Time Capsules as Intentional, Ideal Ruins

I’ve been watching the coverage of the time capsule unearthed in Boston this week with a lot of interest. It’s thought to have been buried outside the Massachusetts State House in 1795 by Governor Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay, and is believed to include “a collection of silver and copper coins dating from between 1652 and 1855; an engraved silver plate; newspapers; the seal of the Commonwealth; cards; and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records” (Allen 2014). The box, which is pretty small (as can be seen in the photo), was first unearthed during repairs to the State House in 1855 and subsequently reburied, with some alteration to its contents (the addition of coins and an acid wash used to clean the original artifacts).

Various national and international news outlets have covered the details of the box’s painstaking removal (which took over 7 hours) by conservator Pam Hatchfield, and the plans for it to be x-rayed and examined this weekend. In addition to being directly connected to historical figures from the revolutionary period, the capsule is thought to be the oldest in the state of Massachusetts, and possibly the oldest in the US.

Paul Mullins has discussed the idea of “pristine abandonment” that’s at the root of our fascination with time capsules and places “frozen in time,” such as the city of Pripyat, which was rapidly abandoned in 1986 in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, or (on a smaller scale) this shoe shop that was rediscovered after having been left ‘untouched’ for the last 40 years. These spaces appear to give us access to a specific moment and physical location in the past because while they are subject to natural processes of decay and degradation (exemplified by the corrosion on the exterior of the Boston time capsule), they are perceived to be undisturbed by human intervention since the moment of abandonment.

Officials work to remove the time capsule from the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House (Credit: Elise Amendola/AP)

As Mullins points out, we often simultaneously resist and embrace the processes of ruination and decay. We resist it in our homes and public spaces (both times the capsule was discovered during repair work to maintain the State House), and we seek to arrest or reverse the decay of certain ruins (Stonehenge, the Parthenon). At the same time, we recognize the aesthetic appeal of natural processes of decay and the sense of authenticity that their traces lend to historical artifacts and structures; we generally like our ruins to “look old,” but in a natural, beautiful way that distances us temporally and physically from the difficult, nasty processes that attend structural abandonment and decay. Older ruins where human traces have been “managed” (minimized, controlled) or erased tend not to cause us as much discomfort as recent ruins that are still connected to contemporary landscapes, memory, and identity, and which are still transitioning from recognizable, usable structures (homes, schools, shops) to “ruins”.

There’s already some anxiety over the intervention involved in the first discovery of the Boston time capsule. The people who opened it in 1855 may have tried to remove some of the physical traces of deterioration from the original contents with an acid bath, something that the present-day conservator is concerned about (most likely because it could have harmed the artifacts and may hinder preservation efforts…but perhaps also because it also impacts the artifacts’ aesthetics and perceived authenticity). Though the acid wash and other efforts of the 1855 preservationists are informative historical processes in their own right, they are still thought of as a regrettable human disturbance because the social and historical importance of the capsule centers around its 1795 contents and the unique circumstances of its creation.

Beyond aesthetics and the allure of “directly” accessing a specific time and place in the past, intentional time capsules often serve political purposes, creating a material and symbolic bridge between the past, present, and future of a place. In his research on experiences of ruination in the Argentinean Chaco, cultural anthropologist Gastón Gordillo refers to time capsules as “intentional ruins: objects produced to transcend the present and become, sometime in the future, a positive, readable trace of the past” (Gordillo 2014: 253). He’s discussing a time capsule buried in 2007 near a structure built to protect “the ruins of San Francisco Solano,” the remains of a mission thought to date to the 1590s. Local people have been gathering at the ruins to celebrate the saint since the 1970s, despite the fact that the visible ruins at the site are the remains of structures built by Franciscan missionaries in the 1890s and so are likely unrelated to San Francisco Solano’s presence in the area. In recent years, priests and officials had perceived that the mission ruins were deteriorating rapidly–criollo pilgrims would touch them or pull bricks from the pile of rubble to sit on while they enjoyed the celebrations. Wanting to ‘protect’ the site for posterity (that does not include these local uses), officials built a structure around the ruins to prevent further deterioration. This transition made what was previously a pile of rubble and debris that had been used and incorporated into local peoples’ lives and understandings of the landscape into an “official,” protected heritage site with a unified backstory that glosses over the area’s more recent violent history and the waves of dispossession that resulted in the site’s creation and abandonment. The time capsule is meant to outlast the ruins themselves and the protective structure around them…it’s both a recognition of the inevitability of oblivion and an attempt to avoid it by intentionally leaving behind a “positive, readable trace of the past” in the form of a time capsule.

A sketch of the 1939 Westinghouse Time Capsule, via Wikipedia

It may seem like the capsule buried at the ruins of San Francisco Solano marks the end of a structure or site’s life cycle (we usually associate ruins with endings), and it does mark an ending in terms of how the debris are accessed and used by criollo communities…but it also marks the site’s rebirth as a “historical ruin” with a specific story to tell–a story that needs to be protected by the state and passed on to future generations. The time capsule in Boston is also intentional ruin buried to mark a similar type of transition, and it serves the same purpose. Its creators crafted a specific version of the past for preservation and presentation to future generations. The Boston capsule is notable for its age and its connection to historical figures that played in an important part in the development of the US as an independent republic. It likely focuses on more positive aspects of that history and doesn’t represent the waves of violence that lead to the nation’s formation and which characterized its expansion. The contents also seem to represent certain claims to authority (such as the title for the land on which the State House is built and the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts). And the capsule’s very existence represents historical continuity for Massachusetts and the nation–from 1795 to 1855 to 2014/15. The addition of contemporary artifacts will likely serve to reinforce that perceived continuity and extend it into the future.

The zeal for time capsules and the discipline of archaeology developed side-by-side, and archaeological concepts and concerns (assemblage, site formation processes, excavation, preservation) inform the creation and maintenance of time capsules. They’re basically archaeology-in-reverse: instead of researching and interpreting the material traces (ruins) that others have left behind (usually unintentionally), time capsules intentionally assemble and bury the material traces that people in the future will find and interpret, and their creators do their best to direct and guide those interpretations from the present, knowing that despite their best efforts, certain things may be lost along the way. Time capsules can therefore be seen as intentional, ideal ruins that represent deliberate history- and place-making activities.

It’ll be interesting to see how the story of the Boston time capsule unfolds and how its contents will be interpreted and represented in international media. What traces did the 1855 discovery leave behind, and will they be documented and potentially ‘reversed’ or somehow remedied? What will go into the box to represent its rediscovery and analysis in 2014/15? How will officials and preservationists negotiate the tension between wanting to learn from the time capsule’s contents in the present and preserve them for posterity, while also maintaining their authenticity and allure by reburying them and re-exposing them to natural processes of ruination?


Allen, Evan
2014  State House time capsule from 1795 unearthed. The Boston Globe, December 11.
Gordillo, Gastón R.
2014  Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Duke University Press Books, Durham.
Messy Nessy Chic
2013  Step Back in Time: The Forgotten Family Shoe Store Closed for 40 Years. Messy Nessy Chic. December 19.
Mullins, Paul
2014  The Time Capsule Effect: Pristine Abandonment and the Ideal Ruin. Archaeology and Material Culture. January 9.


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