Attending the recent Paul Revere/Samuel Adams time capsule reveal event at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was a real honor and a memorable career highlight for me. Both Dan Sullivan and I (from Gemr) attended this historical ceremony on January 6th.
Why Are There Time Capsules?
I believe creating time capsules comes naturally to us– it’s almost an innate part of being human. Perhaps we feel a need to remind future generations that we really did exist? Moreover, we want to reveal aspects inherent in popular culture. We do this through various media: a painting, sculpture, poem, storytelling, and with today’s technology, we do this digitally. Time capsules of important events, or even time capsules placed in a noted buildings upon construction, follow this line of thinking.
As a child, I was always intrigued that the newel post finial in our Victorian home would come off in your hand while racing down the stairway. With the finial off, you could peer down to the subfloor with a flashlight. It was just the perfect place for a child of ten or so, in which to deposit his own time capsule. One day I decided to do just that. I found a Timex watch box I had gotten for Christmas, filled it with some old and contemporary coins, and included a dated and signed note by yours truly. I then dropped it down into the newel post cavity, and peered down with the flashlight afterwards to make sure it didn’t open during the descent. As far as I know, it remains there today after 4 ½ decades.
Not Just Any Time Capsule
It all began on July 4, 1795 as horses pulled the State House cornerstone through the streets of Boston. It arrived at the State House where Governor Samuel Adams was joined by Paul Revere and William Scollay for a 15 gun salute. The three placed a time capsule inside the stone as it was set in place. Then time marched on for the oldest time capsule in America and almost all was forgotten of the event.
Around 25 years ago, Bijan, (BJ) Mohammadipour, director of engineering for the Division of Asset Management & Maintenance of the Commonwealth, and his team discovered documentation that explained how a time capsule had been unearthed in 1855 quite by accident. According to the documents, when the workers at the time removed a cornerstone from the Massachusetts State House for repairs, some coins had dropped out on the ground. That is when they discovered the remains of a leather pouch, and two sheets of lead that contained a time capsule. Further details outlined the importance of the relics involved. After carefully going over the account, BJ was pretty certain he had located the correct cornerstone, and carefully monitored it. He became concerned recently of apparent water infiltration which led to a series of meetings and discussions. An engineering firm was brought in with ground penetrating radar, and they were fairly certain that they could see what could be an outline of the box.
On December 11, 2014, a construction crew, with only part of the employees aware of the true task, removed the cornerstone and propped it up on blocks of wood. The Museum of Fine Art’s, Pam Hatchfield, head conservator of objects, crawled underneath the freshly removed stone, and was able to see the green oxidized brass box embedded in plaster. She painstakingly removed the piece by chipping away at the plaster. To her surprise, there were some 1855 coins embedded in the plaster around the box. Once it was chipped free, Pam carefully carried it to make sure the contents were not disturbed during its State Police car ride to the museum.
Reverting back to 1855, officials realized what they had their hands on with much ado. Regarding conservation, they took as great care as they possibly were able, given the time period and what they knew. I am positive that there was no harm meant when they used muriatic acid to clean the coins, and burnished them like a brass lamp. They basically removed the original surfaces and, as everyone knows from watching the Antiques Roadshow, that is a big mistake! They then had a sealable brass container fabricated; it was just the perfect size in which to fit the found silver plaque and other relics.
Their process in 1855 was as follows: After placing the plaque in the bottom of the new brass box, they planted the Massachusetts State Seal, the coins from a Pine Tree Shilling, dated 1652 to coins of 1795, (including a half-cent, one cent, half-dime, etc), layers of newspapers (five in all) and, in the midst, they placed coins of 1855. There were 23 coins all together and a George Washington bronze medallion. Finally, they sealed the box with some kind of varnish or animal glue, and soldered with lead around the join after the top was secured with threaded screws.
During last week’s event, Pam Hatchfield took great care in opening the box. This entailed three full days ahead of time, applying pressure on the lid, slowly turning the screws, then with fine blades, cutting through the solder.
We watched as she slowly removed the screws, placed them to the side, and propped up the lid to peer in. When she lifted the lid, she stared at it, and, surprising to all of us attending, she saw a pin-prick inscription of the brass founder who made the box.
Pam had told me during an interview that she was very nervous that during the reveal, something would be stuck, and that they would not be able to proceed. She used a porcupine quill, as it had a bit of spring to it, along with her grandfather’s dental tool and strips of cardboard and plastics to slowly edge the pieces out. We all watched patiently as she slowly removed one layer of newspaper after the other. Every time a layer was lifted, one could hear sighs and exhales of anticipatory breaths seeing that there was, indeed, another layer below. Certainly the 1855 coins were interesting. The very fact that they were placed in there five years ahead of our Civil War was incredible, but we awaited the good stuff. It was really exciting to see the 1652 Pine Tree Shilling, (pine trees were used for British masts); the Colonies had to use British currency and at that time, and were not allowed to create their own.
For me, the plaque was the most amazing relic to look over. It even had fingerprints on it, as Pam exclaimed. The nearest I can tell it is inscribed:
“This Corner Stone of a building intended for the use of the Legislative and Executive Branches of Government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by His Excellency Samuel Adams, Esq Governor of Said Commonwealth assisted by the most worshipful Paul Revere, Grand Master and the right worshipful William Scollay Deputy Grand Master the Grand Wardens and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts on the 4th day of July An.Dom. 1795 (A. E. 1795?) Being the 19th Year of The American Independence”.
As I passed slowly over the objects with my video camera, making certain I was recording everything, (see video) I noted to the officials and guards, that I, too, must take in the items visually, not just my camera. Of course this elicited a few chuckles.
Before I physically approached the objects, I waited in line with dozens of interesting people. It was wonderful to hear the varied conversations about what just happened. There was a palpable vibration in the room, and a lot of smiles. We all realized the magnitude of what we had just witnessed, watching historic connection back to our Founding Fathers unfold from a 5 ½” x 7 ½” brass box right before our eyes.
Please check out the link to the podcast below that includes live event coverage , a phone conversation that I had with Pam Hatchfield two days later,and the video that I recorded:
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by Martin Willis
Gemr Community Curator
– See more at: https://blogadmin.gemr.com/blog/catching-the-collectors-bug/#sthash.mPFoJx82.dpuf