Nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule contained only mud

It was like a teaser to an HBO series finale.

After staff at the U.S. Military Academy discovered a nearly 200-year-old time capsule on campus in the spring, the possibilities of what were inside seemed endless.

Curious West Point cadets threw out their guesses: mess hall silverware, a U.S. flag, a pair of boots, a diary, a class ring and maps. Lt. Gen. Steve Gilland, superintendent of West Point, said in a statement that the capsule’s contents would “add to the West Point story.” Leading up to the reveal Monday, the academy posted reminders on social media for people to livestream the event “as we unlock secrets from the past.”

The drama was high.

“Are we ready to see what is in that box?” Jennifer Voigtschild, the West Point historian, called to the crowd to kick off the event.

A panel of historians filled the stage, and cadets flanked the wings. Staff stood ready to excavate the capsule’s contents. At the center of the stage was the true star: a box made of lead, about 1 cubic foot, hidden away under a black sheet.

But all that buildup landed with a thud Monday, when the big reveal turned up nothing but mud. Literally.

“The box didn’t quite meet expectations,” Paul Hudson, an archaeologist at the academy, said Monday.

Staff members at West Point found the time capsule in May during renovations to the 8½-foot bronze statue of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish general, military engineer and rebel who fought in the American Revolution. They announced the finding in a news release this month.

Historians estimated the capsule was stored at the base of the monument in 1828, some 26 years after the academy’s founding.

The mystery and anticipation has mounted in the months since. The physics department used a high-powered X-ray machine on the box, which revealed “some anomalies on the interior that we think may be some objects,” Hudson said. “That is promising.”

Hudson explained how the staff members would open the lead box and the precautions they would take, including wearing gloves, N95 masks and using a handheld vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Hudson held down the box, and Kevin Hultslander, the general supervisor at the West Point Garrison Public Works, chiseled away at a flap on the top.

“What do we see?” Voigtschild called out. A camera shakily zoomed in on the top of the container. Hudson pointed a small light inside the capsule and leaned his face close to get a good look.

“It’s empty,” someone said. Hudson stuck his arm inside the box and came out empty handed. The crowd laughed.

After a few minutes examining some of the container’s contents while historians discussed the importance of the Kosciuszko statue, Hudson delivered an update. A layer of silt had settled in the bottom of the box, he said.

“We don’t want to think that they went to all the trouble to put this box in the monument and not put anything in it,” he said.

Officials plan to collect and screen the silt. The lid also contained a stamp from the manufacturer that Hudson said could lead staff down another path with more clues.

The mystery continues.

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