The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Workers dismantling base of Richmond’s Lee monument and find what could be a time capsule

Workers disassembling the pedestal that held a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond discovered what appears to be a time capsule thought to store dozens of objects related to the Confederacy on Dec. 17. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia state historian Julie Langan had almost given up hope that any time capsule was buried under the massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that came down earlier this year. Then workers called Friday morning with exciting news.

They had found an anomaly while dismantling the monument’s 40-foot stone plinth. Scraping away an odd-looking layer of mortar revealed a rectangular shape cut into a chunk of rock — seemingly the right size to contain a time capsule thought to have been placed under the statue’s base in 1887.

By the end of the day, the rock — estimated at 1,500 pounds — had been hauled out of the remains of the plinth and examined on the ground. Langan and other experts are pretty confident it contains the capsule. The question now is how to get it open.

“It was a little unexpected,” said Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. After a day-long search in September had failed to turn up any sign of the relic, “some of us wondered whether the time capsule was here to be found,” she said.

The time capsule is thought to store some 60 items related to the Confederacy — most tantalizingly, a possible image of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket, as suggested in cryptic news accounts at the time.

Those reports said a 14-by-14-by-8-inch copper box was placed at the site — in what was then a tobacco field — three years before the equestrian figure of Lee was unveiled in 1890.

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The statue became the center of racial justice protests in 2020, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) condemned it as a symbol of inequity and ordered its removal. After the statue came down in September, state workers searched for the time capsule under a cornerstone of the pedestal, but came up empty and abandoned the search.

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They had been looking on the northwest side of the monument, which historians said was the usual location for such an artifact under traditions dating back centuries.

But on Friday, workers dismantling the pedestal found the anomaly almost in the center of the structure, and about 20 feet above the ground. It appeared largely undamaged. Workers said the location offers excellent odds that it was protected from water that so often reduces time capsule contents to mush.

Crews dismantling the plinth were reluctant to jackhammer the stone around what appeared to be the metal lid of the box for fear of causing damage. After long debate, Langan and other officials decided to haul the stone off to the Historic Resources office a few blocks away.

The stone was placed onto a wooden pallet, covered with a white tarp and duct tape and then carried carefully down Monument Avenue by a vehicle called a telehandler — police escort in front and rear.

At the state historic resources lab, Langan said, experts might carve or chip away more of the stone to get access to the box. They plan to X-ray it to gauge its condition. Only then, once everything is stabilized, will they attempt to open up the capsule and see what’s inside, Langan said.

“We still don’t really know its dimensions or what the overall condition is,” she said Friday evening. But she was cautiously optimistic, given its unexpected and secure hiding place.

“The contents might be in better and more stable condition than we expected,” she said. "It may be that it really hasn’t had any water penetration. But we won’t know until we get it back” to the lab.