Lost Time Capsules

So you may be thinking of doing a time capsule and wondering, "How would a time capsule get lost?" Or maybe, you remember doing a time capsule in grade school and cannot find it today. In this article we discuss a few ideas to help you find one that is lost or forgotten, and we also talk about ways to preclude this from happening to the time capsule you are doing today.Digging around for the Livermore Time Capsule

More Common Than You'd Think

Lost time capsules are more frequent than you might think. What happens in some cases is simple neglect. After the time capsule event is done and the time capsule is in the ground, or in another place, event planners and participants simply go on with their lives. The time capsule, complete with its gifts for the future, is no longer part of their lives. Unless the planners made a record of the whereabouts, or marked its placement clearly with a plaque, their time capsule is likely to be lost.

"Time capsules usually are lost due to thievery, secrecy or poor planning," says the International Time Capsule Society. Their site lists the "10 Most Wanted Time Capsules" Lost as of 1991, and as of today, 9 are still missing.

While you don't want your time capsule to be stolen, keeping the placement a secret does the future no good service. Indeed, if your intended recipients do not know where to look for the time capsule placed years ago, what good is placing the time capsule?

It is easy to make a remembrance of the time capsule placement.

Use a Plaque for Time Capsule RemembranceThe easiest and most public way is to place an outdoor quality plaque. Ours are guaranteed for a lifetime (and actually last far longer). Such a plaque, commonly made of either aluminum or bronze, marks the place where the time capsule lies.

You could send a news release (or several) to your local newspaper. In this way, you make sure that a record exists of the time capsule event, with essential information about its ultimate burial or placement.

A more unique and less public - yet still effective - way is to do what the City of Whittier in California did. They placed detailed information on the placement of the city's time capsule into three acid free Archives Boxes. You see, the capsule is placed at a local hospital's grounds. So, one box is handed over to each new mayor of the city along with the keys to the city, one box is treated the same way for each new CEO of the Hospital, and one box is housed in the local library (or museum).

Need to Find your Lost Time Capsule?

If you remember that you did a time capsule years ago, and no one can locate it now - what do you do?

Reference Librarians

Your local library is a good place to start to look for various records of a past time capsule placement or burial. While you can do various searches online using specific phrases that might bring up information, it will be limited to your own experience and ability to do this. Reference librarians are trained to find information, so you should use their expertise.

If articles were written about your time capsule, reference librarians can find articles in local newspapers that mention it in relation to your city or group.

Using a Metal Detector

Failing to find written information about the time capsule burial, the next thing people think about trying when they have lost a time capsule is to use a metal detector. But what will this tool work on and how does it work?

Chances are, you won't know the type of metal used (if it was metal at all) so many years ago when you placed your time capsule. But it is important to how well the detector will pick up the signals.A Metal Detector

Ferrous metal contains iron and therefore a magnet can attract it, so iron and plain steel are both good candidates for being detected by the metal detector tool. This metal rusts easily and if it has been exposed to water or air over the time period that the capsule is buried, it will likely be in bad condition. But the metal detector can detect it.

Non-ferrous metal does not have iron in its makeup, and they will not attract a magnet. However, some of them are good conductors, such as gold, aluminum and copper. And it is this that will determine if the metal detector can pick up the signals from the metal piece.

Stainless steel is different. It looks like regular steel, but has different properties. High grade stainless steel (such as the 304 that we use) will show no reactivity to a magnet. In fact, one way to see if your metal is stainless steel or not is to use a magnet to see if it sticks or not. If it sticks to the metal, that means the metal will eventually rust.

Not only does stainless steel not react to a magnet, it also does not conduct electricity and therefore this makes it a difficult metal to detect with a detecting tool.

Aluminum is used in many alloys and it is light, strong, cheap and conducts heat and electricity. So if your time capsule was made out of aluminum, it is likely to be easily detected.

How far down is it buried?

The metal detectors most commonly detect metals in the ground down to about 3 feet (most commonly 8 inches). If the capsule is buried deeper, the detector may not pick up any signal from it. Do not use this as a guide for how deep to bury your own time capsule, however. In order to take advantage of the insulation properties of the earth, you will need to place it down so that at least 2 feet are above the top of your time capsule.

Finding Those Who Remember

After even as little as 10 years, it is not easy to find other people who recall the time capsule being placed, let alone where. If you were young, you will need to find others who are still alive who were older than you at the time. First thoughts you may have: go to the Principal or Vice Principal of the school, the teachers and assistant teachers, of course, and any others you may remember. But, do not forget the janitors or grounds keepers of your school. You can often find the names in a school directory and then do a search online to try to find where they are living now.Old Timers Remember the Time Capsule

Make it public that you are looking for the time capsule. Send the query to a local news reporter and ask that they run an article. Post it on the school's and city's facebook pages and other social media sites.

