The recent discovery of a “time capsule” hidden beneath the cornerstone of the Massachusetts’ State House has caused quite a stir in the social scientific community. The capsule has been attributed to none other than revolutionaries, Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. Hearing of its excavation from a snowy tomb, an audience of history buffs nibbled away at their fingernails whilst anxiously awaiting a peek inside. Last Wednesday, they finally got their chance.
About a week ago, the apparent time capsule was slowly and methodically being unveiled for the public after 160 years since its last discovery. Pamela Hatchfield, the head of the museum’s department of object conservation, was awarded the opportunity to extract the items. It took her nearly half a day of unscrewing to remove the lid. Donning a pair of latex gloves and specialized eye-wear, Hatchfield, delicately removed the items from the box using a porcupine quill and a dental tool belonging to her grandfather. Gasps and iterations of constrained excitement filled the room, as everyone was finally privy to its contents.
Despite being quite small (about the size of a cigar box), the box crammed ten pounds of items inside. As the oldest known capsule to date, its contents offer a window into Massachusetts’ rich past. The capsule contained items from the late 18th century, the time of George Washington and the young republic, as well as the mid-19th century, when construction workers and overseers found the original items and added to them.
The time capsule–which, because it was laid with no intended “open date,” is actually a foundational deposit, not a time capsule per say–was originally placed within the cornerstone on the 4th of July, 1795. (Essentially, the country’s 20th birthday.) According to Hatchfield, many of the objects were “part of the move to the new Statehouse.” She continued by stating that the procession was meant for the men to celebrate the “majesty of their new Statehouse”. The event had all the pomp and circumstance one would expect, with Massachusetts governor Samuel Adams leading a team of white horses that dragged the cornerstone to the site of the legislature. Paul Revere was also in attendance, and is credited with engraving the commemorative silver plate included in the findings.
Interestingly enough, both the original troupe that placed the coins (Sam Adams, Paul Revere, et al) and the group that uncovered the items in 1855 chose to place silver coins in the time capsule. This was likely done as a way to show posterity the values that America extols–liberty, democracy–through its coinage. The symbolism of the coins and their inscriptions communicate American virtues, while their presence (and uniform, neoclassical designs) speaks to America’s economic strength. Placed around the box, and encased in plaster, were several nineteenth-century coins. Of all the capsule’s coins, the oldest was the Pine Tree Shilling inscribed with the year-date 1652. Its 1652 year-date likely paid homage to the opening of the Massachusetts Mint, as well as the fact that Massachusetts colonists had taken it upon themselves to mint currency, a privilege that had previously been limited to monarchs: A fitting inclusion by the revolutionary men.
Accompanying these two dozen coins were all manner of fascinating antiquities. Featured among these were a medal featuring George Washington and a paper seal of the Commonwealth. Also included in the treasure trove was the title page of the Massachusetts’ Colony Records as well as several pages of newspaper. The newspapers, described as being in “amazingly good condition” by Hatchfield, serve as the perfect ancillary notes for studying the chronicle of Massachusetts.
Appraiser for the PBS show, Antiques Roadshow, Sebastian Clarke estimates the contents of the box to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, its true worth is not a measure of its monetary value, but of its historical significance. The antiquities will be placed on display in the museum. And after allowing audiences the opportunity to experience this piece of American history, the capsule will be placed back into the ground from whence it came. Whether or not contemporary objects will be placed into capsule is currently up for debate.
By Everett Millman and Shaquille Brissett