December 17th, 2014
A time capsule buried in cornerstone of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams in 1795 was recovered last Thursday. There’s been a longstanding water leak problem affecting the corner where the time capsule was sealed in plaster, so workers removed the cornerstone and called in conservators from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to dig out the box. They propped it up on blocks so conservator Pamela Hatchfield could carefully chisel out the time capsule from the underside of the cornerstone. Lying on her back in the snow and wind (she didn’t want to flip the cornerstone because it might damage the artifacts), she chipped away at the plaster from 10:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. Finally she dislodged the box and it was taken to the Museum of Fine Arts under State Police escort.
Historical records indicate the time capsule was first installed in the cornerstone when construction on the Statehouse began. Silversmith, printmaker and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, William Scollay, a militia Colonel and the future great-uncle of author Herman Melville, and Samuel Adams, maltster (the family business was the production of malt used in brewing, not brewing per se) and fourth governor of Massachusetts, placed the time capsule. The original container was made of cowhide and is thought to have contained some 17th century coins, newspapers, the seal of the Commonwealth, a page from the Massachusetts Colony Records and an engraved silver plate, possibly the work of Revere himself.
It was rediscovered in 1855 during work on the building’s foundations. In classic 19th century style, they thought it was an awesome call to do some light cleaning before replacing the time capsule. The coins were dipped in acid and then the artifacts were put in a new container, a copper box slightly smaller than a cigar box, which was plastered onto the underside of the cornerstone. Officials threw some contemporary coins in the plaster for luck (five of them fell onto Pamela Hatchfield’s face during her long day of chiseling) and added a few things from their own time — more coins, newspapers, documents — to the box. It was a humid day in 1855, so between the acid cleaning, the moisture in the air during the transfer and the 30-year water leak from which it was rescued last week, conservators aren’t sure what condition the artifacts are in.
“Hopefully there will be no damage and we will be able to observe the artifacts that trace us back to the history not only just of this building, but of our Commonwealth and our country,” said Secretary of State William Galvin, who was on hand for the capsule’s first appearance in more than 150 years.
The time capsule was sent to the Museum of Fine Arts to be X-rayed. That will give conservators an idea of what’s inside and hopefully what condition the artifacts are in before they open the box. The contents will be examined and any necessary interventions done; they will be on public display for a short time. The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office has not determined whether they too will chip in something to record to the march of time before the capsule is returned to the cornerstone next year.