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West Point time capsule turns up empty, stumping historians

West Point is the site of centuries of American history, but the ceremonial opening of a recently-discovered time capsule left cadets and staff with more questions than answers Monday, when the nearly 200-year-old lead box turned up empty.

Anticipation was high in West Point’s Robinson Auditorium, where an anxious crowd of cadets, faculty, alumni, and reporters gathered to crack open a time capsule discovered earlier this summer. The sealed box measuring about one square foot was found under the academy’s Thaddeus (also spelt "Tadeusz") Kosciuszko Monument, the base of which has been under renovation after a cadet noticed cracks in the structure in 2021.

U.S. Military Academy Command Historian Jennifer Voightschild called it a novel opportunity to “uncover” some of West Point’s earliest history. While no evidence of the time capsule exists in the academy’s records, historians at the West Point Museum say the Kosciuszko monument has never been moved – so, presumably, the capsule had been there since its installation around 1828 or 1829, 27 years after the academy’s founding.

In the lead-up to the opening, cadets swapped predictions on social media with various levels of seriousness. Some speculated the box could contain personal artifacts or prints of Kosciuszko, who died in 1817. Maybe they’d find old class rings, medals, coins, or newspapers. And on the more whimsical side, some wondered / hoped whether there’d be treasure maps, a box-inside-a-box, or the original recipe for West Point’s chili.

Brigadier General Shane Reeves, dean of the academic board, joked about Geraldo Rivera’s anticlimactic opening of Al Capone’s “vault” in the 1980s – which turned out to be empty – before sharing his hopes.

"I'm hoping that we open it, and there's something in there like the Terminator arm, which shows that time travel is possible, John Connor is humanity's savior, and that ChatGPT is the beginning of SkyNet," he laughed.

Perhaps Reeves spoke too soon, because when archeologists finally pried open the capsule’s lid…

...nothing but dirt – at first glance, anyway. While historians bought them some time by going over the history and significance of Kosciuszko, the West Point team of archeologists and volunteer cadets took turns peering into the box and scooping out a few clumps of silt lining the bottom, only to have some of those clumps crumble in their hands.

After the ceremony, West Point Archeologist Paul Hudson admitted it was disappointing.

“We’d built up to this quite a bit, and I’ll tell you the truth, that was the last outcome that I expected," he said.

Wojciech Wardeski, an international cadet from Poland, was supposed to help carry the capsule’s contents around the stage so audience members could get a closer look. His services, obviously, turned out not to be needed, but he remains intrigued. For Wardeski, this just sets off another mystery to solve.

"Why would anyone put a box, an empty box, in the monument of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, that lasted almost 200 years, and after opening that, it's empty?" he asked. "As an international cadet from Poland, I feel a special bond to Thaddeus Kosciuszko because he was obviously from Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. So the opening of the box, and really, everything that's related to Thaddeus Kosciuszko is somewhat personal to me. Because I can see the legacy, the heritage of Poland in the United States."

A contemporary of the founding fathers, Kosciuszko was a Polish military engineer and leader who served as a colonel in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He helped oversee the construction of fortifications at West Point, and after the American Revolution, he took his expertise and fought for similar causes in Europe, ultimately becoming a national hero in Poland, Lithuania, France, and Belarus.

While, sure, a new print of Kosciuszko would have been cool, the West Point Museum already boasts some portraits of the patriot, as well as his sword, one of his medals, and even a lock of hair.

And Hudson isn’t necessarily giving up. While the box’s contents are underwhelming at first glance, he plans to shift through the silt to see if there are any hidden treasures. He notes the bottom edge of the capsule was cracked, likely allowing water and time to destroy anything inside – especially if it was organic material, like paper or bone. Meantime, the lid offers at least hopes of a clue: a stamp reading “E.W. Bank, New York,” perhaps the capsule’s manufacturer.

"We're gonna remove all that sediment, and we'll screen it through some fine mesh screen and see if anything comes out of it — any artifacts, or we might come up with some different ways that we can test it and see if it's just sediment that infiltrated the box, or if it was something that disintegrated over time," said Hudson.

That, or a 19th Century cadet’s senior prank has, finally, paid off.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."