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Time capsule found under Charleston's Calhoun monument opened after more than a century

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After spending more than a century underground, a stone capsule discovered below the former John C. Calhoun monument in Charleston was unsealed Feb. 25, revealing a severely rusted cannonball and three small tin containers. 

The vault, made of limestone and marble, was pried open in a small room at the office of Brockington & Associates, the archaeological firm hired by the city of Charleston to safely remove the capsule from the former monument. 

Mayor John Tecklenburg was in attendance as the archaeologists revealed the items that were stowed away before the beginning of the 20th century. 

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Jeff Sherard, an analytical specialist, observes items concealed in the time capsule that was sealed below the former John C. Calhoun monument, at the office of Brockington & Associates on Feb. 25, 2021, in Mount Pleasant. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"It's pretty exciting," Eric Poplin, the lead archaeologist, said before he lifted the lid. "This is something people haven't seen for 130 years."

The sarcophagus-like container was the focus of intrigue and speculation for weeks, ever since the 1,000-pound block of stone was pulled from downtown Charleston in January. 

But if Charlestonians were hoping for definitive answers about the capsule's contents, they were quickly disappointed. 

The archaeologists did uncover an engraving in the item's lid that commemorated the day it was first laid down in Marion Square in the 1850s. They also identified the small cannonball, which they believe to be from the Revolutionary War era. 

The three tin containers that were found inside are likely to keep their secrets for a little longer.

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A rusted cannonball is one of the items found in the time capsule that was sealed below the former John C. Calhoun monument, pictured at the office of Brockington & Associates on Feb. 25, 2021, in Mount Pleasant. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The containers, which were covered in rust from the cannonball, varied in size. The largest was roughly the size of a loaf of bread; the smallest was no bigger than a golf ball. 

Poplin could not say at this point what the tin canisters contain but he said old newspaper clippings provide some clues to what artifacts might be inside.

The news articles claimed the stone capsule, which served as a cornerstone for the monument, was filled with mementos to Calhoun, a man who served as a U.S. senator, a vice president and one of the most ardent supporters of American slavery.

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Senior Archaeologist Eric Poplin points at the marble lid while opening up the time capsule that was sealed below the former John C. Calhoun monument, at the office of Brockington & Associates on Feb. 25, 2021, in Mount Pleasant. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The list of items sealed away reportedly included a banner that was carried during Calhoun’s funeral procession, a copy of his last speech and a lock his hair. 

It could be weeks before Poplin's team can attempt to safely open the small containers. But there's good reason to believe they hold the items listed in the old newspaper articles. 

The same news items correctly identified where the stone capsule would be located, under the northwest corner of the monument. They also noted that there would be an inscription on the lid and a cannonball inside. 

Whether the items inside the tin containers are actually salvageable, is a whole other issue, Poplin said. 

The rust lining the inside of the stone capsule suggests there may have been up to an inch of water inside at one point, Poplin said. That water also could have seeped into the tin containers, he added, ruining whatever was inside. 

If the archaeological team is able to save the items, they will also need to find a new home for the artifacts before they can be put on display.

Tecklenburg said he'd like the cannonball and the other contents pulled from the capsule to be located alongside the 12-foot-tall bronze statue of Calhoun, which was pulled down by the city last year. 

"It may be appropriate for these artifacts to go with the statue," he said.

Charleston's elected leaders are still searching for the right place to locate the Calhoun likeness, a divisive symbol in the city for more than 124 years. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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