The craze for burying time capsules that emerged in the 1930s in the US and Europe saw a wide variety of books consigned to the earth in tins, crates, barrels and purpose-built, carefully engineered pods.

Burying time capsule

Lowering a time capsule into the ground

Time capsule books are buried with the aim of preservation and the anticipation of future recovery (Jarvis 2003), so the choice of books is particularly interesting. They are generally meant to communicate something about contemporary society to future societies.

shrock edgerton

Shrock and Edgerton with time capsule components

Many of the time capsule buriers of the mid-twentieth century buried books reduced onto microfilm, then regarded as a panacea for libraries and archives. In 1966 MIT professors Robert Shrock and Harold Edgerton buried a wildly over-engineered time capsule beneath the site set aside for Alexander Calder’s iconic sculpture La Grande Voile.

Grande Voile

La Grande Voile by Alexander Calder, under which the MIT time capsule was buried

Along with the typical time capsule schlock (coins, toys, and a copy of Time magazine) the four foot long Pyrex tube contained “Microfilmed copies of a road atlas, a cookbook, a Sears, Roebuck catalogue, and an Encyclopaedia of Science and Technology.” (Shrock 1982: 197). The glass tube was filled with inert argon gas, sealed, and packed inside a copper tube before being sealed in asbestos and buried in a concrete vault.

Worlds fair

Burying the Westinghouse Time Capsule 1

Shrock and Edgerton’s time capsule recalled the more high-profile burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule 1 in 1939 at Flushing Meadows Park, site of the New York World’s Fair (Jarvis 2003). This futuristic cigar-shaped copper alloy cylinder contained a bewildering variety of cultural and scientific artefacts, including microfilms containing around ten million words of text drawn from books, magazines, encyclopaedias and newspapers. Alongside the microfilms were two books: a leather-bound bible and a book detailing the contents and location of the time capsule itself, copies of which were deposited in hundreds of libraries and collections around the world.


The Crypt of Civilization

One of the largest time capsules in the world – more of a time crate, perhaps – is the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, sealed in May 1940 and intended to be opened in May 8113. The 200 square foot room is dug into the bedrock, tiled in porcelain and sealed with a stone roof and a welded steel door. The crypt holds a bewildering variety of objects aimed to provide a snapshot of twentieth century life, including electronic goods, medical tools, masonic jewels, kitchen utensils, personal beauty products and a selection of toys. As with the MIT and Westinghouse time capsules, the majority of books in the crypt are in the form of microfilm: approximately 800 volumes including the Oglethorpe Book of Georgia Verse and “authoritative books on every subject of importance known to mankind” (Oglethorpe University 2013).


The burial site of the Nickelodeon time capsule

Given the future-minded seriousness of some time capsules (the Westinghouse capsule included a letter to the future from Einstein), the Nickelodeon time capsule buried at Universal Studios in 1992 is refreshingly different. The contents of the capsule were nominated by children, and aimed to represent objects of significance to children. Perhaps surprisingly, alongside a Nintendo Gameboy, Rollerblades and a Home Alone video, a number of books were placed in the capsule including an atlas, a history book and a volume on endangered species (Crezo 2012). The capsule is scheduled for opening in 2042.

With a few exceptions the books buried inside time capsules are meant to convey the values and achievements of the cultures that buried them. The relative abundance of encyclopaedias amongst the buried books suggests an archival aspect as well: the collected knowledge of a civilization buried for safekeeping as a gift to people of the future.


Crezo, A. 2012. Every item inside the time capsule Nickelodeon buried in 1992.

Jarvis, W.E. 2003. Time Capsules: A Cultural History. London: McFarland & Company.

Oglethorpe University. 2013. Inventory of the Crypt of Civilization.

Shrock, R.R. 1982. Geology at MIT, 1865-1965: a history of the first hundred years of Geology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Volume II: departmental operations and products. Cambridge, MA: MIT.


