The Curious Case of the Crypt of Civilization
Beneath the gothic arches and towers of Phoebe Hearst Hall at Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University lies a truly extraordinary room. Measuring 20 x 10 x 10 feet and carved into solid Appalachian granite, the room is packed with a dizzying collection of artefacts from the late 1930s, from phonograph records and typewriters to Lincoln Logs, Donald Duck toys and small mannequins modelling 1930s fashion. But this miniature museum of mid-20th Century technology and culture is not open to visitors. Its walls are hermetically sealed, its heavy steel door welded shut. You will never set eyes upon its contents, and neither will your children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren. Only your most distant descendants 187 generations hence will have any chance of witnessing its re-opening. For this room, known as the Crypt of Civilization, is not to be disturbed until the year 8113, 6,177 years from now – a future so distant that our civilization, if it survives at all, will have changed beyond all recognition.
While recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the first modern time capsule, the Crypt of Civilization is hardly humanity’s first attempt to preserve cultural artefacts and information for posterity. But how far back does this practice actually go? While Egyptian tombs and other ancient burials might seem like plausible candidates for the first time capsules, these were never intended to be opened, their ornate grave goods meant to accompany their owners to the afterlife. However, one of the earliest known literary texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, opens with instructions on how to find a copper box buried within the walls of the city of Uruk, near Samawah in modern-day Iraq. This box supposedly contained a full copy of the Gilgamesh story. Thus the practice of burying a message for future generations dates back to at least 2100 B.C.E. The Behistun Inscription, a giant relief carved into the side of a mountain
Near Kermanshah in Iran, was similarly intended to last for thousands of years. Carved on the orders of Persian emperor Darius the Great around 500 B.C.E, the inscription tells of numerous rebellions violently put down by Darius during his 36-year reign. But for most of history such messages to the future spoke only of the exploits of kings and other powerful people; it would not be until the early modern period that objects of everyday life would start to be preserved.
One of the oldest time capsules on record was placed in the grasshopper-shaped wind vane atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1761, and contained coins, newspapers, and messages from various mayors of Boston. 34 years later in 1795, Revolutionary War heroes Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and Colonel William Scollay placed a small metal box in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. After being rediscovered and added to in 1855 during emergency repairs, it remained in place until 2014. Its contents were similar to the Faneuil Hall capsule, including coins, newspaper clippings, a small copper medal depicting George Washington, and a small silver plate thought to have been engraved by Revere.
The popularity of time capsules grew throughout the 19th century, especially as a means of commemorating city centennials, world’s fairs, and other important events. One of the first commemorative capsules was assembled by New York magazine publisher Anna Deihm in 1876 to celebrate the U.S. Centennial. Known as the “Century Safe,” or “Centennial Vault,” the velvet-lined iron box was packed with artefacts like a gold pen and inkstand, photographs of President Ulysses S. Grant and other politicians, and albums of signatures from ordinary citizens. Sealed in 1879, the safe languished in the basement of the U.S. Capitol for 100 years before being opened by President Gerald Ford on July 4, 1976. At the same time, Chicago photographer Charles Mosher built his own broadly-similar time capsule known as the “Memorial Time Vault,” which he filled with hundreds of photographs of well-known and ordinary Chicagoans. This time capsule did not fare nearly as well, being placed in the basement of Chicago’s City Hall and promptly forgotten. Then, in 1908, workers demolishing the building stumbled across the vault and, not knowing what it was, opened it – 68 years ahead of schedule.
None of these early time capsules, however, represented a systematic attempt to preserve contemporary knowledge and culture for future generations. The first such endeavour was the Crypt of Civilization at Ogelthorpe University. The Crypt was the brainchild of Thornwell Jacobs, a Presbyterian minister, author, and educator who served as President of Ogelthorpe from 1915 to 1944. Jacobs was inspired by the opening of ancient Egyptian tombs like that of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, and sought to:
“…make available to some civilization now unthought of, and still far in the future, the running story of the life, manners of customs of the present civilization.”
