US experts open time capsule discovered in Robert E Lee statue

Virginia statue of Confederate general who led the South in US Civil War was removed after Black Lives Matters protests.

Conservation experts in the United States have pulled buttons, coins, documents and other artefacts from a time capsule found in the remnants of a pedestal that once held a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee in the US state of Virginia.

The lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway, said the measurements and material of the box matched historical accounts.

As the contents inside were unpacked on Tuesday, they appeared to match the description of the 1887 time capsule that experts had been looking for.

Records maintained by the Library of Virginia suggested that dozens of Richmond residents, organisations and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, including Confederate memorabilia.

“It does appear that this is the box we expected,” Ridgway told reporters.

General Lee led the pro-slavery South in the US Civil War and monuments to him have been a flashpoint in recent battles over racial justice.

Workers react after the 1887 time capsule was removed from the former Robert E Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, December 27, 2021 [Jay Paul/Reuters]

Virginia’s governor ordered the enormous equestrian statue of Lee removed in 2020 amid a global protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Litigation pushed back his plans, and the statue was not removed until September, after a court cleared the way.

The box was discovered and carefully extracted from the monument site on Monday, marking the end of a long search for the elusive capsule.

“They found it! This is likely the time capsule everyone was looking for,” Governor Ralph Northam tweeted after the box was plucked from the rubble.

Ridgway said the box, which weighed 16.6kg (36lbs), was found in water in a little alcove of the pedestal. The contents were damp, but “it’s not soup”, Ridgway said, adding: “I think it’s in better shape than we expected.”

News accounts from the late 1800s detailed the placement of the time capsule in the foundation of the pedestal, and imaging tests conducted earlier this year appeared to confirm its existence. But a lengthy search during the September statue removal came up empty.

Earlier this month, Northam ordered the pedestal removed as well, and crews working on the project again started to search for the artefact.

A time capsule was discovered two weeks ago, generating excitement, but hours of painstaking and ultimately anti-climactic examination suggested that the artefact was placed by someone else, perhaps someone involved with the construction.

Historical records had led to some speculation that the capsule might contain a rare and historically significant photo of deceased President Abraham Lincoln. One line from a newspaper article also listed among the contents a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin”.

On Tuesday, conservators found a printed image from an 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly in the time capsule that Ridgway said seemed to show a figure grieving over Lincoln’s grave – and did not appear to be the much-anticipated photo.

Construction workers remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee in Richmond, VirginiaThe statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee was removed in Richmond, Virginia, in September [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar, previously told The Associated Press news agency that he believed it unlikely that the time capsule contained an actual photograph of Lincoln in his coffin because the only known photo of Lincoln in death was taken by photographer Jeremiah Gurney in City Hall in New York on April 24, 1865.

The contents of the tightly packed box had expanded from the damp and stuck together, making unpacking difficult, so conservators decided to relieve pressure by cutting down one side.

“Not ideal but it’s the way it is,” Ridgway said.

Along with several waterlogged books and various documents, the box contained an envelope of Confederate money, which conservators carefully separated, and two carved artefacts — a Masonic symbol and a Confederate flag said to have been made from the tree that grew over General Stonewall Jackson’s original grave.



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