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Experts find books, a coin and an envelope in Robert E. Lee statue's base

Virignia Gov. Ralph Northam ( center) watches as lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway (left) and Sue Donovon, conservator for Special Collections for the University of Virginia, remove the contents of a time capsule  from the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Steve Helber
/
AP
Virignia Gov. Ralph Northam ( center) watches as lead conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kate Ridgway (left) and Sue Donovon, conservator for Special Collections for the University of Virginia, remove the contents of a time capsule from the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

A red 1875 almanac, one tattered book, a thin maroon text, a pamphlet, a coin and an envelope were discovered by preservation experts on Wednesday in a time capsule believed to have been encased in a Confederate monument in Virginia in 1887.

The 134-year-old treasure box was found in the pedestal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. The statue of Lee atop a horse was removed in September, but the box — made of lead — wasn't discovered until Friday, when crews began work to remove the stone base on which the statue once stood. By Tuesday, conservators had successfully chipped it out of the 2,000-pound granite block.

Gov. Ralph Northam was on hand on Wednesday, watching as preservationists painstakingly worked for hours to unseal the small box and reveal the once-precious items inside.

"It's an important day for the history of Richmond and Virginia," Northam said, just minutes after lifting off the top of the box.

In an earlier statement, the governor said: "This monument and its time capsule reflected Virginia in 1890—and it's time to remove both, so that our public spaces better reflect who we are as a people in 2021."

Conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Chelsea Blake, works to open a time capsule. It took several hours for the experts to unseal the lead box.
Steve Helber / AP
/
AP
Conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Chelsea Blake, works to open a time capsule. It took several hours for the experts to unseal the lead box.

As each object was removed from the box and exposed to 2021 air, experts worked to "stabilize" the artifacts, Kate Ridgway, a conservator with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, explained.

Historians, working from records from the Library of Virginia, estimate the time capsule was placed in the cornerstone on Oct. 27, 1887, by 37 Richmond residents, organizations and businesses, according to the governor's office.

Sue Donovan, conservator for Special Collections at the University of Virginia, works on an envelope that was removed from a time capsule that was removed from the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Steve Helber / AP
/
AP
Sue Donovan, conservator for Special Collections at the University of Virginia, works on an envelope that was removed from a time capsule that was removed from the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

But their predictions of its contents appear to be inaccurate. They believed as many as 60 objects had been placed inside. And, while the contents of the cloth envelope remain unknown, the box contained only a fraction of that number. They had thought the box itself would be copper, but it turned out to be lead.

The 1875 almanac, titled The American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, is described by Britannica as "an annual handbook for astronomers, containing predicted positions in the sky of the principal celestial objects and other astronomical phenomena."

"From 1877, under the direction of the astronomer Simon Newcomb, it became the best of the national ephemerides," the publication states.

One of the books discovered inside the time capsule on Wednesday is what appears to be an edition of <em>The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion</em> by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn.
Steve Helber / AP
/
AP
One of the books discovered inside the time capsule on Wednesday is what appears to be an edition of <em>The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion</em> by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn.

Another of the books appeared to be an edition of The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn.

In the preface of the novel, the author asks for "an indulgence for his effort at portraiture of the characteristic of devotedness in the negro."

"If an excuse is needed for this, he trusts that it will be found in his desire to put upon record, so as to be remembered whenever this book is read, the act of one of that race who protected the dead body of his brother on the battle-field of Gettysburg."

Several of the items suffered from water damage, which preservation experts explained had been expected. Part of that was from water condensation resulting from rapid temperature changes within the box after it was carved out of the stone, they said.

The Department of Historic Resources will continue to preserve the artifacts.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 27, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier photo caption misspelled Sue Donovan's last name as Donovon.