RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — More than 130 years after artifacts were placed in a copper box and sealed within the pedestal that would sit beneath the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) has compiled a detailed inventory of what was found inside when that box was unearthed in Dec. 2021.
8News visited DHR on Wednesday for an up-close look at the artifacts, including some that were not previously known to be inside the copper box.
“We had the original 1887 inventory from the Richmond Dispatch with us when we were looking at these artifacts, both while we were taking them out of the box and afterward,” State Archaeological Conservator Katherine Ridgway said. “We’ve found that there are many calling cards and letters and things that were not specifically spoken about in the inventory.”
Published in Oct. 1887, the Richmond Dispatch article detailed 60 objects within the time capsule. While some of those objects have not been identified, conservators have been working to compare items that are similar to what was described in the publication, as well as preserve and document new artifacts that were found.
One such artifact was a $10 Confederate note with a letter from George A. Notting, regarding his son’s contribution to the box.
“There’s a letter in there from a gentleman about his 10-year-old son who wanted to donate something to the cornerstone box, and this idea that that’s something everyone can sort of relate to,” Ridgway said.
Ridgway referred to what has been called the Lee time capsule as a cornerstone box, noting that the mindset that, when placed inside the Lee pedestal in 1887, the box was never meant to be opened.
“When this was put into the Lee monument, time capsules were not a thing yet. So, in reality, this is a cornerstone box,” she said. “It represents a very foundational moment in putting together this monument to Robert E. Lee. So a lot of what is inside it isn’t about representing Richmond as a whole. It’s about representing this idea of Robert E. Lee and memorializing him, and the masonic tradition of laying a cornerstone.”
Before locating the copper cornerstone box, a different kind of time capsule was found in the Lee pedestal. But it didn’t match the description of what had been published in the 1887 Richmond Dispatch article.
“The unexpected lead box, which was much higher and more central in the pedestal, what we’ve found so far is that it appears to be things that have to do with the people who built the Lee monument,” Ridgway said. “It was a very different kind of box. It wasn’t about the ceremony of the masons. It was about them and the people they were and what they wanted to have people remember about them.”
Since the copper cornerstone box was opened in December, conservators have continued their preservation work, which included freezing some of the more fragile artifacts to prevent deterioration. That included an unknown textbook, as well as the Annual Convocation of the Grand Chapter of the State of Virginia, dated 1886, which was not listed in the Richmond Dispatch’s article.
Other previously unlisted items include a letter from Blair Meanley, dated Oct. 22, 1887; a letter from W.H. Sands to W.B. Isaacs; the Programme of the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine on the occasion of the laying of the corner-stone, which was found with the Meanley letter; an unidentified Masonic booklet; and several newspaper articles from various publications.
Conservators have also worked to preserve the packaging in which some of the artifacts were found, such as paper, twine and even a rubber band that still stretches.
“We’re treating the whole thing as a part of history,” Ridgway said. “We don’t want to presume to know what the historians are going to find of value.”
In addition to finding unexpected artifacts inside the copper cornerstone box, Ridgway said that conservators have gathered new information about some of the more sought-after pieces of history during the preservation and documentation processes. One such artifact was a picture of President Abraham Lincoln in his coffin, which turned out to be a printed image, rather than an actual photograph.
“It had been mended, which is, as a conservator, that’s what I do for a living, and so somebody mended this and had cherished it for a long time, and then put it in there,” Ridgway said. “This was a well-loved image that they repaired and then put in there. So I just thought that was really just lovely to see.”
Ridgway said that DHR’s goal is to preserve the artifacts until the next owner is identified.
“Who that owner is, we’re not sure,” she said. “We want to make sure that whoever it ends up being will have as much information as we could gleam for them, and then we can work with them in the future, hopefully.”
That information gathering process includes working with historians and researchers from across the state to have them examine and publish documentation for the public about each artifact.
“We’ve already put the first blog article out there on our website, which is about cornerstone boxes and time capsules, and the inventory that we’ve found so far,” Ridgway said. “In the future, you’re going to see experts from around the state. So we’re hoping to get people in from The Valentine and Mount Vernon and the American Civil War Museum, and have these folks come and write good articles so that we can get this information out to the public.”
In total, there are three time capsules involved: the lead box first found in the Lee pedestal, the copper box detailed in the 1887 Richmond Dispatch article and the new time capsule, which was sealed in Sept. 2021.
Even Ridgway has questions about what will become of the 2021 time capsule, which was housed temporarily at DHR before being placed at the former site of the Lee statue. But now that the pedestal has also been leveled, questions remain about what will be done with the new capsule. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told 8News that its future has yet to be determined.
After the experience of opening first the lead box and then the copper cornerstone box on live broadcast, Ridgway reflected on the impact of this search for history following the removal of the Lee statue from Monument Ave.
“What I found most rewarding is that this story about history made it around the world, and I was getting sent pictures and stories about students and little children who were allowed to stay up late at night and watch this in another country, or whose history class was showing them the live stream,” she said. “As much as being live on television is really nerve-wracking, the idea that we could inspire people to go into history and to think about history in a different way, I thought that was fantastic.”