West Point archaeologist Paul Hudson and West Point Museum curator Michael Diaz lifted gray clumps out of a box. The masses crumbled into powder. Disappointed onlookers saw nothing but dust. But eventually, the pre-Civil War time capsule gave up its hidden treasure.
In May, renovators worked on restoring a monument honoring Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko. They discovered a lead box. Experts speculated that there might be items inside from cadet life in the late 1820s, when the monument first went up. Musket balls, messages from students, clues to historical mysteries—what exciting artifacts might the box hold?
An audience and a film crew at the U.S. Military Academy watched eagerly. Hudson and Diaz pried open the top; the crew pointed a camera inside. But there seemed to be nothing but a silty layer on the bottom.
Asked how he felt about the big non-reveal, Hudson replied, “A little disappointed. We built up to this quite a bit.”
But not long after, this disappointment was redeemed.
Hudson took the box back to his lab. He began carefully sifting through the silt with a small wooden pick and brush.
“Before long, lo and behold, there’s the edge of a coin sticking out,” he recounts.
The box wasn’t empty after all. The treasure was simply hidden in the dust. Hudson found six old silver American coins and a medal.
The archaeologist says he was as disappointed by the underwhelming results of the live opening. “When I first found these, I thought, man, you know, it would have been great to have found these on stage,” Hudson says.
But he admits was probably better to extract the coins and medal in a controlled setting anyway.
Hudson thinks moisture and dirt may have seeped into the box from a damaged seam. The conditions could have disintegrated any organic matter inside, like paper or wood.
What did survive were a 1795 five-cent coin, an 1800 Liberty dollar, 1818 25-cent coin, 10-cent and one-cent coins from 1827, and an 1828 50-cent coin. There was also an Erie Canal commemorative medal dating to 1826.
The finds seem to confirm West Point officials’ theory that cadets left the box left in 1828 or 1829. That’s when builders completed the original monument. A committee of five cadets—including 1829 graduate Robert E. Lee—assisted with the dedication of the monument.
Historical preservation and analysis of the time capsule will continue. Hudson hopes to find clues about what else may have once been inside the box.
“I think there’s more that we can learn from this,” Hudson says, “about the academy’s history and about the country’s history.”