Sometimes I think there might be pieces of pirate soul in all of us, because who doesn’t hear the words ‘buried treasure’ and feel at least the slightest bit of intrigue?
Of course, when it comes to time capsules, it might not be the sort of treasure that sparkles in the sunlight – but if you look at it the right way, it can be called treasure all the same.
Now, I’m assuming that your high school class buried one and you know what I’m referring to. But just in case you don’t, a time capsule is a cache – buried, hidden in keystones, or stored in a wall, etc. – that contain items from the current time and place that will tell future people what life was like “way back when.”
Nicholas Yablon, an associate professor of American studies and the University of Iowa (and an expert on time capsules), has this to say about them:
“I define time capsules quite narrowly, as something with a target date. In the media, any box that gets opened is called a time capsule. That leads to a lot of confusion when you’re actually looking for time capsules online, or anywhere.”
The term came about in 1939, when the famous Westinghouse capsule was buried as part of the World’s Fair. They planned to have it last 5,000 years, and it included items like a 22,000 page essay recorded on microfilm (didn’t they know microfilm readers would be obsolete?) and a vial of tooth powder.
If you’re searching for time capsules that are older than that, you’d have to try searching different terms in order to find them, according to Yablon.
“For earlier examples of this practice, you have to do more creative searching. They have names like ‘century vault,’ or ‘centennial safe’ or ‘memorial chest.’ Everyone seems to have a slightly different name.”
Which of course, is going to make finding them a challenge. Then again, what fun is searching for buried treasure if it’s easy to find?
There are a few things to consider once you do find a time capsule, too, such as whether or not there is a set date for it to be opened, and whether that date has passed. Another consideration is whether the capsule might contain paper items that should be cared for by a professional upon opening. Yablon says that if you do find one, it’s a good idea to contact a local historian or archivist before popping it open.
Once it’s open, there’s no telling what you might find, although there are some items that are regular contenders. People love to bury newspapers, phone books, directories, and photographs, though Yablon also says he’s found more bizarre inclusions as well, including a tooth inside a matchbox. The label claimed it belonged to Robespierre (the French revolutionary).
The official, fancy time capsule may have fallen out of vogue in recent years (they peaked in popularity between 1940 and 1960), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some cool ones out there waiting to be uncovered and opened. The International Time Capsule Society (yep, that’s a thing) has a list of the 10 most-wanted time capsules. It includes one at MIT that rests under an 18-ton cyclotron, and a series of 17 time capsules that have been lost around Corona, California.
So if the thought of these little treasures being scattered around just waiting to be dug up inspires your pirate soul, make sure to check them out. Happy hunting!
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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