RICHMOND — Masonry workers drilled into rock and rubble beneath the Robert E. Lee statue’s pedestal. A special agent for the Virginia state police surveyed the mortar with a medal detector. Archaeologists from Historic Jamestown scanned the area with radar.
But after 12 hours of work Thursday, and after 19 granite blocks weighing up to 8,000 pounds were removed from the pedestal, no one could locate the time capsule that is believed to exist there in the middle of Monument Avenue.
As darkness encroached, Clark Mercer, chief of staff for Gov. Ralph Northam, called it a night. Workers will return Friday, but they will mostly focus on replacing the moved stones, removing fences and allowing cars to return to the roads. The state hasn’t decided when it will remove the black perimeter fence it installed in January, Mercer said.
For now, the mystery of the time capsule will continue. It was a disheartening experience for Dale Brumfield, a Richmond-area author and historian who studied the capsule’s history.
“It’s here somewhere,” Brumfield said. “Why the secrecy? Why bury it? It doesn’t make any sense.”
But David Givens, director of archaeology for Historic Jamestown, said he wasn’t disappointed. Often times, historic excavations end without clear answers, he said. Based on the radar detection he performed, he was confident the time capsule was not anywhere he had already looked.
“Time capsules are meant to be found,” Givens said. “They’re not going to hide it.”
Workers removed the Lee statue, which was unveiled in 1890 and sat on top of the 40-foot pedestal, on Wednesday.
There is scant evidence suggesting the statue’s builders placed a time capsule under the pedestal in 1887, but there’s no guarantee it’s there. The only evidence of its existence is a newspaper article and a radar revealing a void in the stone. But the statue’s blueprints don’t show it.
The 1887 article, published in The Richmond Dispatch — a predecessor of the Times-Dispatch — stated that the old-time capsule contained 60 objects largely related to the Confederacy. The list of contents includes a picture of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin, a collection of Confederate buttons, a guide to Richmond with a map of the city, three bullets, a piece of shell and a Minie ball lodged in a piece of wood from a Fredericksburg battle field.
According to the article, the capsule is in the cornerstone. Masonic structures, like the Lee statue, were built by placing the cornerstone on the northeast corner.
The archeologists from Historic Jamestown conducted radar tests on all four corner stones and found a void in only the northeast stone. But masonry workers from Connecticut-based Summit Masonry & Building Restoration discovered Thursday the void wasn’t space for a time capsule. It was a hole drilled into the stone to set it in place. Summit also removed the other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue.
“It’s not the void they hoped it would be,” Mercer said.
The void apparently was used to help place the stone in 1887, which was the first piece of the stone work on the monument. The rest of the pedestal was constructed around it.
If the time capsule is ever discovered, it will be taken to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for opening and care. But Brumfield estimated there’s a 90% chance its contents have been ruined by water seeping into the box.
Even if it isn’t discovered, a new time capsule will be placed in the pedestal’s cornerstone. Richmond sculptor Paul DiPasquale designed a 12x6x6 stainless steel box to house the artifacts. The box was sealed with silicone and pumped with argon to prevent water and air damage. There are no plans to identify it with a sign.
If the pedestal is eventually removed and a new statue or work of art is placed in the circle, the capsule will be buried underground at that location, said Tori Noles Feyrer, a member of the governor’s staff.
The state has tasked the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the city of Richmond to reimagine Monument Avenue and a concept is due Sept. 1, 2022. The state won’t remove the pedestal until after the VMFA has completed its project.
First lady Pamela Northam and Meryem Karad, a member of the governor’s staff, carried the new time capsule box to the circle Thursday morning. A 16-member committee that chose its contents wanted to display images of COVID, the Black Lives Matter protests and equity and inclusivity.
Among the items chosen for the new time capsule were prayer beads from a person who died of COVID, an expired vial of Pfizer vaccine, a steel railroad spike found in Richmond’s African Ancestral Burial Ground, a photo of a Black ballerina standing under the Lee statue and the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Michael Paul Williams’ signed collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning columns on dismantling the legacy of the Confederacy in its former capital.
“How do you capture a moment in time?” Northam said. “Today we leave a small message of hope for future generations.”
Kimberly Wilson, the great-great-niece of newspaper editor John Mitchell Jr., attended Thursday’s event. Mitchell, who was born enslaved and became editor of the Richmond Planet, wrote that Black workers constructed the Lee statue, and if it were ever taken down, they should be there to take it down.
“I think he got it right,” Wilson said Thursday. “He tried to sound that alarm.”
Wilson, 57, grew up in Richmond, and as a kid, she didn’t understand the significance of the Confederate statues, though her parents tried to explain it. As she got older, the statues bothered her more and more. She called Thursday’s events a “next step forward.”