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Crews searching for Confederate statue’s 1887 time capsule

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Crews move a section of the base as they attempt to locate a time capsule said to be buried in the base of the statue of on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. The statue was removed from the pedestal on Wednesday.
Crews move a section of the base as they attempt to locate a time capsule said to be buried in the base of the statue of on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. The statue was removed from the pedestal on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Photo Gallery

RICHMOND, Va. — Work crews searching for a time capsule they believed was buried inside the pedestal under a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that had towered over Richmond, Virginia, hit a snag Thursday.

Crews were having difficulty finding the capsule’s precise location. Then 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.

Workers had been using ground-penetrating radar devices to try to find the capsule in a third piece of the cornerstone. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said crews would keep looking for it in the cornerstone and adjoining stones.

They also decided to dig into the lid of the cornerstone to insert a new time capsule and state officials ceremonially placed it Thursday.

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.

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