By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek….
UPDATE: According to the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s Patrick McMahon, the time capsule will be reburied some time after April 2015. So if you get the chance or just happen to be in the area, check out the time capsule’s contents at the MFA before the exhibit ends on April 22.
Also, curators working on the time capsule discovered some curious edge lettering inscribed on the edge of the Washington medal. Read this week’s excerpt from The E-Sylum for details.
According to Lily Rothman in a January 6 piece for Time magazine, the Paul Revere-era time capsule unearthed and opened recently in Boston isn’t technically a “time capsule”. In the article, expert William E. Jarvis–who literally wrote the book on time capsules with his Time Capsules: A Cultural History (2002)–insists that a true time capsule must have a “dig-up-by” date. Items like the one excavated from the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House on December 11, 2014 are called “foundation deposits”, a tradition that comes down to us from the most ancient past.
But enough of that. You’re here for the coins.
On Tuesday, January 6, conservators at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened the time capsule and examined the objects inside. Using special tools, the coins and other historical items were meticulously removed in a process that took nearly an hour to complete.
The contents weren’t entirely a surprise, however. Besides X-rays of the box taken on December 14, previous work on the building’s foundations in 1855 had resulted in an inventory of the time capsule’s original content plus the addition of new coins and other items, which were also recorded in the catalog.
Interestingly, the box itself also dates from 1855, when the Massachusetts State Government replaced the original cowhide pouch that contained the objects with a 10-pound brass box.
Two lead sheets were also placed in the cornerstone during a State House groundbreaking ceremony on July 4, 1795, the 20th anniversary of American Independence. The sheets protected a silver plate positioned between them, engraved and probably made by Paul Revere himself.
On the plate is an inscription, commemorating the new State House:
“This cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esquire, governor of the said Commonwealth”
A team of 15 white horses (one for each state then part of the Union) pulled the cornerstone through the streets of Boston to the site. Former revolutionary leader and then-Governor Samuel Adams was accompanied by a special infantry unit that performed a 15-gun salute. Revere, Adams, and William Scollay (a local businessman and former colonel in the Revolutionary Army) then helped lay the time capsule in place–silver plate, lead sheets and all.
60 years later, a construction crew was improving the foundation of the State House when they noticed that the cornerstone was cracked. Upon further inspection, they found the time capsule. A new inscription was engraved on the back of the silver plate by the overseers of the improvement project. It reads:
“The Corner Stone of the Capitol having been removed in consequence of alterations and additions to the Building, The original deposit together with this inscription is replaced by the Most Worshipful Winslow Lewis, M.D., Grand Master and other Officers and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, in the presence of His Excellency, Henry J. Gardner, Governor of the Commonwealth, on the 11th day of August, 1855, A. L. 5855.”
With what today would be called great consideration and foresight, the state government replaced the pouch with the box and re-interred the time capsule in a brand new granite cornerstone. Unfortunately for modern-day preservationists, the preservationists of 1855 cleaned the 18th century coins with an acid wash.
In May 2014, water damage was found in the State House basement, with the area where the cornerstone is of special concern. A “water infiltration” investigation revealed the time capsule’s hiding spot.
In December 2014, state officials and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were ready to begin excavation. Pam Hatchfield, Head of Objects Conservation at the museum, oversaw the site and was the one who ultimately removed the box and its contents. Freeing the time capsule from its crevice took over seven hours.
While the capsule itself seemed to take everyone by surprise, conservators were aware of the 1855 catalog and had a good idea about what to expect once they opened it (though preservationists were anxious to see how badly damaged the coins were). But the X-rays on the 14th seemed to show an additional coin not in the 159-year-old inventory.
So, on January 6, an unveiling ceremony was held in the museum’s Art of the Americas wing, where Hatchfield painstakingly removed each item from the box individually in front of various camera crews belonging to different media entities. A handful of civic representatives were also in attendance, including current Governor Deval Patrick and Malcolm Rogers, Director of the Boston Museum of Fine Art.
The contents of the time capsule are as follows:
- One silver plate, featuring inscriptions from both 1795 and 1855, and complete with what may well be Sam Adams’ fingerprint. To quote Michael Comeau, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives and the man who read the plate’s inscriptions out loud, “How cool is that!”
- Five “Know Nothing” newspapers from 1855: two editions of the Boston Bee, two copies of the Daily Traveller, and one issue of the American Crusader. The Know Nothing Party was an American anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement of the mid-1850s.
- One impression of the state seal of Massachusetts.
- One title page from the newly-printed Massachusetts colony records.
- One silver U.S. half dollar dated 1855.
- One silver U.S. quarter dated 1855.
- One silver U.S. dime dated 1855.
- One silver U.S. half dime dated 1855.
- One silver U.S. three cent piece dated 1855.
- Four copper U.S. cents dated 1851, 1853, 1854 and 1855, respectively.
- Three copper U.S. half cents dated 1851, 1853 and 1854, respectively.
- Three silver U.S. half dimes dated 1795.
- One silver U.S. half dollar dated 1795.
- One copy of a small medal struck in England in 1794 honoring George Washington. The obverse contains a bust of Washington dressed in his military uniform and the legends “George Washington, born in Virginia, Feb. 11, 1732” and “General of the American Armies 1776. Resigned 1783. President of the United States 1789.”
- Two copper U.S. cents dated 1793 and 1794, respectively.
- Two copper Massachusetts half cents dated 1788.
- One copper Massachusetts cent dated 1787.
- One copper New Jersey cent dated 1787 (otherwise known as a Nova Caesarea).
- One silver Pine Tree Shilling dated 1652. The Pine Tree Shilling is famous for the fact that it was minted at a time when Britain prohibited the manufacture of coinage in the North American colonies. It was probably included in the time capsule as a symbol of Massachusetts’ defiant spirit in the face of tyranny.
- Various calling cards (what today would be called “business cards”).
The 23 coins and other items will be on display in the museum’s Art of the Americas wing sometime later in 2015, once conservation work has been completed. Conservators and state officials are currently debating whether to keep the box and its contents as part of a permanent collection or return them to the cornerstone for future generations to discover. If it is reburied, Secretary of State William Galvin has gone on record as preferring not to add contemporary items to the Boston time capsule.
What do you think?