Crypt of Civilization
The Crypt of Civilization, a multimillennial time capsule, is a chamber that was sealed behind a stainless steel door in 1940 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. The crypt is the "first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth," according to the Guinness Book of World Records (1990).
Origins of the Crypt
Oglethorpe University president Thornwell Jacobs (1877-1956), in an article in the November 1936 Scientific American magazine,
Jacobs proposed the distant date of A.D. 8113 for the opening of the crypt. He calculated this date from the first fixed date in history, 4241 B.C., when the Egyptian calendar was established. Exactly 6,177 years had passed between 4241 B.C. and A.D. 1936. Jacobs projected the same period of time forward, arriving at 8113 for the crypt's opening, so that historians and archaeologists of the distant future could obtain a clear picture of the midpoint of history.
The Crypt of Civilization idea fascinated the American public and soon was imitated. The Westinghouse Company, which was planning a promotional event for the 1939 New York World's Fair, began a project to bury a sealed seven-foot-long torpedo-shaped vessel made of alloyed metal, which was not to be opened for 5,000 years. George Pendray of Westinghouse called the project a time capsule, and the English language gained a new term almost overnight.
Construction and Preparation of the Crypt
The Oglethorpe crypt is half underground, on the lower level of a Gothic granite building,
The National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., provided technical advice for construction of the crypt and the storage of items in it. The bureau recommended that many items be stored in stainless steel receptacles lined with glass and filled with nitrogen to prevent aging. It also approved Jacobs's plan to seal the chamber with a door panel of stainless steel.
Jacobs appointed Thomas Kimmwood Peters to supervise construction of the crypt and to serve as its archivist.
In April 1937 Jacobs gave a nationwide radiocast on NBC in New York City, in which he explained the crypt as an "archaeological duty" of his generation.
Filling and Sealing the Crypt
Jacobs envisioned the crypt as comprehensive and aimed for a whole "museum" not only of accumulated formal knowledge from more than 6,000 years but also of 1930s popular culture. Inside the crypt are stainless steel canisters with microfilms of many classic works of literature, including the Bible, the Koran, Homer's Iliad, and Dante's Inferno. Producer David O. Selznik donated an original copy of the script for the movie Gone With the Wind. There are approximately 640,000 pages of microfilm from more than 800 works.
Peters used similar methods to capture and store still photographs and motion pictures.
The inventory of the crypt includes artifacts ranging from the useful (a typewriter, a radio, a cash register, and an adding machine) to the curious (dental floss, plastic toys of Donald Duck and the Lone Ranger, the contents of a woman's purse, and a specially sealed bottle of Budweiser beer). The chamber of the crypt when finished resembled a cell of an Egyptian pyramid, with artifacts on the shelves and the floor.
On May 25, 1940, Jacobs and Peters sealed the crypt in a solemn ceremony. They welded the door shut and fused onto it a plaque with an elaborate message written by Jacobs.
After the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945 the crypt's mission appeared even more unlikely. National media organizations continued to visit the crypt every decade, but by 1970 it had been virtually forgotten. In 1990, on the fiftieth anniversary of the crypt's sealing, the International Time Capsule Society was formed at Oglethorpe University. The society studies the variety of time capsule projects worldwide. The crypt with its stainless steel door regained prominence during the millennium observances from 1999 to 2001 and was featured on national television and was covered by national newspapers.
Paul Stephen Hudson, "The 'Archaeological Duty' of Thornwell Jacobs: The Oglethorpe-Atlanta Crypt of Civilization Time Capsule," Georgia Historical Quarterly 75 (spring 1991).
Thornwell Jacobs, "Today—Tomorrow: Archeology in A.D. 8113," Scientific American, November 1936.
T. K. Peters, The Story of the Crypt of Civilization ([Atlanta]: Oglethorpe University Press, 1940).
Don Troop, "Time Capsules Resurrect a Sometimes Forgettable Past," Chronicle of Higher Education 54, no. 39 (2008).
Paul Stephen Hudson, Georgia Perimeter State College
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.