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DIY time capsule

By Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist, and Billy Haslam, age 8

With the grounds opening again at the end of the June, at Fulham Palace we are currently readying ourselves for a return to somewhat more structured operations and working conditions. There are, however, numerous national issues that remain unresolved such as the continued partial closure of many schools. On a personal level I have certainly found this a very trying circumstance, and with both myself and my wife Becky now working, attempting to entertain and educate our children whilst hitting deadlines has been tough and involved a great deal of time management. Throughout this pandemic there has been a lot of imaginative project creation at home, some of which has worked and some of which hasn’t. There has also been an awful lot of the children’s time spent slumped in front of the television, an occurrence I am sure all parents have experienced over the last few months and probably feel a bit guilty about. Still, once you accept that there isn’t much you can do, you may as well go with the flow. I have come to an irrational conclusion that Spongebob Squarepants is just as educational as Blue Planet.

Anyway, one project that has been a success was dreamt up by Becky whilst she was on furlough. She had decided that this was an opportunity to sort out the front garden. I personally couldn’t see anything wrong with the state of it, but apparently it resembled something out of Steptoe and Son and gave the impression that we only occasionally washed our children, and even then just in the sink. So the old paving slabs were to be lifted, the front wall knocked down, a new path built and a Portuguese laurel hedge planted along with a new flower bed. Not too much work for a pair of archaeologists – at least the demolition part anyway. But how were we going to involve the kids with this?

This was when the idea of the time capsule cropped up.

Something that regularly occurs in the archaeological record is what we term ‘structured deposition’. In the Iron Age and into the Roman period this may be represented by animals or even parts of humans deposited within grain storage pits – essentially underground silos used to preserve seed corn for the following season. These have been interpreted as ‘offerings’ to the chthonic deities given up in order to secure a good harvest. We even have some evidence for special animal deposits at Fulham Palace.

Roman dog skull in the Fulham Palace museum collection found in the 1972-73 F.A.R.G. dig, on the line of the moat south of the walled garden. As the museum label tells us, ‘dogs and horses were revered animals throughout the Iron Age and up until the end of Roman rule. As these skulls were buried closely together they may represent a votive offering to ensure a productive harvest, or perhaps to protect the threshold of the settlement from malignant spirits.’

In the Roman period, foundation deposits including dead human neonates and pottery vessels (sometimes deliberately ‘killed’) can often be found within beam slots – the bases of walls for upstanding buildings. In the early modern period, witching bottles to ward off evil spirits were sometimes placed beneath thresholds, which contain urine, hair, nail clippings and pins. Shoes, retrieved from walls within buildings, are understood to have served a similar ‘protective’ purpose. Even ‘dried’ cats turn up occasionally. I once found one in a building on Staines High Street. 

Into the 19th century and, as any demolition crew member knows, plans of buildings and coins can often be found directly beneath Victorian foundation stones. If the building was opened by Queen Victoria you are probably quids in. If I ever get ridiculously short, I’m sure Bishop Tait left me a few goodies in the chapel…

So the time capsule is simply a modern equivalent of the human desire to offer something. Either as a religious, spiritual or superstitious gesture, or simply to remind future generations of what life was like and that we existed. In the world of archaeology it isn’t unusual for an archaeologist to cast a trowel into the depths below at the end of an excavation…

Becky casts her trowel into an Iron Age grain storage pit in Basingstoke
Clare Henshaw takes a run up…
...and accidentally deposits her wheelbarrow.

So we decided we would bury a Covid-19 time capsule beneath the new path. Our oldest, Billy, set to work writing about himself, life in lockdown and what he was missing. Our youngest, Arlo, drew some pictures. There was still digging for the path to be undertaken though, and in typical archaeological fashion we both found it impossible to do this in any other manner than layer by layer. We also recovered some finds, including fragments of the original railings and the original tile path – which then led Becky into an internet based tile frenzy as she tried to find similar colour patterns. These objects were also placed within the capsule, along with the letter we all received from Boris Johnson.

Letters from Billy, Arlo and Boris
Railing fragments and original tiles from the path

Now I once found a time capsule which had buried beneath a nursery in Bermondsey in about 1996. Sadly it had not been sealed well and everything inside it was ruined apart from a Spice Girls CD – although in my opinion they ruined the CD by putting that dreck on it in the first place. Still, lesson learned and we bagged and sealed everything, put in silica gel and eventually enclosed the capsule with copious amounts of gaffer tape.

It has been placed beneath the path for future generations to find, and hopefully shed a bit of light on what life was like for an 8 year old in lockdown. Not a lot of fun and a constant battle against what your parents believe is educational and beneficial to your well being. Still, digging a hole is always fun, especially when you’re 8.

The time capsule in place, ready to be buried and rediscovered by future generations!

And now a note from Billy:

Hello- I’m Billy Haslam, and I live in Catford. I like baseball (I support the Blue Jays), football (I support Charlton) and ice hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs). I like going to the BMX pump track on my bike, I have been doing that a lot for exercise in lockdown. I like to play on the PlayStation, until my Mum took it away (my brother was squabbling with me, but I don’t really care)! But to look on the bright side, it is good for me! You can’t spend all day on the computer. My cat is called Thunder, he is ginger and white and a little bit stupid but very friendly. He loves to sit on Daddy’s amplifier for his record player, which he is doing now!

This is what our house looks like now (see above), but we are making the front garden look better.

I enjoy playing with my friends, most of them live on my road. But we haven’t been allowed to play together for a while. Finally, on Thursday, we are going to the park with my best friend and his sister, who is my brother Arlo’s friend.

I can’t go to school yet. I hope you enjoy our Covid-19 time capsule.

Me and my brother at the pump track (I’m wearing my dad’s old BMX top from the 1980s)!
Catford was empty for ages. We had to stay inside.

To the future: a time capsule letter from Billy Haslam, 2 June 2020

Children would make rainbow pictures to stick on their windows to support the N.H.S. We put rainbow pictures in our windows because we were all stuck at home because of stupid Covid-19 (coronavirus) for children to spot when they went out. This was started by someone who ate a sort of anteater thing, sort of, I don’t know. It started in China- it is like a ‘flu, but if someone who is old or ill catches it….well, I don’t want to talk about it! And then the virus came over here! It was carried by some people from China or other countries that were infected and spread all round the world. My Mum said that I probably carried it but I didn’t notice because I’m young and healthy. My Mum and brother got very sick in February. And that’s how it happened. And let me just say…WE LOVE THE NHS!

Love from Billy and I’m 8 years old.

Billy, Dad and Arlo in Mountsfield Park- that was really empty too! We were allowed to go out for one hour a day to exercise.
This is Mum. There was hardly any toilet paper, everyone bought it, but we had a little bit!
Once me and Mum cycled to Greenwich for exercise. There were hardly any planes in the sky.

How to make your own time capsule

You will need:

Waterproof box

Items that represent the year 2020 to you (a rainbow picture? your favourite toilet paper?)

A letter to the person who finds your capsule which explains when and why it was buried

A freshly dug hole

How to make your time capsule:

1. Select the items you’d like to bury

2. Put everything in the box, seal carefully in as many ways as possible so that moisture can’t get in (I opted for gaffer tape, bags and some silica gel (often found in shoe boxes) for good measure).

3. Bury the box!