Check with not only your school librarian, but your local city or community library's reference librarians. They have access to archives of the time and can hunt down more facts and persons for you to check out, too.

In the case of Livermore, California, they were lucky. Well not at first. In an article in June 1999, Sean Holstege of the Tri-Valley Herald reported about the 'most unceremonious ceremony the city has ever seen.' Everyone was there, the mayor, and a previous mayor who had to fly in to be there. Historians, cameras - everything except the time capsule, which was supposedly placed somewhere in Livermore during 1969, but not done until 1974. That was when a totem pole was dedicated in Centennial Park.

"Nobody wanted anybody to know where it was because they didn't want somebody to dig it up," said Roy Robustelli, groundskeeper for 28 years. He vowed to find it. They were using regular metal detectors at first, and then local Sandia Labs got involved with high tech sensing devices and probes to find it. But it was some interviews with old-timers who came to the rescue, and they found it buried underneath that totem pole in the park.

Lots is written about this fiasco. Some say there was a curse on the totem pole placement because the city chopped off part of its bottom when they placed it. (See The Curse of the Livermore Totem Pole.) They made a film about it, called simply "Livermore".

Finally someone at Livermore City Hall found a memo from a park custodian written when the time capsule was buried. The memo said the time capsule was directly behind the totem pole, beneath a special mark in the concrete. They were lucky.

Your Time Capsule Company

While a long shot, you could contact the company who provided you with the time capsule container. Our company, Future Packaging & Preservation, has been doing time capsules since 1986, and we have physical records going back that far. Sometimes customers will share with us where they are placing the time capsule, and that information would be helpful for you to check out. Of course the time capsule could have been moved or even not placed where intended.Future Packaging and Preservation's standard logo

What is most helpful is to have a contact or two - even a phone number. That information we will definitely have and we can share it with you if you are with the same customer group. Many times one person will order the time capsule and have it shipped to another person or place. If those persons are still around, or their family is, perhaps someone will remember details.

Another helpful tidbit from the time capsule company is to know how large the time capsule was, and what kind or shape.

The International Time Capsule Society


Intended to be a huge tickler file for keeping track of time capsules placed and planned opening dates, the ITCS was founded in 1990 at Oglethorpe University near Atlanta, Georgia. It can be an important way to hunt down pertinent information about a past time capsule. The following link was active as of January 2020: https://crypt.oglethorpe.edu/international-time-capsule-society/register-your-time-capsule/. From this link you can see all of the information that ITCS may have collected from your time capsule planners.

Information such as the name of the time capsule, name of organization, and phone numbers and addresses may be available. At one time, they asked for fax numbers, and even a TELEX number. The questionnaire asks about the purpose of the time capsule. For instance, was it for publicity, or public relations, or was it for an important commemoration? Was it simply a contribution to the future?

They ask when the capsule is intended to be opened. They ask for details about the time capsule container, the time capsule manufacturer, and contact details.

Besides asking for the exact position of capsule in or near a building or other point of reference. "PLEASE COMPLETE THIS SECTION CAREFULLY," says the questionnaire. "If you do not wish to reveal the location of the capsule, please give the name and full address of the bank or other place where such details are kept. REMEMBER: WHAT YOU RECORD HERE MAY BE THE ONLY AVAILABLE CLUE TO YOUR TIME CAPSULE FOR FUTURE FINDERS."

They ask what you placed in the time capsule, as much detail as you can provide. For instance, if you placed a newspaper in your time capsule, what was the exact name and date.

One caution, however - there is now a note on the website at this link: https://crypt.oglethorpe.edu/international-time-capsule-society/, and it says: "Although the ITCS continues to accept time capsule registrations, it currently is not active. Media questions may be directed to the founders listed. Founders of the society in 1990 were Paul Hudson, Skip Berger, Brian Durrans, and William Jarvis.

Then, in 2016, journalist Capi Lynn, writing for the Oregon Statesman Journal, wanted to have a record of the local Marion County Courthouse time capsule. She knew the organizers had been careful and had registered the time capsule, but when she contacted the International Time Capsule Society, she was unable to do so. "Despite multiple phone calls and emails to co-founders and the media relations office at the university," writes Lynn, "I was unable to find out how many others have been registered since the society was established in 1990 to promote the careful study of time capsules."