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Rodford Edmiston

Being the occasionally interesting ramblings of a major-league technophile.

Time Capsules

      Territorial animals like to mark their territory. With humans, this can be something as simple as scratching initials and date in fresh concrete. Or it can be as complicated as the Great Pyramid.

      One of the more interesting ways to mark territory is with a time capsule. There are approximately ten thousand intentional time capsules in the world (the joke being that nine thousand have been lost or simply forgotten). By making one you not only prove you were there in that place, you prove you were there in that time.

      There are official time capsules and unofficial ones. The unofficial ones are often accidental. They can be a forgotten box of mementos found by heirs, a room sealed after a tragedy and rediscovered by new owners, and so forth. The accidental ones can be some of the most interesting, because they offer an unedited insight into whoever gathered the items contained in them. So instead of a deliberately chosen public face we see something more intimate.

      Among official, deliberate time capsules, the oldest are likely foundation deposits. You see these in cultures all over the world, from great antiquity to the present. Archeological excavations of prehistoric homes often uncover items placed in a hollow under a heavy stone at the entrance. Charms. Small personal items. Locks of hair. Things which protected the home and marked who lived there. These are usually intended to have symbolic purpose, such as to ward off evil or promote success. They get their name from the fact that the items are placed in a hollow in the foundation as a structure is built. In a sense such deposits are not true time capsules - though they may be described as such even by archeologists - since they were not really intended to be seen again. In ancient Egypt foundation deposits took the form of ritual mud brick lined pits or holes dug at specific points under temples or near the entrances to tombs. They were filled with ceremonial objects, such as amulets, scarabs, food or miniature tools. Those deposits associated with tombs will also have items which identify the intended occupant.

      Moving into more modern times, many large buildings have something similar to a foundation deposit. These may be called cornerstones, foundation stones or dedication stones. Originally, the cornerstone was the reference from which the rest of the construction was measured. Over time the cornerstone became more symbolic than practical. Today they mark the formal beginning of construction or the dedication. They have such information as the name of the building, when it was built and so forth carved on the outside, or perhaps on one or more bronze plaques. In most instances various items are put inside as part of the public ceremony involved in placing the monument, and the cornerstone then sealed. Popular items are a newspaper from the day of the ceremony, coins minted in that year, and other things referring to the specific time the cornerstone is installed.

      There is a fascinating and long history behind cornerstones, with traditions which vary through time and place and purpose of structure. However, this column is intended to discuss them in the context of time capsules. Hence, I reluctantly put that diversion aside to focus on the actual topic.

      Most regular cornerstones are not planned to be opened on a specific date. Of course, those who place them usually realize that all buildings eventually fall, even if it takes thousands of years. Despite that awareness the more common cornerstones are not intended to protect materials for future examination. Like the ancient foundation deposits, they are symbolic. Though, hopefully, not as superstitious in their symbolism.

      Some cornerstones do contain actual time capsules. The date when they are intended to be opened will be included with the more traditional information on the outside of the cornerstone. While cornerstones are as a rule rather small for time capsules they are much less likely to be lost, since they are physically connected to an entire building. (Yes, many time capsules have been lost. Some should have been opened decades ago, but could not be found! For others the location is known but impractical to reach, due to subsequent construction.)

      Those cornerstones which are intended to be opened at a particular time may simply be a hollow block, or could contain an actual, separate, sealed capsule. There have been cases where a building was demolished before a planned opening date of the time capsule in the cornerstone, due to economic failure, fire, earthquake or whatever. Having a separate time capsule inside the cornerstone then becomes handy for more than the increased preservation provided. There have been a few cases of a cornerstone time capsule from a building demolished before the scheduled opening date simply being incorporated into whatever new structure was built on that location.

      Time capsules range in sophistication from a simple shoebox to special alloy canisters filled with dry nitrogen inserted inside another special alloy canister filled with dry nitrogen which is then encased in a special, high-strength concrete. One time capsule under the floor of a shopping mall has a cap with a digital clock counting down to the opening date. (I assume they have remote access to the clock at least, to reset it after a power failure.) They range in size from a cocktail shaker to an entire room. Their locations run the gamut from basements to mountaintop monuments. There are even some in space! (A number of satellites and space probes have had time capsules on board. The Voyager golden records might be the best known examples.) Contents range from selections of actual objects to information stored in various ways. (Even now microfilm is popular for this use. All the equipment you need to view it are a light source and a magnifier.)

      A time capsule is not the same thing as a repository. Those are accessible, either to monitor the contents (in the case of things such as canisters of nuclear waste or vials of dangerous microorganisms) or to use (there are many records repositories of many types in many sorts of locations, including old salt mines).

      Despite how long such caches have been part of human culture, the term "time capsule" apparently dates to no earlier than 1937. As noted above, there were plenty of other names for such sealed collections. The term "Time Capsule I" was invented for a project by Westinghouse to create a cache of items to be interred at the 1939 New York World's Fair. "Time Capsule II" was created for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Both are buried 17 meters below Meadows Park, three meters apart. They are meant to be opened at the same time in the year 6939, five thousand years after the first capsule was sealed.

      In a way time capsules - especially those with open dates thousands of years in the future - are ultimately a form of hubris. The people who create them are essentially shouting to the future "We were important!" and expect the future to care. Considering how many have been lost or destroyed or simply turned out to be inane, time capsules might be dismissed by the pragmatic as sheer folly.

      However, many do provide useful information about the time and place they were sealed. For example, in the Valley of the Kings foundation deposits have been used to identify who was buried in a now empty tomb, through the contents described above.

      There is also the "buried treasure" element of time capsules. Several have been looted, and a few stolen entire. Even honest people with no intention of committing theft feel an odd excitement at the idea of digging up and unsealing a time capsule.

      So the next time you see a building which has a cornerstone engraved with the dedication date, take a moment to wonder just what might be inside.

          This document is Copyright 2014 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to repost it must have permission from the author, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net