For nearly 200 years, a statue at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, sheltered a secret: a mysterious time capsule concealed inside its marble base.
Workers stumbled across the box during recent renovations. It measured about one cubic foot—and it was sealed shut. Attempts to X-ray its contents were “inconclusive,” according to the academy, which announced the discovery last month.
Officials say that cadets stashed the capsule in the monument around 1828. Following the announcement, current students were asked to guess what was inside. A diary? A map? Mess hall silverware? Could it be “another, smaller time capsule”?
Earlier this week, audiences gathered at the academy to witness the big reveal, which was also livestreamed on YouTube. On stage, before crowds and cameras, sat the box. Several speakers, including a panel of historians, took the podium to hype up the unveiling. The academy’s superintendent, Lieutenant General Steve Gilland, even mentioned Geraldo Rivera, the journalist who unsealed Al Capone’s vault—which was empty—on live television in 1986.
“I guarantee, it’s going to be better than Geraldo,” Gilland said.
Finally, researchers donned masks and approached the time capsule. For the first time in nearly two centuries, they carefully pried it open.
They peered inside. With gloved hands, they removed small piles of sediment. Paul Hudson, a West Point archaeologist, turned on a flashlight, illuminating the capsule’s dark recesses.
“Paul,” asked Jennifer Voigtschild, the academy’s command historian, from the podium, “do you want to give us an update?”
“Sure, Jenn,” he said. “So, the box … didn’t quite meet expectations.”
Inside the capsule was only silt, he explained. Perhaps it once held something organic, which had come apart over time. Maybe clues could be found hidden in the sediment, which researchers would later run through a mesh screen. He added, “We don’t want to think that they went to all the trouble to put this box in the monument and not put anything in it.”
The following day, away from the spotlight, Hudson got to work in his lab. With a wooden pick and brush in hand, he searched carefully through the silt. Finally, artifacts began to emerge.
“Before long, lo and behold, there’s the edge of a coin sticking out,” he tells Carolyn Thompson of the Associated Press (AP). “I thought, well that’s okay. That’s something, that’s a start.”
Six U.S. silver coins, as well as an Erie Canal commemorative medal, were hidden in the sediment. They date to between 1795 and 1828, which aligns with academy officials’ theory that students hid the box around 1828, when the statue was completed.
The monument honors Thaddeus Kościuszko, a Polish military engineer who fought with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The statue was removed for repairs in 2021, though the time capsule was discovered only this year.
Analysis of the box is still in its early stages, Hudson tells the New York Times’ Livia Albeck-Ripka. First, he wants to find out where all the silt came from. Could the capsule have held a letter that has long since disintegrated? Next, he’ll investigate the “bigger questions” regarding why the box was hidden in the first place.
While Hudson is excited about the artifacts, he’s still thinking about the box’s brief moment in the spotlight.
“When I first found these,” he tells the AP, “I thought, man, you know, it would have been great to have found these on stage.”