There’s a Time Capsule in Robert E. Lee’s Statue, but No One Can Find It

It may or may not contain a picture of President Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin—a great find, if it exists.
Crews dismantle the corner of the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue as they attempt to locate a time capsule thought to be buried in the base on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. The statue was removed from the pedestal Sept. 8

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The search is on for a potential time capsule hidden inside the pedestal of Richmond’s infamous but now-removed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. And it’s not going super well.

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Lee’s massive statue was taken down and carted away on Wednesday, ending its controversial presence in the former capital of the Confederacy and spurring celebrations among those who saw it as a symbol of hatred. But a pursuit to get at the artifacts possibly placed in the cornerstone of its pedestal was still ongoing Thursday afternoon. 

By that point, though, workers had already lifted the capstone and lid and weren’t able to find the capsule’s location, according to the Associated Press. They’d also hit another roadblock: A crane used to lift heavy materials broke down Thursday morning.

But workers will keep looking. The 134-year-old capsule is perhaps deeper than expected, WRIC, a local ABC affiliate, reported. And, luckily, a new crane arrived Thursday afternoon.

The mysterious endeavor to unearth the old capsule could prove worthwhile. According to a newspaper article from 1887, it may or may not contain a picture of President Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin—a great find, if it exists—as well as a U.S. silver dollar, Confederate buttons, and dozens of other pieces of memorabilia.  

It wouldn’t be the first such capsule. The boxes are pretty common among Confederate statues and monuments to racists, and sometimes contain odd—but historically valuable—items. 

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For example, a John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston, South Carolina, was home to a sealed lead box filled with a rusted cannonball, a tin containing what was believed to be a banner raised during Calhoun’s funeral, and possibly a lock of his hair, according to the local Post and Courier. In a capsule beneath a North Carolina statue for Confederate soldiers, archaeologists and conservators also found what was believed to be a strand of hair from Lee’s horse and buttons that might’ve once belonged to Lee. 

When the Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky Capitol got the boot in January of last year, crews found an empty bottle of Glenmore Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey and a newspaper. In the past, workers have uncovered Confederate money from the statues.

While crews search for the capsule in the Richmond statue, though, a new capsule will be nestled inside the pedestal for people to find later. After taking public suggestions into account and narrowing the list down to 39 items, the capsule was stuffed with an expired vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, a Black Lives Matter sticker, a face mask, a “Virginia Is for Lovers” pride pin, a photo of a Black ballerina at the statue, and more. 

“The past 18 months have seen historic change, from the pandemic to protests for racial justice that led to the removal of these monuments to a lost cause,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement. “It is fitting that we replace the old time capsule with a new one that tells that story.”