By Erika Norton, WPAOG Senior Multimedia Journalist
History lovers gathered both at West Point and online on August 28 to see what was inside a possibly 200-year old lead box recently discovered inside the base of the Thaddeus Kościuszko monument. The newly discovered artifact found by a West Point Association of Graduate employee during renovations this summer was thought to be a time capsule, but when the mysterious box was opened, it left historians and viewers with more questions than answers.
West Point archeologist Paul Hudson and Kevin Hultslander of the West Point Department of Public Works carefully opened the one square-foot box only to find what appears to be silt and sediment.
“We are not certain if it’s soil or mud or dust,” Hudson said in the moments after removing the lid from the box. “It may not be anything.”
After officials from the West Point museum inspected the box, it was determined that further research will need to be conducted.
“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,” Hudson said. “So what we’re going to do is we’re going to collect all the silt. We’ll screen it through a fine mesh screen and see if we can find any remains and determine what, if anything, was in here.”
Hudson said they did find a stamp, potentially from the manufacturer, on the lid reading “E.W. Bank New York,” which may help steer their research.
West Point officials believe the box was placed inside the monument in 1829 when the monument was completed, but West Point library’s collections have yielded no definitive record of a lead box being put into the monument base. Historians believed the statue was erected in 1828 due to the cornerstone inscription, however recent research suggests the monument wasn’t completed until 1829.
The original base and column were designed by John H.B. Latrobe, an ex-cadet from the Class of 1822, and paid for by cadets. The 8.5-foot bronze statue of Thaddeus Kościuszko, which was donated by the Polish Clergy and Laity of the United States in 1913, was mounted on the column nearly 100 years later.
Kościuszko was the Chief Engineer at West Point from April 1778 to August 1780, using the terrain to create the interlocking fortification system known as Fortress West Point to ensure the British did not capture the Hudson River.
To help preserve this history, WPAOG Construction Manager Chris Branson and his team have been meticulously restoring the Kościuszko monument in kind, using 3D imaging and sourcing the same quality white marble used in monuments built during that time period. The statue of Kościuszko is being recast in bronze, and the original plaques are being refinished. Gift funds to WPAOG support the restoration, maintenance and construction of not only academic and athletic facilities but also historic statues and monuments at West Point like Kościuszko Monument.
While the time capsule opening may not have gone as expected, USMA History Professor COL Seanegan Sculley had a hopeful perspective on the discovery and the potential for future research opportunities.
“What this project has brought to light is not as much about what we do know, but what we still don’t know,” Sculley said. “There’s a lot that’s still left for us to uncover and I find it fascinating that even at this point in time, there’s still more work to be done by historians and archaeologists to understand what was going on here at the Academy in its early years.”
One livestream viewer commented: “I don’t see the event as being a failure! It’s the exploration that counts, not the finds. Finding what little there was opens further avenues for more exploration and on and on. Science is like that.”