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AP Photo/Coeur d'Alene Press, Jerome A. Pollos
Peter Berger gets his classmates pumped up as they take turns shoveling dirt onto a time capsule
they buried Friday, June 2, 2006, at Prairie View Elementary in Post Falls, Idaho.

Frozen in Time: A Look at Time Capsules

October 27, 2011
by James Sullivan
Time capsules allow their creators to freeze moments in time and communicate those moments to future generations. They encourage a dialogue with history, and speak through the artifacts of culture. Take a look at some unique time capsules that await opening, and some that have already been unearthed.

Capturing an Era

Time capsules exist on all scales, from multiyear endeavors to accumulate massive amounts of information to shoebox-size capsules buried by elementary school classes.

Perhaps the largest, most ambitious time capsule project is Oglethorpe University’s Crypt of Civilization. The 20’ x 10’ x 10’ stainless steel vault in the basement of Phoebe Hearst Hall was sealed in 1940, and will not be reopened until 8113 A.D. The crypt is the brainchild of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, then-president of Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, Ga. Its vast inventory is listed online, and includes more than 640,000 pages of microfilm from nearly 800 written works, a diversity of appliances, household items, garments and accessories, personal hygiene products and more.

In 1991, the International Time Capsule Society, appropriately based at Oglethorpe University, published a list of the “10 Most Wanted Time Capsules.” According to the society, many time capsules are never exhumed or are lost to “thievery, secrecy or poor planning.” The 10 capsules listed (three of which have since been accounted for) are the most coveted of these lost vessels. A highlight from the list is the Bicentennial Wagon Train Time Capsule, which held the signatures of 22 million Americans, but was stolen from the back of a van at its sealing ceremony on July 4, 1976.

As technology has evolved since the burial of the first time capsule, so has the time-honored tradition of burying a box in the ground. Yahoo’s online time capsule embodies this evolution. Over a 30-day stretch in the fall of 2006, Yahoo users submitted photos, writings, videos and audio to Yahoo’s “electronic anthropology” project. The Yahoo Time Capsule will be “opened” in 2020. Count down the seconds at the project’s homepage.

Not all time capsule projects turn out as their creators envision. In 1957, residents of Tulsa, Okla., buried a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere. Shrouded in plastic and encased in a concrete casket, the vehicle was prepared to weather a nuclear attack and emerge pristine and triumphant a half-century later. But when hoisted from its temporary tomb in front of a crowd in 2007, the car emerged a rusted-out bucket of bolts—victim of the earth’s moisture.

Unintentional Time Capsules

Occasionally, a dwelling, vehicle or vessel of some sort will be lost or abandoned, and exist undisturbed for many years. The passage of time turns such items into time capsules, and their discoveries can be thought-provoking, exciting or anthropologically significant events.
In 2006, city inspectors found a Cold War “time capsule” in a disused vault beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. At the height of ’60s fear and paranoia over a potential nuclear attack, someone converted the vault into a bunker, packing it with medicine, food and water. There were blankets marked, “For Use Only After Enemy Attack,” and approximately 352,000 “All Purpose Survival Crackers.” To Cold War historian Nicholas Cull, the Brooklyn Bridge bomb shelter “is like a ghost in a Shakespeare play—reminding us of just how bleak things were in the era of Sputnik and the Cuban missile crisis.”

Last November, a sunken Yukon River stern-wheeler—the A.J. Goddard—became a time capsule of life during the Klondike Gold Rush when found at the bottom of Lake Laberge in Canada. The extraordinarily well-preserved boat offered researchers a look into the crew’s desperate final minutes, as well as life on the river.

“The Goddard is a very important reminder that ordinary people get caught up in events that are bigger than themselves,” underwater archaeologist James P. Delgado said. “It’s a rare window into the past where we can truly connect with these five guys, the reality of the gold rush and trying to make a go of it in difficult times.”

Occasionally, one need not go far to find a time capsule. On Barton Street in Hamilton, Ontario, a drugstore called Littlewood’s sat untouched for nearly 50 years after it closed its doors. When it eventually came up for sale, visitors were treated to a scene from a bygone era. The Hamilton Spectator has video of the store’s interior, which looks more like a movie set than a vision of reality.

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