Home Artifacts An Up Close Look at Robert E. Lee’s ‘Time Capsule’ Cornerstone Box: New Artifacts Found Inside

An Up Close Look at Robert E. Lee’s ‘Time Capsule’ Cornerstone Box: New Artifacts Found Inside

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – More than 130 years after the artifacts were placed in a copper box and sealed in the pedestal believed to sit beneath the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) compiled a detailed inventory of what was found inside when this box was unearthed in December 2021.

8News visited DHR on Wednesday for an in-depth examination of the artifacts, including some not previously known to be inside the copper box.

“We had the original 1887 inventory from the Richmond Dispatch with us when we looked at these artifacts, both while we were taking them out of the box and afterward,” said Katherine Ridgway, state archaeological curator. “We discovered that there were a lot of business cards, letters and things not specifically mentioned in the inventory.”

Published in October 1887, the Richmond Dispatch article detailed 60 objects in the time capsule. Although some of these objects have not been identified, conservators have worked to compare items similar to what was described in the publication, as well as to preserve and document new artifacts that have been found.

This artifact was not previously mentioned in the 1887 inventory. (Photo: Sam Hooper)

One such artifact was a Confederate $10 bill with a letter from George A. Notting, regarding his son’s contribution to the box.

“There’s a letter from a gentleman about his 10-year-old son wanting to donate to the cornerstone box, and this idea that everyone can relate,” Ridgway said.

Ridgway called what was called the Lee time capsule a cornerstone box, noting that the mindset that when placed inside the Lee pedestal in 1887 the box was not never meant to be opened.

“When this was put in the Lee monument, time capsules weren’t a thing yet. So really, it’s a cornerstone box,” she said. fundamental in the construction of this monument to Robert E. Lee. So much of what it contains is not about portraying Richmond as a whole. It is about representing this idea of ​​Robert E. Lee and commemorate it, as well as the Masonic tradition of laying a cornerstone.

Before locating the copper cornerstone box, another type of time capsule was found in the Lee pedestal. But this did not match the description of what had been published in the 1887 article in the Richmond Dispatch.

“The unexpected lead box, which was much taller and more central in the pedestal, what we’ve found so far is that it appears to be things that have to do with the people who built the monument Lee,” Ridgway said. “It was a very different kind of box. It was not about the ceremony of the masons. It was about them and the people they were and what they wanted people to remember them.

Since the cornerstone’s copper box was opened in December, conservators have continued their preservation work, including freezing some of the more fragile artifacts to prevent deterioration. This included an unknown manual, as well as the annual convocation of the Grand Chapter of the State of Virginia, dated 1886, which was not listed in the Richmond Dispatch article.

Other previously unlisted items include a letter from Blair Meanley, dated October 22, 1887; a letter from WH Sands to WB Isaacs; the program of the ancient order of nobles of the mystical sanctuary on the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone, which was found with the letter Meanley; an unidentified Masonic booklet; and several journal articles from various publications.

Several unexpected newspaper articles from the 1800s were found inside the cornerstone’s copper box. (Photo: Sam Hooper)

Conservators have also worked to preserve the packaging in which some of the artifacts were found, such as paper, string, and even a rubber band that still stretches.

“We treat the whole thing as part of the story,” Ridgway said. “We don’t want to presume what historians will find valuable.”

Along with finding unexpected artifacts inside the copper cornerstone box, Ridgway said conservators gathered new information about some of the most sought-after pieces of history during the preservation and documentation processes. . One such artifact was a photo of President Abraham Lincoln in his coffin, which turned out to be a printed image rather than an actual photograph.

“It had been fixed, that is, as a curator, that’s what I do for a living, and so someone fixed it and cherished it for a long time, and then the put in there,” Ridgway said. “It was a much-loved image that they fixed and then put in. So I just thought it was really, really nice to see.

Ridgway said this photo of Lincoln in his coffin was repaired before it was placed inside the cornerstone box. (Photo: Sam Hooper)

Ridgway said DHR’s goal is to preserve the artifacts until the next owner is identified.

“Who is this owner, we’re not sure,” she said. “We want to make sure that whoever ends up being will have as much information as we could give them, and then we can hopefully work with them in the future.”

This information-gathering process includes working with historians and researchers across the state to review and release documentation for the public on each artifact.

“We’ve already posted the first blog post on our website, which is about Angular Boxes and Time Capsules, and the inventory we’ve found so far,” Ridgway said. “Going forward, you’re going to see experts from all over the state. So we’re hoping to bring in people from The Valentine and Mount Vernon and the American Civil War Museum, and bring those people in and write good articles, so that we can get that information out to the public.

In total, there are three time capsules involved: the lead box first found in the Lee pedestal, the copper box detailed in the Richmond Dispatch article from 1887, and the new time capsule, which was sealed in September 2021.

Even Ridgway wonders what will happen to the 2021 time capsule, which was temporarily housed at DHR before being placed at the former site of Lee’s statue. But now that the pedestal has also been leveled, questions remain about what will happen to the new capsule. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told 8News his future was not yet determined.

After the experience of first opening the lead box and then the live-streamed copper cornerstone box, Ridgway reflected on the impact of this search for history following the removal of Lee’s statue from Monument. Ave.

“What I found most gratifying was that this story about history went around the world, and I was sent pictures and stories of students and small children who were allowed to stay. up late at night and watching this in another country, or whose story class was showing them the live stream,” she said. “Even though being live on TV is really nerve-wracking, the idea that we could inspire people to go into history and think about history in a different way, I thought that was fantastic. “