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Search for time capsule under Lee statue called off

Posted at 3:38 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 05:38:44-04

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - After roughly 12 hours of work, efforts to find the time capsule believed to be buried in the monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond were called off Thursday evening.

"After a long hard day, it’s clear the time capsule won’t be found—and Virginia is done with lost causes," said Governor Ralph Northam's Chief Communications Officer Grant Neely. "The search for this moldy Confederate box is over. We’re moving on."

"Disappointed not to find the time capsule," said Northam's Chief of Staff Clark Mercer shortly after he called the search off. "The new time capsule will be put back in tomorrow and we'll regroup with the contractors, putting the pedestal back together to clean up the circle and moving forward."

Mercer said they likely would not continue search efforts on Friday, but instead work to put back the over 20 pieces of concrete they removed and install the new time capsule.

"All the literature and documentation, we looked exactly -- took all the clues and looked exactly where we thought it would be and it wasn't there. You can see that's a pretty large piece of concrete to keep looking through and so, we looked where we thought it was and -- doesn't preclude in the future from finding it -- but for right now the mystery will continue," added Mercer.

While Wednesday's removal of the statue of Lee itself was relative quick and without issue, Thursday's work hit several snags.

Late Thursday morning, a crane they were using to lift heavy pieces of a cornerstone broke down, stalling work until another crane was brought in a few hours later.

State officials were scheduled to remove the 134-year-old time capsule from the cornerstone a day after the large Confederate statue was taken down. But after removing a 2,500-pound (1,134-kilogram) capstone and a 500-pound (227-kilogram) lid, crews were unable to pinpoint the capsule's precise location.

Crews attempted to remove the roughly 8,000-pound cornerstone by lifting using anchor pins, but they broke off when attempted. They then removed several slabs of the apron surrounding the pedestal until they were able to lift the cornerstone from the bottom.

After that, an officer from Virginia State Police swept the area with a metal detector and workers drilled and dug into spots he was picking up potential hits. The only thing recovered from those efforts was a bottle cap in the ground outside the concrete apron.

While the search efforts were ongoing -- officials also held a ceremony to commemorate the new time capsule that will be put back into the monument.

The new time capsule will contain items reflective of current times, including an expired vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a Black Lives Matter sticker and a photograph of a Black ballerina with her fist raised near the Lee statue after racial justice protests erupted following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

Historical records and imaging tests led state officials to the spot believed to be the original capsule's location in the cornerstone of the 40-foot (12-meter) tall granite pedestal.

A newspaper article from 1887 suggests the copper time capsule contains mostly memorabilia, including a U.S. silver dollar and a collection of Confederate buttons. But one line from that article has piqued the interest of historians. Listed among the artifacts is a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.”

It is unclear what kind of a picture it is, but the article says it was donated by “Miss Pattie Leake,” who was a school principal from a prominent local family.

Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar, told The Associated Press earlier this year he believes it’s highly doubtful the picture is an actual photograph of Lincoln in his coffin because the only known photo of Lincoln in death was taken by photographer Jeremiah Gurney in City Hall in New York on April 24, 1865.

Holzer said it's more likely it could be a popular Currier & Ives lithographic print of Lincoln lying in state in New York or a sketch done by someone who may have witnessed Lincoln’s body during a two-week tour the president’s body was taken on before his burial in Springfield, Illinois.

The bronze equestrian statue of Lee was one of five enormous Confederate tributes along Richmond's Monument Avenue and the only one that belonged to the state. The four city-owned statues were taken down last summer, but the Lee statue removal was blocked by two lawsuits until a ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia last week cleared the way for it to be taken down Wednesday.

After the time capsule is removed, it will be brought to a state Department of Historic Resources lab, where historians will open it and begin to preserve the approximately 60 items believed to be inside.

Northam said the original time capsule reflects Virginia in 1890, but the 39 items contained in the new capsule reflect “who we are as a people in 2021.”

"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. It is fitting that we replace the old time capsule with a new one that tells that story," Northam said in a news release.