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Contents Of Long-Buried Time Capsule Surprise Archaeologists

Monument to John C. Calhoun before its removal from Marion Square, Charleston, SC, in 2020.
Ron Cogswell
Monument to John C. Calhoun before its removal from Marion Square, Charleston, SC, in 2020.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Now we know.

One year after the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square was removed, and four months after the cornerstone was pried open to reveal its long-hidden contents, we can see what was inside the sealed lead box.

And we can better appreciate how these materials add to our understanding of one of South Carolina's most important and controversial statesmen.

It took a while to locate the granite box with marble sides embedded in the statue's base.

One newspaper article from 1858 — the year the foundation was laid for the first Calhoun monument on the north side of the square and the reliquary created — indicated that the mini-memorial filled with mementos of the time could be found at the northwest corner of the base.

An article from 1886 indicated, instead, that the time capsule would be positioned in the northeast corner of the base.

And that's where the excavators found it. They proceeded carefully with small jackhammers and other tools until the small sepulcher was liberated from its anchorage.

The original statue itself, disparaged by Whites because of its controversial design and despised by Blacks because it honored a man who considered slavery a "positive good," was installed in 1887 but didn't last long. A new monument was erected in 1896, with far less fanfare, and this time atop a very tall column. For a short spell, after the first monument came down and before the second one went up, the reliquary was buried in the middle of the square for safekeeping.

Calhoun is among South Carolina's most prominent public figures. He served in the state legislature, then in the federal government as a representative in Congress, senator, secretary of war, vice president and secretary of state. He was a proponent of nullification of unwanted federal tariff legislation. His advocacy of states' rights set the stage for the Civil War.

Calhoun helped codify and institutionalize the racial divide, not only through his relentless defense of slavery, which he sought to expand, but through rhetoric that rallied poor Whites.
"With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them," he once said.

The statue that was removed from Marion Square exactly one year ago could end up in Columbia. Administrators at the S.C. State Museum and Charleston officials are in ongoing talks about its relocation.

Inside the cornerstone compartment was a severely rusted cannonball found in the waters near Fort Moultrie and almost certainly shot by the British during the 1776 Battle of Sullivan's Island. The capsule also contained three objects: a long tin canister containing rolled-up fabric, likely a banner raised by sailors during Calhoun's funeral in 1850; a small tin cylinder containing what had been reported to be a lock of Calhoun's thick silvery hair; and a rectangular lead box the archaeologists' X-ray machine could not penetrate.
Since their retrieval, these items have been housed at Brockington and Associates in Mount Pleasant and carefully studied by its senior archaeologist Eric Poplin and lab manager Jeff Sherard. On Feb. 25, they opened the stone compartment.

They noted that it had once filled partially with water, perhaps during that intermediate period of limbo, and as a result the cannonball and tin containers had corroded significantly.
Rust to an archaeologist is like a snowstorm to an airline pilot: with a bit of labor and some patience, it can be cleared away. The crusty ferric oxide was scraped away and the cannonball's shape and luster restored. The tins were another matter. Sherard and Poplin did their best to clean them up, but one had essentially merged with the fabric, perhaps making the banner impossible ever to unfurl. And water penetration almost certainly destroyed the lock of hair.

So now they're inclined to keep the objects intact as they are. Why risk damaging historic mementos?
The lead box, though, was showing promise.

It had been well-sealed and did not reveal obvious water penetration. It took three days to remove the lid. On April 26, they lifted it off and beheld, to their terrific surprise and delight, a pristine glass jar perfectly sealed and filled with scrolls of paper in excellent condition. The jar had been carefully protected with newspapers. At the bottom was a business card of J.F. Church, a plumber located on Broad Street.

Did Mr. Church, clearly a capable metal worker, make the box? Or just prepare it? Poplin said research is required.

They haven't opened the jar yet. But historical reports tell us what it contains: a copy of Calhoun's last Senate speech, some Continental money (paper bills, clearly visible), a list of all the U.S. and South Carolina governments, and a list of members of the Calhoun Monument Ladies Association.

But there's more than that inside the jar, which contains perhaps eight or 10 rolled up publications, some that are probably newspapers, and some that appear to be portions of the Congressional Record.

When the lead box was opened, jaws dropped, said Jason Kronsberg, director of parks for the city of Charleston. No one expected the contents to be in such good condition. And no one expected to find a hand-blown glass jar sealed with plaster of Paris.

"Whoever made it, knew what he was doing," Sherard said, observing the smooth contours and absence of embedded bubbles.
" 'Beautiful' is the word that came to mind immediately," Poplin said.

And in some ways it's remarkable that all of this was preserved, found and secured, they said.

"Buildings with cornerstones get torn down all the time," Kronsberg said. "There are very few things in the world that are permanent."

But these objects have survived 163 years. And now they can add to our appreciation of a complicated and controversial man and the era in which he flourished.

"Now, there's more to the story," Sherard said. "It's our history."