To make his vision a reality, Jacobs hired movie producer, photographer, and inventor Thomas Kimmwood Peters to curate the crypt’s contents and supervise its construction. The crypt itself was constructed in a former swimming pool beneath Phoebe Hearst Hall, which had been dug into stable granite bedrock in a seismically-inactive area. This was lined with enamel panels and sealed with pitch, creating an airtight chamber with a volume of approximately 2,000 square feet. Into this space Peters packed an extraordinary variety of objects representing everyday life and culture in the 1930s as well as the sum total of human scientific and technical knowledge from the past 6,000 years. These objects included technology like a typewriter, radio, telephone, and television; items from everyday life like a woman’s purse, baby pacifier, and dental floss; and examples of common arts and entertainment like phonograph records and a plastic figurine of the Lone Ranger. Producer David O. Selznick even contributed an original draft of the script for the film Gone With the Wind. Also included were phonograph recordings of world leaders like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt, and acetate microfilms containing more than 600,000 pages of literature including the Bible, the Qur’an, the Iliad, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. These were placed in sealed, glass-lined metal canisters filled with inert Nitrogen with projectors and microfilm readers provided with which to view them. Leaving nothing to chance, Peters even included a small windmill generator to power all the electrical devices, in case for some reason electricity was not available in the distant future.
But the most daunting problem Peters had to contend with was that the English language might one day become extinct or evolve beyond recognition. To address this, Peters invented a device he called the “Language Integrator,” a sort of hand-cranked Rosetta Stone that matched the most common 1,500 words in the English language with a corresponding image and a recording of each word being spoken. The walls of the crypt were also decorated with pictographs by artists George L. Carlson depicting the history of intelligence and human development – which, along with the piles of artifacts arranged on the floor or on shelves, gave the space the appearance of a latter-day Egyptian tomb. However, no gold, silver, gems or other valuable materials were included in an effort to deter looters.
Work on the Crypt began in August 1937 and continued for nearly three years. The Crypt was officially dedicated by David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America, on May 27, 1940, while on May 28, the air in the vault was replaced with Nitrogen and the heavy steel door welded shut – not to be opened until the year 8113. This date was chosen due to the common belief that the earliest recorded date in history was 4241 B.C.E. – 6,177 years in the past. According to Thornwell Jacobs:
“Adding this figure to 1936 brings us to AD 8113. The probability is that by that year the record of the present generation of the citizens of the United States of America – except for what is sealed in our crypt – will have been as completely destroyed as the record of the contemporary of Menes.”
To get around the problem of the Crypt being forgotten and lost after more than 6 millennia, Jacobs printed a special Book of Record and distributed copies to 3600 libraries, archives, monasteries, and other safe repositories around the world. The book, printed in 14 European and Asian languages, included instructions on how to locate the Crypt, based on nearby geological features expected to survive for thousands of years. Jacobs also distributed 3000 engraved metal admission tickets to attendees of the dedication ceremonies, which were to be passed down through the generations. Each ticket read:
“Any descendant of the above named contributor, of the 187th generation, upon presentation of this card, will be admitted to the opening of the crypt on Thursday, May 28, AD 8113 Noon.”
While the Crypt of Civilization was conceived in the spirit of optimism, its dedication and sealing was a somber occasion due to the looming shadow of WWII. Indeed, at the last minute Jacobs added to the Crypt’s contents engraved printing plates from the Atlanta Journal announcing the outbreak of war and a personal message reading:
“The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.”
Though the Crypt of Civilization is widely recognized as the first of its kind, the term “time capsule” would not emerge until a year after its construction began. In 1938, Westinghouse PR manager George Edward Pendray was tasked with coming up with an exhibit for the company’s pavilion at the upcoming 1939 New York World’s Fair. Inspired by the Crypt of Civilization, Pendray decided to create a similar record of late-1930s civilization – albeit on a much smaller scale. Pendray’s miniature vault took the form of a 7-foot long, 9-inch diameter torpedo-shaped container made of a corrosion-resistant copper alloy called Cupaloy. Inside was a sealed, Nitrogen-filled Pyrex liner into which were packed 35 everyday items including a camera, light bulb, lady’s hat, cigarettes, newsreel, and microfilms containing millions of words including messages from notable personalities like Albert Einstein, full issues of popular magazines, and – in what is becoming a theme at this point – Gone With the Wind. At first Pendray called the container a “time bomb,” but given the looming threat of war he changed this to “time capsule” – and the name stuck.
At noon on September 23, 1938 – the exact moment of the autumnal equinox – the Westinghouse Time Capsule was lowered into a 50-foot-deep concrete-lined shaft beneath the fairgrounds in Queens. For the duration of the Fair’s two seasons the top of the shaft was left open with a viewing window so visitors could peer inside, while a nearby cutaway replica and display cabinets displayed the contents and packing arrangement of the capsule. As with the Crypt of Civilization, a Book of Record was created for the capsule and distributed around the world. In addition to listing the capsule’s precise location, planetary positions and other astronomical data from when it was buried, and methods for locating it, the book also includes instructions that it be translated into new languages as they emerge was well as a guide to the pronunciation of modern English – including a map showing where various sounds are produced in the human mouth.
