For about four years, there has been talk in Richmond, Va., that a time capsule from 1887 — rumored to contain a rare photo of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin — was hidden beneath a towering statue of Robert E. Lee.
After a failed attempt to find the time capsule in September, when the statue was taken down, historians are almost certain they discovered it on Friday. What they are less certain about is how to recover the artifact from the 1,500-pound block of granite it is nestled in.
Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said that the agency’s conservation lab was used to dealing with tiny pieces of pottery or bone or glass, but that it had never had to handle a rock like this.
“It wasn’t difficult to get it to the building and to get it into the conservation lab and set it down, but there it sits,” Ms. Langan said. “And it’s not like you can pick it up and move it easily, so that’s the dilemma.”
Conservators can’t exactly take a jackhammer or sledgehammer to the slab, either. If they do, they could damage the 134-year-old time capsule that may or may not be embedded inside or its contents, an estimated 60 objects, mostly related to the Confederate States of America, according to historical records.
Ann Morton, owner and principal of Morton Archaeological Research Services in Macedon, N.Y., said that even an enormous granite rock like the one in Richmond should have some sort of access mechanism, because the people who created it had to have a way to place it in the rock.
She added that time capsules from the Civil War era were relatively common, because it was a period of major social and political upheaval. “Time capsules were part of creating memory and making that memory permanent by putting something important in the ground and hoping that future generations would look at that material,” Dr. Morton said.
Time capsules have reportedly been found in Confederate statues in Louisiana, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas. In July 2020, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources opened a time capsule that had been buried in a Confederate monument since 1894.
The journalist and author Dale M. Brumfield, writing in Richmond magazine in December 2017, described finding references to the Richmond time capsule in historical records, including suggestions that it could contain a photo of Lincoln in his coffin.
Believing the capsule was embedded in the northeast corner of the pedestal, state officials gathered reporters and preservationists one day in September. After about 12 hours, the search was called off, the mystery of the time capsule stubbornly intact.
That changed on Friday, when a crew was disassembling the 40-foot-tall plinth the statue had rested on. They chiseled down to the granite slab, which has a lead rectangle on one side. It was discovered at a height of about 20 feet and appeared to be largely undamaged, according to the office of Gov. Ralph S. Northam.
In a small procession down Monument Avenue, a forklift carried the granite slab to the conservation lab.
Ms. Langan said all indications suggested that the lead rectangle was a part of a lead box housing the time capsule, though it was too early to say with 100 percent certainty. She said the lead box could house the time capsule, which is described in the historical records as a copper box.
“You can tap on the lead face plate, so to speak, and you can tell that there is a hollow void beneath it,” Ms. Langan said.
Once the granite slab is chipped down by at least half, it will be put through an X-ray machine to determine the orientation of the box and where its lid is, Ms. Langan said. “It’s going to be a delicate process to reach it and then to open it without doing any damage to it,” she said.
But first, they must wrestle with the granite.