220-year-old time capsule found inside Boston State House
To us, treasure is measured by exotic goods and buried treasure, for some, treasures are an old high school newspaper clippings the day they graduated, or letters from a loved one, or even a memento from a family member who is no longer with us. These little treasures give us a glimpse of the past, and for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they found a time capsule that could rival Montezuma’s gold; a treasure rich in history.
The story begins in 2014
A leaking pipe is a routine quick fix, especially in old buildings like the Massachusetts State House, a national landmark that has seen the earliest findings of our country since 1798. To put it simply, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the repairs, but what was peculiar was what was found during the repairs.
Construction workers discovered something that did not belong in the building’s blueprints. The mystery object was rectangular and withered with age. Upon further inspection, the repairmen realized that whatever it was, it warranted special attention from Boston’s finest experts at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Time to call in the experts
At first, the rectangular shape looked like an anomaly in the cornerstone. They called conservators from the Boston Museum of Fine Art along with the Boston Globe, excited about a possible historical find. The repairmen did not disappoint. Called to the Massachusetts State House was museum conservator Pam Hatchfield, who rolled up to the scene after exciting news of the curious but historic find.
Construction workers removed the cornerstone from the building and propped up a mystery block on two wooden posts so that Hatchfield could slide under. Hatchfield slowly chipped away the debris, revealing that the mystery box was a large container. It took six grueling hours, and it was December, so Hatchfield was up against the elements.
The container was more than 160 years old
As Hatchfield tapped away at the container. The press and onlookers alike were shocked to see two silver coins fall from the plaster surrounding the container. The crowd was thrilled and speculations from the press ran wild. It was clear that this discovery was a national treasure.
The coins turned out to be no older than 160 years old (minted in 1855). Could the container belong to the Victorian era? Finally, the box came loose, it slowly landed into Hatchfield’s hands. When she slid away from the cornerstone, she realized that the box she held in her hand was older than it appeared.
Flashback to 1855
The brass container pulled from the cornerstone was green with age and measured 5.5 by 7.5 by 1.5 inches — no bigger than a cigar box — and weighed about 10 pounds. Carefully opening the box, conservators were shocked at what was inside. The age of its contents did not match the age of the brass container.
That’s because Hatchfield was not the first to open the box. After looking through records, historians determined the container was placed in the cornerstone in 1855 after finding the original in the same place. It was a time capsule (literally), filled with trinkets of the past. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was quick to find a record of what was waiting for them inside.
Was everything ruined?
With the time capsule in hand, Hatchfield and the rest of the museum officials were eager to know what was inside. However, they were hesitant to handle objects that may be damaged inside. Cleaning methods during the 19th century weren’t perfect, and museum staff was afraid that the coins inside might have been acid wash before placed back inside the container.
If the coins were acid washed, they could have been eroded, if not destroyed, both the coins and the other contents inside. After x-raying the box, they wanted to make sure that everything was in order before opening the (almost) long-forgotten time capsule. Hatchfield and her colleagues held their breath as they carefully unscrewed the box.
A porcupine quill and dental tools were used to extract the artifacts
The entire event was broadcasted and took place at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in front of a painting of George Washington (how fitting). To help take out the artifacts, she used a porcupine quill (the reason was never explained, but hey, you do you, Hatchfield) as well as dental tools that belonged to her grandfather.
As they carefully looked over each artifact within the box, the museum was able to determine that the time capsule was buried by Revolutionary War hero, Paul Revere. Woah…Paul Revere!? Yup. And he wasn’t the only one who participated in burying the time capsule. Samuel Adams and a local developer named William Scollay also took part in its burial.
What makes a time capsule?
There’s something innately sentimental about the human condition that drives us to preserve memories. A sense of existence that reminds our descendants, “yes, we were here, we lived too.” The earliest humans left their handprints on cave walls, our grandmothers created hope chests to pass down through generations, and today, some of us keep our past in a box under the bed or above the closet (is that just us?).
These things are time capsules, waiting for us when we are feeling nostalgic. The same emotions and logic apply to a time capsules. But, really, what makes a time capsule? According to his book, “Time Capsules: A Cultural History,” William E. Jarvis asserts that its a defined period of time. A time capsule must have an end date, a time to resurface.
A time capsule must have an end date
Although historians are justifiably excited by the discovery of the Paul Revere time capsule, some speculate that it may not technically qualify as one. As stated earlier by William Jarvis, a time capsule needs to have an end date. For instance, if you stored your wedding dress for the next generation to wear, then there’s a definitive date.
If it’s untouched until that day, then it’s considered a time capsule. However, according to TIME Magazine, the cornerstone time capsule buried by Revere is most likely (what Jarvis called) a “foundation deposit.” Without specific instructions about how to handle the box, it was most likely placed in the cornerstone during a commemorative event.
Why was the time capsule in the State House anyway?
