Time Capsules and the ‘Wow’ Factor

By Brigid Gallagher 13/04/2011

The long awaited opening of not 1, but 3, Time Capsules were opened in Christchurch yesterday by mayor Bob Parker. So far only some of the contents have been described including a 1922 book on the history of Christchurch, some photographs, a plumbers label and various news paper clippings. No Hidden Treasures have been reported.

As an archaeologist and conservator this has been a moment I have been looking forward to with anticipation.  Their opening probably encapsulates one of the primary motivators for many archaeologists to keep on digging…the anticipation, or in some cases the expectation, that one day you will strike it lucky and discover a find of such significance or beauty that all of those days excavating in the rain, wind, snow, heat, swamp, with no proper toilets, will be worth it!

The reporting I have seen so far has been far from fulfilling. 

I want my ‘WOW’ moment. 

In the early days after the shock of the scale of damage in Christchurch and its surrounds, the finding of not 1, but 2 time capsules, was portrayed as an indicator of hope, survival and the essence of goodness in a time of hardship.  A chance to re-establish a connection with the past; in a time when the future looked distinctly shaky. 

I feel like we all deserve our ‘WOW’ moment.

 This is what I have seen so far:

  • I have read a glib comment on the NewstalkZB website about Mayor Parker joking that the earliest recipe for Pavlova was interred, clearly showing NZ s the birthplace of this national favourite,
  • Read a brief history of the first 2 time capsules found,
  • Watched a video clip of the opening of the copper alloy tube, followed by Mayor Parker saying,

‘we did not turn up that unique moment that was a flash of insight…Pretty much what you would expect from a time capsule…Really lovely…Great insight into life’.

The Video Clip

It is the video clip that I want to address more closely, because this is where the ‘WOW’ factor should have been. 

It is evident that there is a lot of media in the room, crowding almost, you can hear the rustle of others. It is also likely that the video I saw has been heavily edited to short sound bites.

And there in lies one problem perhaps.  It can be very difficult to convey to the public, to reporters, to other professionals, the excitement or significance of something in short sound bites…unless you are practised in the technique.  Tony Robinson of Time Team and Blackadder fame, whom I worked with for many years springs to mind as an artist in this…but he trained as an actor.

In archaeology, and in the reporting of science or history, unless you have found the lost city of Atlantis, Noahs Ark, a prehistoric mummy, a pyramid in the jungle, gold, something monumental, mysterious or obviously exciting.  You need the media or the person in front of the camera to be allowed the time to indulge people with some interesting facts, images or a story. 

You need people to feel a connection, or identify, with the particular piece of history being revealed.  

It is the same on an archaeological site. The longer you spend excavating the lives or the environment of people in the past, the more you feel for them and want to do their life justice. 

The more you understand the context in which the artefacts, structures or remains of human activity occurred, the more interest you can generate. It is the context that often brings in the people that wouldn’t normally have given a second thought to archaeology.

It’s the bit that makes it relevant.

Secondly, the person acting as the voice for the past, or in this case, the Time Capsules, needs to let us know that they care or are excited, because often this leads to the listener caring or being excited.  To be told it was ‘pretty much what you would expect’.  What??? 

Expected things?!  This may be accurate, but this is the opportunity to ignite and fan interest.

Like many NZ’ers through their lives I have buried things in time capsules.

The instruction: ‘put in something to reflect life today’, 

The reason:  ‘to reveal to the future what we, jo bloggs, is thinking about and what is important in our lives, right at this moment in time’. 

So it may have been a plumbers label from the maker of the tube, or clippings from The Press, The Star, The Sun and The Lyttleton Times, but these have been handled by real people living real lives during, for them, significant times. This gives us insight into what was going on in their lives as they buried the capsules. 

The people who put the time capsules together thought the contents were important or interesting enough to preserve.  Perhaps we should do the same. 

The ‘Wow’ Moment

As an archaeologist who deals with ‘time capsules’ of the past on a daily basis, I can categorically state that this IS a ‘WOW’ moment. 

It may not come with all the bells and whistles blaring, there may be no skeleton in the closet, but…who cares!  This is real, this the treasure left to us by our earlier inhabitants, New Zealand’s earlier inhabitants. This is the ‘Wow’ moment.

Actually, this is very cool. 

 I would like to know more….