J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

What Was Going Through That Lion’s Head?

When the Old State House in Boston was built in 1713, it was topped with figures of a lion and a unicorn, heraldic symbols of the then-new United Kingdom of England (plus Wales) and Scotland.

On 18 July 1776, after the new state’s official public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the populace pulled those statues down from the roof and burned them in a bonfire.

When the Old State House was restored to what people decided was its colonial form in 1882, a new lion and unicorn were installed. Those wooden figures didn’t weather well, and the Bostonian Society, owner of the building, took them down for replacement in 1900. As the museum’s blog explains, a new pair of animals was made from copper (but gilded and silvered, respectively) and installed the next year.

This month the metal lion and unicorn were taken down for preservation. And investigation. Because a letter supplied by a descendant of one sculptor described a time capsule inside the lion’s head. The records of the Bostonian Society had nothing to confirm that information, but staff found a story in the Boston Globe indicating the same.

Yesterday the Globe reported that there was indeed a sealed copper container inside the lion’s head.
On Monday, [sculpture restorer Robert] Shure used a fiber optic camera to detect the capsule, which is in a sealed copper box about the size of a shoe box and secured to the sculpture with copper straps, [Bostonian Society spokesperson Heather] Leet said. According to the Globe story, the capsule contains photographs, autographs, and sealed letters from politicians and prominent Bostonians of the time, along with old newspaper clippings.

Leet said Shure hopes to find a way to retrieve the time capsule with minimal damage to the lion by the end of the week. It is hoped that by next week, the Bostonian Society can have a small ceremony at the Woburn sculpture studio to extract the box.

”We’re hoping it didn’t get wet,” Leet said. An “archivist will be on hand to see the condition of the items — papers could be deteriorating, that sort of thing. . . . We don’t want the newspapers to turn to dust.”

The items found in the capsule will be added to the society’s collection and displayed this fall in the Old State House museum, Leet said. The exact dates that the capsule items will go on display depends on their condition and how long they take to process.
Meanwhile, the lion and unicorn will be checked out, fixed up, and restored to their perch. While we wait, I’ve floated the idea of making temporary replacements of some flammable material to be pulled down and burned this July.

The Bostonian Society had the much more responsible idea of inviting the public to suggest what should go into a new time capsule, alongside “facsimiles of the 1901 contents and a photo of Mayor Martin J. Walsh,” to represent Boston in 2014. Send your ideas to the society via email, Facebook, or Twitter. Use the subject or hashtag #LionAndUnicorn.

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