The practice of placing significant objects within a building’s masonry may have origins in the early Christian tradition of secreting a saint’s relics within the foundation stone of a church.
In the meantime, many edifices have been constructed to contain a sort of secular reliquary. Traditionally a building’s cornerstone—but more recently a ceremonial block set in a prominent position—accommodates a time capsule. This sealed copper, lead—or now even plastic—box contains ephemera from the year of the building’s dedication.
Recently, history buffs and preservationists in Indiana have had opportunities to unwrap a few of these gifts from the past, which have served to provide practical information along with cultural context.
When the George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes was being repaired in March 2009, a booklet with the original specifications for the 1933 edifice turned up in its cornerstone time capsule, clarifying some restoration issues for the monument on the Wabash River to the Revolutionary War figure.
The Indiana State Department of Health building was a state-of-the-art facility when built on the western edge of the IU School of Medicine campus in Indianapolis in 1948.
When the building’s time capsule was excavated in 2004, its contents revealed a continuity of public health concerns over the half-century: a poster touted the benefits of exercise; a chart listed 20 communicable diseases, most of which are still present.
An innovation in 1948, the vial of penicillin that was also placed in the capsule is now a ubiquitous antibiotic.