Time Capsule

(left) recently discovered 200-yr-old time capsule from Washington Monument, Baltimore, MD, photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy (right) 1993 drawing “Leaning on Tank” by David Brewster

I was an ecstatic eleven year-old boy who had found my Spanish Main. On my knees I started clawing into a sloping embankment packed with a century-old dump. I dug through a layered earthen lasagna representative of Maryland’s farming heritage. Vigorously but delicately, I sifted cascading decades of debris for glass bottles. The spicy fragrance of ripped apart sassafras roots and loamy topsoil made my nostrils flare in anticipation of buried treasure.

Natural gullies in wooded ravines at the edge of open farmland often became dumping grounds for 19th century farmers. The barely-exposed rim of blue enamel buckets would catch my 20th century eye and like the broken mast of a sunken ship, lead me to these forgotten hidden troves. White milk glass discs spilled out from under the foliage like coins. Once used to seal canning mason jars, they long survived their rotted outer tin caps. Using a blunted wooden stick I poked and pulled dirt away from massive roots and large, strange iron implements. Upon spying a glass neck, I would more carefully excavate the vessel as not to break it. Soon, small medicine bottles embossed with Morgan Millard Druggists and cobalt blue poison were released from the clutches of roots and tumbled into my hands. As did larger ones like Lydia Pinkham Hair Tonic, aqua colored Castor oil , triangular amber ink wells,  charcoal battery canes. I littered the glass objects on top of the crest of the excavation site. Sun dried, the exhumed capsules gleamed a strange dull and ghostly light. Salamanders and rusty bed springs sprung from the loosening soil as my digging frenzy deepened. Lost in a timeless trance, I slipped into the depths of a buried past and tried to understand the bygone world of hand blown glass, stoneware and cast iron.

Fifteen years later, living in West Philadelphia, I was given permission to excavate a privy site behind an Italianate Victorian town house built just after the Civil War. Only a circle of sunken bricks seemed vaguely suggestive of this presupposed 19th century outdoor toilet. I spent two full days digging furiously into the depths of this brick-lined chamber. Deeper and deeper I shoveled out buckets of cinders with out a trace of artifacts. Finally, this cylindrical time capsule, corked mostly by ash, revealed like a crime scene an alarming array of porcelain doll limbs, even a head with a blue painted bonnet and a Lady’s tortoise shell hair comb. At the depth of 24 feet, the very bottom, I discovered some very distinctive bottles dating from the mid 1860’s whose lead and magnesium composites made them sparkle with a flaky colored opalescence. Underground, chemical and mineral reactions caused the no-so-very-old glass to look more exotic. I felt as though I had stumbled upon ancient Egyptian relics from King Tut’s tomb.
Captivated by the ground below my feet, it is no wonder I have always been drawn to urban scavengers pushing shopping carts through the city streets collecting copper metal and automotive parts. The age-old phenomenon, whereby humans are hunters and gatherers, instinctively seeking out nuggets of hope; to inform, recycle and to sustain their livelihood, is at the essential core of our existence. Perhaps my 1993 drawing of an itinerant urban dweller posed next to his prized hot water tank is reminiscent of this timeless endeavor, and relates to the recently found 200-year-old time capsule in Baltimore hidden within the cornerstone of the first monument erected for President Washington. Whether a fortune in the junk pile, an archaeological find of great significance, or a harvest of potatoes, humans are driven to dig out the living past to make their own history more real and give sustenance to life.