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Contents of time capsule at UT unearthed after more than a century

It took nearly 45 minutes for UT's Preservation Technician to remove the lid. She used a small chisel and hammer to tap around the edges until she was able to pull it off.

Knoxville, TN — A team from the University of Tennessee Libraries Special Collections unearthed the contents of a time capsule buried more than a century ago on Friday.

A Delicate Process

University Preservation Technician Amanda Richards said it took her nearly 45 minutes to carefully open the lid. Using a small chisel and hammer, Richards tapped around the soldered edges until she was able to remove it completely.

Inside the lead box, the contents were decomposed, but University Archivist Alesha Shumar said they know exactly what was buried. A list of what was in the capsule was published in newspapers and the course catalog that year.

Even though the capsule's original contents are destroyed, copies of what was buried will be on display with the box at the John C. Hodges Library. Shumar and her team were able to use the list to find alternates of all of the items in their own collection.

Shumar said the time capsule featured photographs of students, board members, and UT's president, Brown Ayres, as well as invitations to community and University events.

"It was really a campus event," Shumar said. "This had fanfare."

Timing is Everything

The capsule was removed earlier this summer, but Shumar said the team had limited time to open the box as soon as it was taken out of the ground.

"Since you're taking it out of a natural element that it was in, you don't want to wait too long to open those," Shumar said. "Given the fact that we didn't know what the state of the materials were inside of it, once it was pulled out of the ground its really best to, if you're wanting to get inside of it, to open it as soon as possible."

Shumar said changing elements quickly can cause the decomposition process to speed up.

The History of the Time Capsule

The capsule was buried in the cornerstone of Estabrook Hall when it was renovated in 1906. The University now has plans to demolish the building to make room for a new engineering complex.

Shumar said they decided to remove the capsule now because the original owners did not leave specific instructions on when to open it.

"If it's not listed at 50 years or 100 years you usually do it at a renovation of a building," she said. "Since we're moving forward with the building, they pulled the time capsule out of the cornerstone."

Preserving Your History

Shumar said that it is not uncommon for the contents of a time capsule to decompose. She said she believes the bricks caused the box to crack and dent which allowed moisture to get inside.

She said her advice to those who want to preserve their own artifacts is not to use a time capsule.

She recommends storing valuables in dry, cool places or donating them.

"We are the living time capsule in University Archives and so donating that stuff to us, we keep it safe from the elements and then it's open to research," Shumar said. "If somebody's writing a history of the building or the campus or a professor, they can come here, do the research, find the images, find the programs and actually get to that information and it's not buried for 112 years."

The full live stream of the reveal can be found on UT's website.

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