What's inside that 1887 time capsule opened in Confederacy's capital

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(RICHMOND, Va.) -- A time capsule estimated to be more than 130 years old, unearthed from the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was opened Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia, and the artifacts showed a snapshot of life in the Confederate capital.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam watched intently as historians used tools to painstakingly open the corroded box. After hours of working to unseal it, the team -- wearing blue gloves -- pulled out the first artifact: a thin maroon-colored book.

"It's very wet," Kate Ridgeway, a conservator with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said as she peered into the rusted time capsule.

"We are trying to preserve what we can of this book," she said.

Conservators pulled out other items: what appeared to be a coin, a few books of varying size and color, what appeared to be an envelope with a photo inside. Some of the items were difficult to identify given their condition.

Teams quickly worked to "stabilize" the artifacts that were found, Ridgeway told reporters in the room, so that they could be worked on. As for how long it takes to stabilize them, historians said it depends on how wet the items are.

The Washington Post reported that one of the books appears to be an almanac from 1875, and a copy of “The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion.”

Dale Brumfield, a local historian and author who has researched the time capsule, quickly began to theorize about what the contents of the box meant after learning about its size, material and contents.

"These facts just aren't adding up," Brumfield told ABC News. "So, I knew right from the beginning that something was amiss. And the more I thought about it, the more I studied my notes, and some of the historical records. I said this this is a different time capsule."

Brumfield was also suspicious about the box after learning that it was found 20 feet up the pedestal. Given the information, he developed a theory of his own: "It's just an ego trip for the builders of this monument."

He thinks that the books and photos relate to two men who were involved in the construction of the pedestal who wanted their own time capsule.

"I believe that those guys were left out of the original time capsule, and they decided that they wanted to commemorate themselves by putting this small lead box up 20 feet up, which is the halfway point in the construction. They put their basically stopped construction, maybe had a little private ceremony, put this little lead box in, covered it up, and then continued construction with no media coverage at all," Brumfield said. "It was just their own like their own little secret."

There was also speculation that there would be more very rare and valuable artifacts in the original time capsule. ABC News-affiliate WJLA reports that there were rumors of an incredibly rare photograph of the casket of former President Abraham Lincoln.

The time capsule was found by construction crews in early December. Crews taking apart the removed statue's base came across an area that looked "different," according to a release from Northam's office, and chiseled out a section of the 1,200-pound granite block to reveal it.

The capsule is estimated by experts to date back to 1887. According to the governor's office, records show that, "37 Richmond residents, organizations, and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, many of which are believed to be related to the Confederacy."

The pedestal stood beneath a bronze statue of Lee on horseback that was removed in September 2021, following nationwide racial justice protests after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

The statue's removal was slowed by lawsuits from some residents who opposed it being taken down, but the state's Supreme Court okayed it.

As the capsule was opened, the state was making plans to create a new time capsule to reflect present-day Virginia.

"This monument and its time capsule reflected Virginia in 1890 -- and it’s time to remove both, so that our public spaces better reflect who we are as a people in 2021," Northam said in a September press release. "The past 18 months have seen historic change, from the pandemic to protests for racial justice that led to the removal of these monuments to a lost cause. It is fitting that we replace the old time capsule with a new one that tells that story."

The state has selected 39 individuals to add artifacts to the 2021 time capsule, which are expected to include nods to the 2020 racial justice protests, as well as items, including face masks and vaccination cards, related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although this is one piece of the puzzle, some historians like Brumfield think that this isn't the end of the story, he thinks that the official time capsule is still yet to be found.

"I think it will be recovered as they remove the foundation, and then we'll finally get a chance to see what in the devil that picture of Abraham Lincoln really is," Brumfield said. "So I'm looking forward to that day coming."

Thursday, December 23, 2021 at 1:48PM by Michelle Stoddart, ABC News Permalink