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Experts pull documents, money from Lee statue time capsule

Dec 28, 2021, 3:42 PM | Updated: 4:06 pm
Conservators work on a box believed to be a time capsule left in the pedestal at the former site of...
Conservators work on a box believed to be a time capsule left in the pedestal at the former site of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Tuesday’s opening of the aged copper box appeared to mark the end of a long search for the elusive 1887 time capsule. (AP Photo/Sarah Rankin)
(AP Photo/Sarah Rankin)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Conservation experts in Virginia’s capital Tuesday pulled books, money, ammunition, documents and other artifacts from a time capsule found in the remnants of a pedestal that once held a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway, said the measurements and material of the box, copper, match historical accounts. As the contents inside were unpacked, they appeared to match the description of the 1887 time capsule they had been looking for.

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

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

The box was discovered and carefully extracted from the monument site a day earlier, marking the end of a long search for the elusive capsule. Ridgway said the box, which weighed 36 pounds, was found in water in a little alcove of the pedestal. The contents were damp, but “it’s not soup,” Ridgway said.

“I think it’s in better shape than we expected,” she said.

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 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 — but did not appear to be the much-anticipated photo.

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Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar, had previously told The Associated Press he believed it highly 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.

After Ridgway and other team members meticulously extracted each object, other conservators would then cart the pieces to the back of the lab for further study and cataloging. The team made sure to photograph each object in the box before manipulating it.

Many of the paper items were damaged from water and time but still at least partly legible.

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

Conservators also pulled buttons, coins and Minié balls, a type of bullet used in the Civil War, from the box. A bomb squad had checked the capsule Monday, partly to make sure there was no live ammunition.

Related: Treasure chest hidden in Rocky Mountains finally found

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the enormous equestrian statue of Lee removed in 2020, amid the 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.

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

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Experts pull documents, money from Lee statue time capsule