Linking the definition of a time capsule with a foundation deposit may provide clues as to why Revere’s Boston “time capsule” was placed in the cornerstone of the State House. As a result, the capsule may have been associated with rituals of Freemasonry, known as ceremonial cornerstones. They were a common occurrence throughout early American history.
The tradition of ceremonial cornerstones reaches back thousands of years, to ancient Mesopotamia. The ritual was connected to the “sanctification” of the building. As time passed, it evolved into a religious practices for churches and cathedrals. Holy objects would be placed in the foundation of a building for religious purposes, and it is presumed the same with the Paul Revere time capsule.
George Washington conducted a cornerstone ceremony
Connecting the time capsule back to Revolutionary War period America, it’s documented that George Washington conducted a similar ceremony in 1793 at the US capitol. But don’t get too excited — since its time, the foundation deposit remains a lost treasure, yet to be found. For the Boston time capsule, it was much different, and historians were fortunate to find it.
That’s why historians believe the Boston time capsule may have been a part of Masonic ceremony, most likely on July 4th, 1795, which was right around the time Paul Revere was Grand Master of the state’s Freemason fraternity. If he did conduct the ceremony, according to the current Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, he most likely delivered a speech.
And Paul Revere said…
During a ceremony honoring those who helped to establish the State House, Paul Revere congratulated the individuals gathered. It was during the ceremony that he spoke patriotic words of liberty and described the laws that would govern the new country. In his speech, he spoke about the promise of freedom and the establishment of just laws.
Revere told the attendees: “May we my brethren, so square our Actions thro life as to shew to the World of Mankind, that we mean to live within the Compass of Good Citizens that we wish to Stand upon a Level with them that when we part we may be admitted into that Temple where Reigns Silence & peace.” Close that in the box and bury it in a cornerstone, because that’s history!
More than what Hatchfield imagined
To hold a bit of the country’s history was a rare and proud moment for Hatchfield. How often are you chosen to open a 220-year-old time capsule that was assembled by our founding fathers? Not often, she suspects. Pulling back the lid, she couldn’t help but become overwhelmed with anticipation and the thrill of being involved in this historic event.
Peering in, she couldn’t stop saying “wow.” Very carefully, she pulled out the first specimen inside. It was just as the records from 1855 described. First, she took out 24 coins, which included half-cent, one-cent, half-time, 10-cent, and 25-cent coins. There was another set of coins that was nearly 400 years old — pine tree shillings dated from 1625.
Old records report paper and coins
Believe it or not, the Paul Revere time capsule was originally discovered in 1855 during (surprise!) repairs. You would think you’d hear more stories of construction workers gone rich, but we digress. When our Victorian ancestors found the box and looked inside, they too were surprised to find relics dating back to 1795. That’s right: post-Revolutionary War memorabilia.
Inside, officials found coins and newspapers dating back to when George Washington was in office. Stunned and full of pride, public officials replaced the cowhide box with a brass container and cleaned coins and the other mementos inside. Officials put the box back into the cornerstone where they found it — tossing two silver coins for good luck — allowing future generations to discover it again.
The copper coins saved everything inside the time capsule
Hatchfield and other historians were astonished at how well-preserved everything was inside. CNN reports that a large number of the copper coins might have helped protect the artifacts inside. Copper has antibacterial properties, properties that can rapidly kill not just fungi, but viruses, bacteria, and yeasts.
Hatchfield says everything was in “amazingly good condition.” Aside from coins, Hatchfield pulled out five folded newspapers, a Massachusetts commonwealth seal, a title page from Massachusetts’ colony records, and respectfully, 24 coins. But the real prize was tucked at the very bottom — something neither Hatchfield or her colleagues ever expected to find: the real treasure.
A silver plate with an engraving
At the bottom of the box was a rectangular silver plate with inscriptions. Hatchfield was mesmerized at the find. She looked to her colleagues, and they both knew what she was thinking. The question rose and hung in the air: Could this have been made by Paul Revere? It’s likely — in fact, it’s their best-educated guess.
What really takes the cake is the fact that the plate still had fingerprints on the surface. Yes… fingerprints. It is unclear whether whose fingers smudged the silver plate. They most likely belong to those sneaky Victorians from when they were cleaning the items before putting them back in the box. Imagine if they were Paul Revere’s?
Paul Revere was not just an American war hero
We all know who Paul Revere is — at least those of us who were paying attention during their American history class. A first-generation American, Revere’s father was a master silversmith who taught his son the trade and became one of the finest silversmiths in America.
He made everything from surgical instruments, spectacles, and engraved copper plates — one of which depicts his version of the Boston Massacre. It wasn’t long before he began supporting the patriot cause and became an important link between artisans and intellects. In 1773, he donned Native American garbs and dumped tea in the Boston Harbor. But that wasn’t what he was famous for.
The British are coming!
On April 16, 1775, Paul Revere rode to Concord to warn patriots to move their military stores which were endangered by oncoming British troops. But there’s a couple of things about Revere’s ride that got fudged in the history books. For one, Revere never said, “the British are coming!” In fact, he never even made it to Concord.
