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Virginia to Replace 134-year-old Time Capsule in Lee Statue Pedestal

statue through fence holes
Fencing was established around the statue to Robert E. Lee on Monument Ave. earlier this year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration plans to replace a 134-year-old time capsule currently burrowed in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee Monument in Monument Ave. 

Historians speculate the time capsule is made of copper and contains around 60 items donated in the late 1800s by Richmond residents, organizations and businesses. Many of these items are believed to be related to the Confederacy. 

In a press release, Northam’s administration said the capsule will be replaced when the Lee statue is taken down, though ongoing lawsuits continue to block removal of the monument. Northam says a new capsule will be put in place, and Virginians are invited to suggest artifacts that “represent the commonwealth of today.” 

“It’s time to say to the world, this is today’s Virginia, not yesterday’s,” the governor said in the release. “And one day, when future generations look back at this moment, they will be able to learn about the inclusive, welcoming commonwealth that we are building together. I encourage Virginians to be part of this unique effort to tell our shared story.” 

According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article from 1887, some of the items included in the copper box include: books, war memorabilia like buttons and battle flags, Confederate coins and paper money, and a compass made from the tree over Stonewall Jackson’s grave. According to the Associated Press, the capsule may also contain a rare photo of Abraham Lincoln. 

Stephanie Arduini, deputy director of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, says time capsules were “commonplace” in the years after the Civil War, and the one under Lee is not the only one in the city: “It seems that a lot of 19th century people saw this as a way to put a little bit of yourself in there, to protect it for posterity.” 

But while some people donated items that carried personal sentimental value, Arduini says others saw the time capsule as an opportunity to pay tribute to the Lost Cause, an ideology that looks back on Confederate armies as heroic and denies the central role slavery played in the conflict. 

“These artifacts are representative of a portion of Richmond's perceptions of what they think is important," Arduini said. “These speak to folks who are telling a Confederate story — a white, elite vision of Richmond at that time.” 

Virginians have until July 20 to fill out the form with new suggestions for the replacement time capsule. 

The governor’s office says the contents of the 1887 time capsule will be overseen by a qualified conservator and transferred to the Department of Historic Resources, where experts can examine the artifacts. 

“Throughout this process, the commonwealth has remained committed to following best practices for historic preservation,” Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Matthew Strickler said in the governor’s press release. “The Department of Historic Resources will work to ensure that the new capsule’s contents represent our commonwealth and withstand the test of time.”