A small greenish box, disinterred from underneath Boston’s State House and containing 220-year-old relics from the United States’ earliest years, held a crowd breathless on Tuesday night as a museum conservator delicately lifted its lid to see what lay inside.
Revolutionary war heroes Sam Adams and Paul Revere – patriots in American textbooks and Boston lore – laid the capsule within the cornerstone of the State House in 1795 to commemorate the building, the city, and the imminent 20th anniversary of American independence. In December, workers fixing a water leak at the building discovered the box along with five embedded coins, a good luck custom.
Two of the three men who placed the box entered American mythology: Adams, the Massachusetts governor famous for helping instigate the Boston tea party and the break with Britain, and Revere, the artisan propagandist whose name has become synonymous with his night ride before the war. The third man was Williams Scollay, a war hero and deputy to Revere’s grand master in the local Masonic lodge.
Packed tight with daily newspapers the box slowly gave up its contents to Pam Hatchfield, the conservator of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, who picked and pried at them with an arsenal that included a porcupine quill, bamboo and one of her grandfather’s dental tools. The room of journalists, Massachusetts politicians, museum staff and historians watched in total silence aside from the occasional click of cameras. Hatchfield moved with precision as she freed each object from the next, only occasionally allowing herself a giddy sigh to relieve the tension and say, “OK, now I’m excited.”
Slowly, she and the executive director of the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, Michael Comeau pulled each object free. As expected, the first items were from the 1850s when another group of workmen accidentally unearthed the original hide pouch put there by the Adams and Revere. In 1855, governor Winslow Harley and two Masons imitated the original ceremony with a new box made of a brass alloy and items from their own era.
After removing several layers of daily papers from the mid-19th century, thought to include the Boston Bee and the Republican-friendly Daily Traveler, Hatchfield pulled coins from the 1850s, including three-cent pieces, pennies, and a “quardollar”.
But after removing so many objects that Comeau compared the box to a clown car, she reached the objects from the time of Jefferson and Adams. They included a copper medal of Washington that declared him general of the American armies and president of the United States; coins from the 1780s with eagles and Indians; and a coin with a pine tree on one side, minted in 1652. The colony printed its own, technically illegal money during the interregnum which followed the execution of King Charles I in 1649 but was promptly punished for it after the crown was restored in 1660.
Then Hatchfield pulled an imprint of the seal of the commonwealth, a copy of the title page of the colony’s earliest records of the 1600s, and finally a silver plate engraved with the names of Adams, Revere and Scollay, marking the celebration on the fourth of July. The plate may have been made by Revere, who was a silversmith, though both Hatchfield and Comeau said they lacked the expertise to say so themselves.
Comeau told the Guardian he felt “great, it’s just fun” and that the largely good condition of the objects left him “tremendously relieved”. About the fascination with the time capsules themselves, he said: “I think these objects allow that real attachment to the people who preceded us, you feel a part of something more.”
“This is the stuff,” he said, “that leads us to Sam Adams, to Paul Revere.” He described the objects as the “tangible elements” that help us “better understand not only what happened before us but also helps to better understand ourselves, because it’s this power of memory, of shared memory and heritage”.
The contents of the capsule will go on display at the museum after more conservation work but may be returned to their place in the State House cornerstone.
Massachusetts’ secretary of the commonwealth, William Galvin, mustered meaning in the seemingly mundane objects from two centuries ago: “This is more than simply looking at some historical artefacts, trinkets or curiosities. These symbols, when they were placed in the State House in 1795, I believe represented the aspirations of the founding fathers and those who came after.”
Rejecting suggestions that the artefacts mean little in today’s world, Galvin said: “The history of Massachusetts is the history of America.”
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