It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie or a Discovery Channel special, with all the anticipation of an important find — in the middle of a church basement.
Leaders of First Lutheran Church of Oklahoma City recently teamed with the Oklahoma Historical Society and the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma to uncover clues about a time capsule buried in the downtown church's basement, 1300 N Robinson.
A large concrete slab covers the vault-like structure that houses the time capsule, officially called the “First Lutheran Church Century Chest.”
The Rev. Jerry Peterson, the church's senior pastor, said the concrete slab had been covered with floor tile until six months ago. Wednesday, Peterson gathered with representatives of the state agencies with special equipment designed to scope out the exact location of the chest.
“This is new,” Scott Hammerstedt, a research archaeologist with the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at OU, said Wednesday.
“In fact, if you had told me in the late '80s when I started archaeology that I would be doing a project in a church basement, I would have been skeptical.”
Peterson said the time capsule will be the focus of a ceremony set for April 22, 2013, exactly 100 years after it was sealed and buried.
Peterson said the 100-year-old time capsule contains a plethora of city and state history, including American Indian artifacts and historical documents, pottery made from Oklahoma soil, commemorative plates and other memorabilia, photographs, recorded speeches (for a phonograph) by noted historians and civic leaders, a phonograph, clothing and copies of a special Century Chest edition of The Oklahoman.
He said the church plans to unearth the chest sometime before the ceremony and show the items found within during the special event.
Peterson said Wednesday's sleuthing project was part of the church's effort to find out more about the time capsule to compile information for the people who will be tasked with getting it out of the ground.
Peterson said several holes were recently drilled into the concrete. Wednesday, Hammerstedt used ground-penetrating radar to help discover the specific location of the chest. Peterson said church leaders 100 years ago placed the chest in a copper box and sealed it with concrete as a preservation measure.
Hammerstedt said the equipment he used Wednesday is widely used for various projects such as the search for unmarked graves and a current project regarding the Spiro Mounds near Spiro, in eastern Oklahoma.
With information provided by Hammerstedt, Andy Slaucitajs, an independent videographer who works part-time for the Oklahoma Historical Society, placed an endoscope in each of the drilled holes to get a glimpse of the inside of the structure containing the chest.
The images picked up by the endoscope were shown on a video monitor for Peterson and others gathered to see.
The images showed concrete, evidence of condensation and what the archaeological crew ascertained to be evidence of the oxidation of the copper-lined box containing the chest.
Chad Williams, deputy director of the Oklahoma Historical Society's research division, looked on with excitement.
He said the modern-day counterparts of the groups that placed items in the time capsule have been contacted and invited to be part of the Century Chest ceremony. He said the historical society also plans to create exhibits focusing on the Century Chest and its contents.
“The church wants to share this with the state,” Williams said. “We want all those people involved, because it's really a celebration of the city and the state.”
First Lutheran Church was formed in 1902, and members began meeting in the courthouse in Oklahoma City. Peterson said the church's current building near the corner of NW 13 and Robinson was built in 1912, and leaders were looking for ways to cover the cost of a new Moller pipe organ.
He said the Century Chest project was put together in about three months to help pay for the musical instrument. Peterson said individuals, families and groups paid to place items in the time capsule, although he is not sure how much they gave.
“Across the nation, how many thought of something like this? It's very rare,” he said.
The pastor said the project was timed so that the chest would be sealed and buried on April 22, 1913, the 24th anniversary of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.
Peterson said every April since then, the church's congregation has gathered in the building's basement to pledge not to forget the box of historical treasure contained there.
“They promise that it will be remembered by the children and their children's children,” he said.
Peterson said the project planners left eight pages of notes documenting the items in the chest. However, he said he and historical society leaders expect to find many undocumented items, because the Century Chest planners noted that some things were placed in the chest at the last minute.
Williams said the historical society is producing a documentary about the project in addition to creating an exhibit for the Oklahoma History Center. He said a traveling exhibit also is planned so people from different parts of the state will get to see items from the chest.
Williams said pictures of those items will be placed on a special Century Chest website that will be launched after the first of the year.
“They didn't want this to be forgotten, and it won't be,” Williams said.