Unearthed: Examining the contents of a 111 year old time capsule

By Jeff Hill | November 6, 2020

- Guest post by UVA Library Special Collections Conservator Sue Donovan

On September 12, 2020, the time capsule underneath the “At Ready”/“Johnny Reb” statue in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse came out of the ground after crews had carefully removed the tons of granite and bronze sitting over it. The time capsule, a copper box containing papers, books, and other artifacts, had been placed into a hole in the concrete foundation. The foundation had expanded over time, pressing in on the sides of the thin copper box, and causing the box lid to pop off. This meant that the time capsule had been soaking in groundwater since slightly after it was buried in 1909. Silt from the groundwater colored the water brown, coated the exterior of the contents, and effectively acted as an adhesive between the surfaces of once-distinct books and rosters. As the water level rose, the contents of the time capsule became bathed in a malignant microcosm perpetuated by a mixture of the inherent acidity of the paper, the metal of the box itself, and nature’s ultimate solvent: water.

photo of open metal box holding confused mass of soggy contents
As received by the UVA Library’s Special Collections Conservator Sue Donovan and Preservation Projects Specialist Nicole Royal, the time capsule was in less-than-ideal condition. photo: Nicole Royal

Unlike paper made from rags prior to the 1850s, most paper made with wood pulp has very short fibers and is inherently acidic. The paper in the time capsule simply did not have the structural integrity to withstand over a century of immersion in dirty, acidic water. Using strips of non-woven polyester and the capillary action of the wet pages, however, some sections of the severely damaged paper could be peeled apart to reveal less-damaged text in the middle of the piles. In addition to this paper evidence, a small flag, a silk ribbon, and three metal commemorative badges were salvaged from the time capsule, while three bullets and two small marbles were recovered from on top of the lid of the copper box.

The bullets, copper box, and badges were analyzed by archaeological conservators at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Interestingly, while the bullets were collected from a local battlefield and placed under a monument to a Confederate soldier, they were determined to be Union bullets based on the date and location of manufacture.

Gloved hands holding tweezers carefully peel back a ribbon from the contents of the open time capsule
A silk ribbon is carefully removed from the time capsule by Special Collections Conservator Sue Donovan. Its luster has faded over the years, but the ribbon is one of the few items in the capsule to survive even remotely intact. photo: Eze Amos

While the time capsule and its contents await a permanent storage solution, they are being stored in a low humidity environment to prevent further deterioration. The few paper-based items able to be peeled apart were air dried flat, with the exception of two slightly thicker sections that were sent to the UVA Library Preservation freezer.

According to the dedication printed in The Daily Progress on March 15, 1909, the contents of the time capsule were not meant to be seen again “until the angel Gabriel shall put one foot on the land and one in the sea, and proclaim that ‘time shall be no more.’”  While this did not occur, the inhospitable environment underneath the monument, which submerged the time capsule for decades in acidic water and silt, has indeed erased some of the contents for eternity.

Progress on the time capsule continues, and much information continues to be discovered about the contents. Please stayed tuned for more updates on the progress of this project.