National Archives News

Cemetery Time Capsule Artifacts Provide Glimpse Into History

By Victoria Macchi | National Archives News

refer to caption

David S. Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States, views contents from the Memorial Amphitheater memorabilia box in the Memorial Amphitheater Lower Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, April 29, 2020. The box, placed in the Memorial Amphitheater cornerstone over a century ago, was opened on April 9, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2020 — As Arlington National Cemetery marks the centennial of its Memorial Amphitheater this week, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero joined its staff on site recently to view and discuss the contents of a 105-year-old time capsule stored behind a cornerstone.

Among the artifacts removed from the boxes and viewed by the Archivist were U.S. coins and postage stamps in use in 1915; an autographed photo of President Woodrow Wilson; a map of Pierre Charles L'Enfant's design for Washington, DC; a U.S. flag; copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; a Bible; and other documents pertaining to the history of the amphitheater and the nation's capital.

“I must say, in the eyes of the Archivist, this stuff is in great shape. Those original folks who are responsible for creating the process did a great job,” Ferriero said, inspecting the items with gloved hands at an April 29 event. With museums and archives around the country shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Arlington National Cemetery is displaying the items in an online exhibit.

A historian, a conservator, and facilities maintenance employees from Arlington National Cemetery oversaw the extraction and opening of the copper box on April 9, 2020. Inside were  items stored since construction began on the amphitheater in 1915. 

Memorabilia boxes and time capsules, explained Ferriero, are an American invention. 

“The concept is to celebrate construction of a new institution, a new building, an important new building, by providing an opportunity to share what life was like at that particular time in our history,” he said. A video of the capsule’s opening, the extraction of the items, and comments from the Archivist is available through Arlington National Cemetery.

Among the documents in the capsule was a copy of the Constitution, which Ferriero noted stops at the 17th Amendment. The creation of the capsule in 1915 meant that the documents missed historic moments in the ensuing years while the amphitheater was finished, including the passage of the 19th Amendment, which celebrates its centennial this year

Ferriero also observed that the flag was a few stars short of the reality for the US in 1915. 

“The inclusion of an American flag is kind of standard in these kinds of memorabilia boxes, and the interesting thing about this flag is the date, of course. This was done in 1915, and the flag here is 46 stars when there were actually 48 states in 1915,” said Ferriero. “I would guess, having been involved in situations like this, is that they grabbed what was ever available and this was the flag in the memorabilia box.” New Mexico and Arizona became the 47th and 48th states in 1912. 

An archival expert to his core, the Archivist made note of the fasteners used on the time capsule’s contents.

“One of my favorite things I was so excited to see is this wonderful example of red tape,” he said. “All of the records in the National Archives, when they were moved into that building, were carefully protected with wrappings that were held together with this red tape. This is where the saying comes (from) about cutting through the red tape. It is actually—literally—the red tape.”

The tradition of maintaining a time time capsule at the Amphitheater will continue. Arlington National Cemetery plans to install a new memorabilia box this year to be opened in 2120. Ferriero contributed copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution for inclusion in the new box.