So often the past is lost because it was not preserved somehow, whether by writings, word of mouth, or in rare times it is preserved because someone put things in a time capsule to be opened at a later date. Most of us think of time capsules as a fairly modern concept, but they really aren’t. A few years ago, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and other dignitaries were on hand to witness the opening of one of the nation’s oldest time capsules, located in the Art of the Americas wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The date was January 6, 2015. The museum’s conservator, Pam Hatchfield removed the screws from the corners of the brass box and carefully extracted its contents using tools including a porcupine quill and a dental pick that belonged to her grandfather.

In December, Hatchfield had spent nearly seven hours extracting the time capsule from the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. The event brought with it an electrical feeling of excitement. The brass box, now green with age, measured 5.5 by 7.5 by 1.5 inches, which is a little smaller than a cigar box. It weighed 10 pounds. The contents of the time capsule were not a complete surprise, because the original time capsule had been removed in 1855, during some repairs to the building. At that time, its contents were cleaned and documented before it was placed back in the cornerstone.

More recently, workers fixing a leak unearthed the time capsule that had been placed in the building’s cornerstone more than two centuries earlier. But even after X-raying and examining the box, Hatchfield and her colleagues had no way of knowing what kind of condition the ancient contents would be in, nor did they have any idea of what was inside. The first items removed from the time capsule were folded newspapers. They were in “amazingly good condition” according to Hatchfield. There were five newspapers all, including copies of the Boston Bee and Boston Traveler. Next they removed 23 coins, in denominations of half-cent (something modern people haven’t heard of), penny, quarter, dime and half-dime (Isn’t that a nickel? I guess it hadn’t been named yet). Some of the coins dated back to the mid-19th century, but some were from 1795. There was also a so-called “Pine Tree Shilling” dated to 1652. Just the coins alone are an amazing find, but they wouldn’t be proof of who had placed them in the box. The box also contained a copper medal with George Washington’s image and the words “General of the American Army,” a seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. There was no clear indication of who it had belonged to. Finally, Hatchfield removed a silver plate with fingerprints still on it, bearing an inscription dedicating the State House cornerstone on the 20th anniversary of American independence in July 1795. While the silver plate is amazing, to me, the fingerprints are a stellar find.

“This cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esquire, governor of the said Commonwealth,” Michael Comeau, executive director of the Massachusetts Archives, read from the plate’s inscription to the assembled crowd, adding “How cool is that.” It is believed that the plate was the work of Paul Revere, the master metalsmith and engraver turned Revolutionary hero who placed the time capsule alongside Adams and William Scollay, a colonel in the Revolutionary War. It took nearly an hour to remove all the items from the time capsule. I’m sure they wanted to be both careful, and also have a really good look at them. The museum’s conservators then began the work on preserving the contents so they could be put on display. According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State, William Galvin, the time capsule will eventually be returned to the cornerstone, but it’s not certain whether state officials will add any new objects to it before burying it again.

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