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135-Year-Old Robert E. Lee Time Capsule a Huge, Soggy Let-Down

After hours of meticulous work, conservators found just three books, an envelope, and a coin, far short of the 60 artifacts expected.

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Image for article titled 135-Year-Old Robert E. Lee Time Capsule a Huge, Soggy Let-Down
Screenshot: ABC 8 News

Virginia conservators spent hours meticulously chipping away at a time capsule that had laid buried beneath a towering statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee for nearly 135 years.

When the box was finally pried open (as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam awkwardly hovered overhead), the conservators revealed a brown bound notebook. Underneath that was another larger bound book and what appeared to be a cloth envelope clinging to loose papers and a single coin. In total, just three books, one envelope, and a coin were pulled from the box, far fewer than the 60 artifacts the governor’s office has previously estimated were in the box. Experts are still trying to discern more details from the documents, which all had substantial water damage.

Image for article titled 135-Year-Old Robert E. Lee Time Capsule a Huge, Soggy Let-Down
Screenshot: ABC 8 News
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The Conservators faced a number of challenges while opening the time capsule. For starters, the box was made almost entirely of lead and covered with mortar, which made chipping away at the box’s edges a test of precision, patience, and strength. Workers tore at the box for hours with a dull knife-like instrument. At one point, one of the workers had to step away halfway through to treat several blisters that had formed on her hand.

But those weren’t the biggest problems. Officials had hoped the more than 100-year-old artifact had avoided water damage, but pretty early on, experts could tell that wasn’t the case. That moisture was made worse when the box was opened and exposed to oxygen.

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“Atmosphere changes are a big drastic change for artifacts and that atmosphere change can be problematic for historic documents,” one of the conservators said. Time was of the essence.

Normally, if moisture was discovered the conservators said they would stop and wait to let the climate inside the box adjust to its outside surroundings, but that wasn’t possible in this case with the clock ticking and eyeballs glued to the livestream. Conservators quickly placed blotting paper inside the box in an effort to protect the artifact from additional damage.

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The time capsule was originally found within the pedestal that once sat below a large statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That statute, which was removed earlier this year, was first erected in 1890 but has come under scrutiny from residents and activists for its glorification of the Confederacy. Virginia’s Supreme Court voted to allow Gov. Norham to move the statue in September. Two months later, the Governor’s Office announced they would remove the pedestal the statue sat atop as well.

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Workers dismantling the pedestal stumbled upon the time capsule on December 17 in the pedestal’s tower about 20 feet off the ground. The lead box, previously believed to have been copper, measured around 4 inches high, 8 inches wide, 11-and-a-half inches deep according to local outlet WAVY. Historians believe the time capsule itself dates back to October 27, 1887. Prior to opening the box, historians believed it could have held as many as 60 artifacts, with many related to the confederacy, according to the Governor’s Office. Newspaper articles from the time the capsule was buried meanwhile claimed the capsule could have included a photograph of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin, USA Today notes.

The Governor’s Office announced they are calling on residents to submit objects to replace the time capsule with another one that “represents the Commonwealth of today.”