Greater Boston has been all abuzz this week about the opening of what has been called “the nation’s oldest time capsule”, a brass box deposited by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795. The box was opened by a conservator from the Museum of Fine Arts on Tuesday, in the company of the Executive Director of the Commonwealth’s Archives and before flashing cameras. Inside were items that our founding fathers wanted us (or someone in the future) to see: a silver plaque engraved by Revere, a copper medal depicting George Washington, two dozen coins dating from 1652 (before the colonists were allowed to coin their own money), and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. The box was not a big surprise: it had been discovered in 1855, and a few items (mainly newspapers) from that time had been placed within–so we have two generations from the past communicating to us through objects that they chose to represent their times.
Photographs of the Revere plaque by Jessica Rinaldi @ Boston Globe and conservator Pam Hatchfield by Brian Snyder @ Reuters.
As I read the various accounts of the Boston time capsule’s contents and saw the face of the very excited conservator’s face (above) on television, several thoughts ran through my mind. The first was empathy: every historian (at least historians who work on periods before the twentieth century) has felt that feeling of sheer excitement as they see and touch (through gloves!) crusty old documents from their period for the very first time–or again and again. Working with manuscripts is often difficult but always intimate–much more so than with printed matter. But obviously there’s a difference between an archive of documents and a time capsule: the former is not a “composition”, in that the historian is crafting the interpretation and presentation rather than the historical subjects. And this (rather obvious) realization led me to my second thought, which I’m still considering: the difference between “accidental” time capsules like Pompeii and Herculaneum and very intentional ones, like the “Crypt of Civilization” in Atlanta, sealed in 1940 and scheduled to be opened in the year 8113. Actually, according to the reigning time capsule expert, William E. Jarvis (author of the 2002 book Time Capsules: A Cultural History and one of the founders of the International Time Capsule Society), the Boston box is not really a time capsule, which much have a specified opening date like the Crypt of Civilization, but rather a “foundation deposit”, a practice that goes way, way back—to Mesopotamia. So I guess there are three forms of object messaging from the past to the present: the intentional time capsule, which Jarvis credits as an innovation of the nineteenth century, the foundation deposit–which is still an attempt on the part of contemporaries to shape the future’s perception of their era–and accidental entities like Pompeii, the uncovered Anglo-Saxon ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo, or the abandoned Antarctic buildings of Carsten Borchgrevink and Ernest Shackleton. Which, I wonder, is more revealing about these past people?
The dedication of the “Crypt of Civilization” door in Atlanta, 1938, Oglethorpe University Archives; a royal belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial ship, British Museum; Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, Antarctica, ©Nigel McCall for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.