Belmont Club

Buried Time Capsules

Later today a time capsule placed under the cornerstone of the Massachusetts state house by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere will be unveiled, according to NBC. “A time capsule is a historic cache of goods or information, usually intended as a method of communication with future people and to help future archaeologists, anthropologists or historians.”

The 10-pound brass box was removed last month from its home in the statehouse, an 18th-century building topped by a gilded copper dome made by Revere’s company, and X-rays showed it held coins, a bronze medal portraying the first president, George Washington, and colonial records, officials said.

It was first placed under the cornerstone in 1795. The unveiling of the capsule at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will mark the first time its contents have been seen publicly since 1855, when it was removed from the cornerstone and the items inside cleaned.

Historians and archivists have long criticized such capsules as being distinctly uninteresting, containing for the most part artifacts they could have obtained elsewhere. But the lack of interest may in part be due to the inability of historians and archivists to recreate the context of the message and not a defect in the message itself. For some reason Sam Adams and Paul Revere selected those commonplace items to send forward to us in the capsule. Yet for reasons now not obvious, they symbolized something very important to them, and we can’t for the life of us make out why.

In order to avoid boring future archivists, today’s experts now advise against leaving coins and documents. Instead they recommend we preserve videos, an excellent idea, marred only by the possibility that posterity may not have a handy DVD or Betamax to replay them.   But that is their problem. At any rate millions of people now routinely leave the Apple Time Capsule to posterity. It is described as “a ‘Backup Appliance’ … designed to work in tandem with the Time Machine backup software utility introduced in Mac OS X 10.5” so that people a hundred thousand years hence can simply mount them into any device supporting Mac OS X 10^5 or greater, which with any luck will be backward compatible.

But even if our legacy videos can still be played centuries hence they may still be uninteresting if we cannot send along some of the context necessary to interpret them. To see why this is important, consider why ordinary Time Capsules that we come across all the time are more interesting to us than to strangers. A trunk in the attic that yields your grandfather’s Bronze Star — the one you never knew about — or a letter that you never opened from someone you once loved,  are not meaningless junk, however uninteresting they may be to professional archivists. On the contrary they are fraught with a meaning we cannot even fully communicate with our neighbors and friends, simply because we have the context and they do not.

When the context is itself obscured by time — when we ourselves are gone —  then by some alchemy the artifacts themselves fade.  They revert and those who come afterward will find the Bronze Star and the old letter nothing but dull metal and brittle paper, as if the magic never lived in them at all.

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote LP Hartley. Maybe he was right. You have to have been there; or at least visited in memory to have some connection with the place. Or you may as well not go at all.

It may be that Time Capsules will always be less about the past than about the present. When the media opens the Adams-Revere time capsule the question isn’t really “what’s in it?”  but “what’s still in it for us”. Or are they just junk from dead old white people nobody cares about any more, with nothing relevant, nothing topical or cool to communicate? Robert Penn Warren caught something of this interplay between past and present in his poetry.

What can you dream to make Time real again?
I have read in a book that dream is the mother of memory.
And if there is no memory where — oh, what — is Time?

What is Time? It’s easy to answer that. Why it’s a magazine, my friend. A magazine.

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