RICHMOND, Va. – A state conservator in Virginia began the delicate task Wednesday of trying to open a 134-year-old time capsule that had sat beneath a towering a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond.
Chelsea Blake, a conservator with Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, pressed a vibrating tool with a hard metal tip against the rectangular capsule about the size of a large shoe box, covered in various tones of brown and green.
Opening the capsule has so far proven to be a challenging - and time consuming - task. As of early Wednesday afternoon, Blake was still sitting at a table with her gloved hands working various tools along the capsule’s edges.
You can watch the entire video of the capsule being opened here:
The container was made of lead, which was heavily corroded, not the copper that state officials had expected. The capsule was also partly covered in mortar, which must be gingerly chipped away while trying to preserve as much as they can. Both the box and its contents are considered artifacts.
The time capsule had sat under the massive bronze equestrian statue of Lee, which was erected in 1890, for more than 130 years. Long seen as a symbol of racial injustice in the former capital of the Confederacy, the monument was taken down in September.
The time capsule was found Friday by crews working to remove the pedestal where the Lee statue had stood.
Before the work began to open the capsule Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam said that Virginia doesn’t need monuments that glorify the Confederacy.
“We are a Commonwealth that embraces diversity,” he said. “We are inclusive.”
The capsule was embedded in a 1,500-pound (680-kilogram) granite block. A newspaper article from 1887 suggests the capsule contains Civil War memorabilia and a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin,” although historians believe it’s doubtful the picture is an actual photograph, which would be rare and valuable.
Records from the Library of Virginia suggest that 37 Richmond residents, organizations and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, many of which are believed to be related to the Confederacy.
It’s removal in September came more than a year after Northam ordered that it be taken down following protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The day after the statue was removed, work crews spent more than 12 hours searching for the time capsule in the 40-foot-tall (12-meter-tall) pedestal but were unable to locate it.
The Lee statue was one of five Confederate tributes along Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the only one that belonged to the state. The four city-owned statues were taken down in 2020, but the Lee statue removal was blocked by two lawsuits until a ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia in September cleared the way for it to be taken down.
Northam, a Democrat, announced earlier this month that the enormous pedestal would be removed, a reversal from September, when the governor said the pedestal would stay in place so its future could be determined by a community-driven effort to reimagine Monument Avenue.
After Floyd’s killing in 2020, the Lee statue became a focal point of the racial justice movement in Richmond. Since then, the pedestal has been covered in graffiti, some of it profane and much of it denouncing the police. Some activists wanted to see it remain in place as a work of protest art.