Once again, the optimism represented by the Westinghouse capsule and the Fair as a whole would be overshadowed by the looming shadow of war, but Pendray remained optimistic, including in the capsule a message reading:
“We choose to believe that men will solve the problems of the worlds, that the human race will triumph over its limitations, and its adversaries, that the future will be glorious. To the people of that future, we leave this legacy.”
25 years later, Westinghouse would create a second, similar time capsule for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Both capsules still lie beneath Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, not to be opened until the year 6939.
But despite their popularity, many have questioned the historical value of time capsules. In his 2002 book Time Capsules: a Cultural History, author William Jarvis argues that the vast majority of time capsules are worthless from a historical perspective, containing “useless junk” that reveals little about the society that created them. Most objects placed in time capsules, Jarvis explains, are in pristine condition, while it is used items which yield the most information. Time capsule contents also tend to be highly curated to reflect only the high-brow aspects of society, excluding the experiences of ordinary people. As an example, Jarvis cites political graffiti unearthed at Pompeii – itself a giant, unintentional time capsule – reading “All the sleepyheads are voting for Petronius.”
Others argue that time capsules are less reflective of society of a whole than of their creators’ particular political and social views – including views which are now considered highly suspect. University of Iowa history expert Dr. Nick Yablon cites the example of Memorial Time Vault creator Charles Mosher, who was a prominent early advocate of eugenics. Along with photographs, the Vault also contained literature which:
“…vaguely expressed hopes that the ‘healthy’ could be encouraged to reproduce … and the ‘unfit’ discouraged. [In the vault] Mosher gave physical form to his racial visions, rendering his eugenicist utopia concrete through the vessel.”
According to Dr. Yablon,
“The time capsule was definitely a kind of riposte to the museum. Museums were seen as inadequate memorializations of the present. They tended to be full of relics of other civilizations or they were collections that were massed haphazardly without any sense of how they illuminated the present. So the time capsule would be a narrower selection for future audiences or future historians to view.”
Nearly all subsequent time capsules have been similarly biased. While the Crypt of Civilization at least attempted to acknowledge the existence of other cultures through the inclusion of the Qu’ran and other texts, the worldview it and the later Westinghouse time capsules present is a distinctly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant one. Indeed, the Crypt of Civilization contains an abundance of religious material provided by the Rosicrucian christian sect, which partially funded the Crypt’s construction.
Yet such criticism has done little to dim people’s enthusiasm for time capsules, or dissuade them from coming up with creative variations on the theme. In 1977 a team headed by astronomer Carl Sagan created a cosmic time capsule in the form of the Voyager Golden Record. Two of these gold-plated phonograph records filled with images, sounds, and music from earth were launched into interstellar space aboard the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 interplanetary probes, in the distant hope they will one day be discovered by extraterrestrial civilizations – and for more on this see our video “The Cosmic Message in a Bottle.”
Other time capsules are more lighthearted in nature. In 1957 the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma buried a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere in a sealed concrete vault beneath the courthouse to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their state. The car, nicknamed “Miss Belvedere” was to be unearthed in 2007 and awarded to whoever most closely predicted Tulsa’s population in that year. The closest guess was made by one Raymond Humbertson, but as both he and his wife died long before 2007 and had no children, Miss Belvedere was awarded to his surviving sisters and nephew. Unfortunately, in the intervening 50 years the vault sprung a leak and completely submerged the car, causing extensive damage. Efforts are currently underway to restore the vehicle and find a permanent home where it can be placed on display.
A more recent twist on the time capsule concept is Scottish artist’s Katie Paterson’s Future Library. In 2014 Paterson planted 1000 spruce trees in a forest outside Oslo, Norway; if all goes according to plan, in 100 years’ time these trees will be cut down and turned into paper, which will be used to print 100 previously-unpublished manuscripts by authors like Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Karl Knausgard. According to Paterson:
“When I looked at the tree rings, I saw books and chapters and paper and then imagined very quickly these trees growing, a whole forest of trees growing to become a book over time.”
Whether or not the world’s time capsules survive the coming millennia or prove archival useful appears to be something of a moot point, for the history of time capsules illustrates that their creation is less about communicating with future generations and more about how we interpret and commemorate the times in which we live. And so seldom are ordinary objects preserved for thousands of years that anything that does survive is bound to be of at least some value to future historians. As Paul Hudson, co-founder of Oglethorpe University’s International Time Capsule Society, explains:
“[The Crypt of civilization is] pulsating with life. It’s a living, breathing, thing. It’s older than I am and it’s bigger than all of us. Can you imagine a cultural anthropologist in the year 8113 opening the Crypt? It would be a treasure trove. Even things like dental floss would be fascinating.”
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