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The Case of the Poisoned Capsule: The Doleful Digested Documents

A viewing offered in connection with Buried Treasures, the 2005 Georgia Archives Week

Richter and staff

1872 Engraving

Ah - the impulse to bury a time capsule for the future - how human, how irresistible. We bury our treasures, we cast our bread into the waters of the future, knowing we shall probably not be around to be blamed. But is it a good idea? Consider the tragic tale of the 1872 UGA time capsule; it warns us that, in words that may have been spoken by Rameses II, "Mummification - it seems like a lot of fun until somebody gets a bum wrap."

According to reports of the commencement, recalled by Larry Dendy in the January 15, 1979 issue of Columns, the class of 1872 decided to treat the future by placing a class roster of their signatures, a humor paper called The Cat a newspaper called The Collegian and other items into a time capsule. The capsule was then sealed into a 700 pound stone with plaster, the stone was set into the ground near Phi Kappa Hall and a water oak sapling was planted nearby. Time spun merrily along until January of 1979, when the University decided to unbury the treasure after 106 years.

The Case of the POISONED CAPSULE continues in 1979

President Fred C. DavisonTension and anticipation is visible in this 1979 crowd, watching as President Fred C. Davison scrapes away a layer of plaster cementing the time capsule into its niche. Once free, the plaster-flecked metal box was opened, to reveal its treasures to a new century .. but alas the box proved insufficient to its task.

Inside were browned crumbles and clumps, with a few stray letters visible. Moisture, air, the acidity of the documents and corrosion from box itself had combined to digest the "treasure". Although the Columns article speaks optimistically of having a visiting expert in restoration examine the items, this recovery obviously did not work out. The capsule and its fragments can be visited today in University Archives in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Our suggestion, drawn from this tragedy, is that when the compulsion to "bury treasure" strikes you, don't bury it in the ground. Contact the appropriate qualified archive and place it where it can best survive for current researchers and for those unknown researchers of the future.

The stone containing the capsule fared much better than the capsule's contents and can be seen today on the south side of the Admininstration Building, just outside the gate by the Owens fountain.

Click image for larger view. (Opens new window)

Why is Placing an Item in an Archive Better than Burying it in the Ground?

Of course, accessibility is superior in an archive. While it is more romantic to bury a surprise for the future, isn't it better to have it available for use over the decades? The main advantage of archival storage, however,is that of proper preservation from the ravages of;

  • ACID: Materials are placed in acid-neutral folders and boxes to slow or arrest deterioration of paper. Items past saving, such as heavily acid newspaper, will be replaced with an acid free copy and either discarded or isolated where they cannot destroy adjacent materials. The storage environment's temperature and humidity are controlled.
  • CORROSION: Rusting materials such as paper clips are removed. Rust-free clips are isolated from original documents by slips of acid-neutral paper. The environment's temperature and humidity are controlled.
  • LIGHT: Ultraviolet light waves that speed destruction of paper are kept at a minimum by storing materials in boxes and by exhibiting them under filtering plastic.
  • HUMAN DAMAGE: Researchers only contact materials under controlled and supervised circumstances. For example, backhoes are almost never operated around archived materials, which cannot be said for many time capsules.

Treasures of UGA's 1870's preserved in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Larry Dendy's 1978 article [PDF] on recovery of the 1872 capsule.


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