from 1887 tell of a capsule, reportedly placed beneath the Lee statue, that contains a rare photo of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin, but no such photo was discovered in the recently unearthed box. Records from the Library of Virginia also indicate that 37 Richmond residents, organizations, and businesses contributed around 60 objects to a capsule; the one found last week contains far fewer artifacts.

In September, crews tried to find the capsule among massive granite rocks at the base of the Lee monument—but the mission was ironically deemed a “lost cause.” While recent efforts have uncovered a different capsule higher up on the monument, the one referenced in historic records is still elusive. “The question remains: Well, what happened to that one?,” asks Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, according to the Times.

But Lincoln photo aside, the new capsule offers its own set of intriguing questions. Why, for instance, was a British coin placed inside the box? And why was there a copy of The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion, a work of fiction by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn?

“We have not yet made sense of why this assortment was placed in the box,” says Langan, per the Times. “It’s an odd assortment.”

According to ABC News’ Michelle Stoddart, state officials plan to replace the 19th-century time capsule, long hidden beneath a memorial to a Confederate hero, with a new one containing objects relevant to the present time—like masks, vaccination cards and a Black Lives Matter sticker. “This monument and its time capsule reflected Virginia in 1890,” said Northam in a statement in September. “[I]t’s time to remove both, so that our public spaces better reflect who we are as a people in 2021.”