Multiple items were recovered from a time capsule that sat enclosed in concrete under a Confederate solider statue in Albemarle County for more than 110 years.
The “At Ready” statue, which was on Albemarle County Circuit Courthouse land that was never annexed by the city of Charlottesville, was taken down on Sept. 12. A copper box of items was in the center of a concrete foundation underneath the base of the statue.
Over the years, the sides of the capsule were damaged and water got into the box, heavily damaging many of its contents.
University of Virginia Library Special Collections Conservator Sue Donovan, who led the salvage effort, said from her perspective, she thought it was “quite surprising” that they were able to recover as much as they did from the time capsule.
“While the acidic composition of the water meant that most of the paper base items were damaged beyond repair, it did prevent a buildup of corrosion products that is typical in archaeological metals, so the details on the commemorative badges can be clearly discerned.” she said during a presentation to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors at its virtual meeting Wednesday.
Three metal commemorative badges, a small flag, a silk ribbon and portions of multiple paper items were recovered from the time capsule. Three bullets and two small marbles were recovered from the top of the lid of the copper box.
Donovan said that the acidic water and the environment, which was low in oxygen, as well as the fungicidal properties of the copper box helped allow the two textiles to be preserved.
“Currently, the metal and textile items are being kept in temporary housing that aims to achieve low humidity conditions,” Donovan said. “To preserve their condition, the metal items should be kept in tightly sealed boxes and silica gel and humidity detectors to keep the humidity low and prevent further degradation.”
The board voted to gift the contents of the time capsule to the UVa Library. Siri Russell, director of Albemarle’s Office of Equity & Inclusion, said UVa has said it has a commitment to a long term investment in the exhibition of these materials, and a commitment to both the larger community and to maintaining some connection to the county.
“We have had several conversations with Special Collections library [staff], and we have a lot of confidence in their ability to maintain the accessibility of these items to our local community, and … to increase really, the storytelling that goes along with these as a part of that,” Russell said.
Albemarle, UVa Library and the university’s Nau Center for Civil War History are planning to hold a public virtual reveal of the items in January.
Most of the items assumed to be in the time capsule were published in a 1909 issue of The Daily Progress, but Molly Schwartzburg, curator of Special Collections, said there were some surprise items, and they haven’t undertaken all of the research to figure out what matches.
“The flag was not included on the list, and ... there were a couple of marbles, so we were excited to discover that a couple special extra things were apparently tossed in at the last minute,” she said.
Schwartzburg said the university has copies of nearly all of the texts that were known to be in the box.
“When we are actually back on Grounds, and when I start prepping for this presentation that we’ll do in January … what’s going to be really fun is comparing those images that we took with the artifacts in the collection and matching up the books that we have with the fragments we can see in those images,” she said.
In August, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to remove the bronze statue of the life-size Confederate soldier in uniform, two cannons and cannonballs from the Albemarle County Courthouse property. Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation was selected by the board to take the statue and its accessories.
SVBF had asked for the time capsule, but it was not one of the items included in a memorandum of understanding with the county.
When the final piece of the base of the statue was removed in September, large bugs crawled and slithered out from between the last piece of the base and the slab. The copper box was in the center of the foundation.
Donovan said when she saw that the hole in the cement was filled with water, she knew she needed to adapt to a salvage approach, but that she wasn’t prepared for the extent of the damage of the paper items.
“The time capsule contents were completely bathed in water,” she said. “The foundation of concrete into which the copper box had been placed had expanded over time, which pushed in on the copper box and popped the lid off, allowing rainwater to come in.”
The time capsule had been soaking in groundwater since slightly after the box had been put into the ground, she said, and silt from the groundwater “colored the water brown, coated the exterior of the piles of mud and effectively acted as an adhesive in between the different layers of paper.”
“As the water level rose, the contents of the time capsule became bathed in what the Virginia state archaeological conservator called an ‘acidic soup,’” Donovan said. “It was not pleasant to smell either.”
She said the paper items did not fare well, as paper made during that time has short fibers and is inherently acidic. The contents were in two distinct, rectangular piles, with what looked like paper pulp and other debris collected in the middle, Donovan said, and the exterior edges of the piles received the most damage.
“Everything felt soft to the touch like the bottom of the lake,” she said. “When I’m doing paper treatments, I’m usually able to feel some kind of inherent quality of the paper, but when I touched these items, it just poofed away… I’d never seen anything like that before.”
She was able to use strips of non-woven polyester and the capillary action of the wet pages to reveal some less damaged text in the middle of the piles. She said small sections of the paper she was able to lay to dry on a drying rack and a few of the thicker sections were sent to be frozen at the UVa Library presentation freezer.
“The frozen sections are still not ready to be removed from the freezer because of how wet they were from spring,” Donovan said. “That’s a process that will probably take another month or so, so we can try to see if we can separate those pages that have been frozen.”