What really happened: Revere and two other men made the journey to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the British troops. But Revere was detained in Lexington by the British, so he was unable to deliver the message personally. Thankfully, the group had split up, and one of his party’s members, Samuel Prescott, made it to Concord and delivered the news with the help of a few friends and a good horse. Yikes, that sucks for Prescott…we can just picture it now, hopping off his horse, thinking to himself, people are going to remember me for this.
Paul Revere wasn’t the only hero
Though Paul Revere is often regarded as a true patriot and beloved Revolutionary War hero, there was another unsung hero (besides Prescott) that was nearly swept into the dustbin of history. Her name was Sybil Ludington; she a 16-year-old girl from New York. Her father, who owned a small gristmill, was a colonel for the local patriot troops.
His land was along a route between Connecticut and the coast of Long Island Sound, an area that was vulnerable to British attack. Then on April 1777, the unthinkable happened. Colonel Ludington received word from a rider that Danbury (a town nearby Colonel Ludington’s property) was under attack by British troops and was in desperate need of help. But there was a problem.
Everyone was scattered
The news was a shock to the colonel. To make matters worse: His regiment disbanded for planting season, which meant his men were miles apart at their respective farms. The colonel needed to warn his men, but the rider who delivered the news and his horse were too weary to carry on the journey.
Enter: Sybil Ludington. Ludington stepped up to plate and it was decided that she would make the journey to warn her father’s men. Historians are unclear about whether she volunteered or if her father asked for her services; but we do know that she rode between 20 to 40 miles through the forest and rain to gather the troops.
A little too late
By the time Sybil returned home, she was soaked in rain and completely exhausted from the trip. However, it was too late to rouse the men. When she returned home, hundreds of men were preparing for battle, but the remaining soldiers arrived a little too late. They were at least able to fight against the departing British soldiers.
Although they were late to help their neighbor (don’t worry, because spoiler alert: ultimately, they won), George Washington personally thanked her for her heroic act in supporting the country’s patriot forces. She later became known as “the female Paul Revere” and honored by her descendants in the early 20th century…statue and all.
Not the only time capsule
As stated earlier, time capsules (or the idea of time capsules) have been around for over millennia (even if Jarvis begs to differ). As we coast through time and return to the semi-present, we find humanity found itself at a crossroads. With technology evolving every day, it’s hard to keep track of the milestones. But what isn’t difficult is finding the past.
The Boston time capsule, sure to go down in history as one of America’s beloved treasures, is one of many American time capsules that have withstood the test of time and have been discovered in recent years. One of those was in the same city the Revere time capsule was found in…Boston! Except, this time capsule wasn’t as old.
Victorians participated in the time capsule movement too
The same year the Boston time capsule was discovered, a time capsule hidden in the head of a lion statue was also recovered. It was discovered in Boston’s Old State House (how many state houses does one city need?). We wish we were making this up, but during the same year, public officials removed the crown that rested on the head of the building’s lion statue.
Inside, officials pulled out a brass box that hadn’t seen sunlight since 1901. When conservators opened the brass box, they were surprised to see what was inside. Still polished as if were forged just yesterday, the brass gleamed. But that wasn’t all they found. They were shocked when they came face-to-face with the past.
Inside was a mysterious red book
Officials were stunned to see that the box was in pristine condition. Inside the container was a nest of ripped newspaper and, sitting in the center of it all, laid the box’s singular item: a book. But here’s the weird part: The book wasn’t titled. The hardcover was red and untouched.
To this day, no one knows what’s inside the book. It remains a mystery and has been since its discovery in 2014. The excuse? The item(s) inside were reportedly too delicate to handle (we don’t know though, we would have picked that book right up). We smell a conspiracy.
Thornwell’s Crypt of Civilization
Want to know the biggest time capsule to date? Look no further than Thornwell Jacobs’ Crypt of Civilization. In 1936, Jacobs was inspired to create a time capsule, one inspired by ancient Egyptian Pyramids. He and fellow colleagues banded together to create a time capsule of their own, one that will be hidden and buried for more than 6,000 years.
Why 6,000 years? Because it’s the same amount of time that passed before archaeologists opened the first Egyptian pyramids. No kidding! It took place in Georgia and Jacobs called the storage space full of relics from the 1930s the “Crypt of Civilization.” Inside: An original script from Gone with the Wind, a machine that teaches English, and a Budweiser bottle. The crypt is scheduled to be opened on May 28, 8113, so don’t hold your breath.
We may put something in the Boston time capsule
At the end of the day, we all want to be remembered. We do it in the photos we take, the toys we keep, even in the relics we happen to pick up. It’s easy to forget that the people who were here before us shaped the world as we know it. So, bury a box, pass down that wristwatch, and see who will discover the past.
As for the Boston time capsule, Hatchfield, and her team plan to return it back into the cornerstone. However, there is still debate as to whether or not they want to add a little piece of our history along with it. After all, someday, we’ll be part of history, too.