Unlike Woolf’s Orlando, book artist Sarah Bodman did remember her trowel when she went to bury her book. However, fearing that (like Rossetti) she might repent her sacrifice and attempt to retrieve her book, she (again like Rossetti) passed on the responsibility to others to act in her absence. Bodman’s art book An Exercise for Kurt Johannessen (2010) describes the creation and interment of a storybook. Johannessen’s book Exercises, a pastiche of serious spiritual and physical exercise books, is made up of a series of strange and whimsical instructions such as “Eat peas and think of princesses”, “Go into the forest. Dig a hole and scream in it”, and “Bury an umbrella on a rainy day” (Johannessen 2001). As Bodman describes it, “One of the exercises in the book is: “write 100 stories and bury them in a forest”. So I did.” (Bodman 2010: 2).

Bodman 2

Bodman’s storybook

Bodman wrote the 100 short stories in a blue square-ruled exercise book. Her art book lists only the titles of the stories, including “There was an old lady”, “More volcanoes”, “Equations” and “Collaborative dreaming for Dick Turpin”. The stories themselves are not reproduced because, as Bodman explains, she interpreted the exercise to mean that the burial was meant to hide the stories from readers’ eyes. As Bodman’s exercise was for Kurt Johannessen she wanted to bury the book in a forest as close to his native Norway as possible: in the event the book was buried in Denmark while Bodman attended the Doverodde Book Arts Festival. The book was taken into the forest and buried: Bodman’s art book shows the hole being dug, the book in place at the bottom, and finally the site with the earth replaced in the hole, surrounded by moss, leaf litter and small pine trees.

Bodman 1

Burying the book

My thanks to Sarah Bodman for permission to use her images.  I strongly recommend that you print and assemble a copy of her book – linked below.


Bodman, S. 2010. An Exercise for Kurt Johannessen. [link to download of book]

Johannessen, K. 2001. Exercises. Bergen: Zeth Forlag.

In 2010 a number of political and religious extremists made headlines around the world by publicly burning copies of the Koran. After Florida Pastor Terry Jones announced his intention to burn a Koran to mark the anniversary of the September 11th attacks he was publicly condemned by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and politicians around the world. While Jones later publicly called off his “International Burn a Koran Day”, six men in Gateshead in the north of England were arrested after filming themselves burning a Koran behind a pub (BBC 2010).


P.Z. Myers

In response to what he regarded as the creeping criminalization of blasphemy and religious dissent, the prominent atheist blogger and activist Professor P.Z. Myers called for the respect traditionally accorded to holy books of all kinds to be subjected to much harsher critique. Myers compared the commonplace ownership of different religious texts to mounting slave shackles on one’s walls, keeping torture equipment in the kitchen or a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on one’s coffee table (Myers 2010). Reflecting on the fact that he owned copies of both the Koran and the Christian Bible, Myers recorded and posted a short film of himself burying the two books in his garden beneath a yellow flowering plant. As he wrote at the time:

Right now, the pages swell with moisture, the fibers separate and the chapters turn into pulpy masses. Bacteria bloom and their colonies expand; fungi flourish and their hyphae infiltrate and convert cellulose into spores. The ink runs as nematodes writhe over the surfaces, etching the words with slime and replacing the follies of dead men with the wisdom of worms. The roots of flowers and grasses will fumble downwards to embrace the decaying leaves, and the roots of trees will impale the volumes laterally. Given only a little time, the madness will be reduced to compost.

At every instant in this gradual process of degradation, the books are being improved and given greater value. And with my decision to discard the poisonous symbols of past ignorance, I became a little more free. (Myers 2010)

In the video Myers drops crumbled soil between the pages of the books before laying them quite gently at the bottom of the hole. He replaces the plant and loose soil before watering the plant and books and leaving them to grow.


BBC. 2010. Men arrested in Gateshead over suspected Koran burning

Myers, P.Z. 2010. Sunday Sacrilege: a funeral for folly.


Cover of Woolf’s Orlando

In the final pages of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: a Biography the eponymous hero/ine revisits the old oak tree that s/he has known for more than three centuries, intending to bury amongst its roots a copy of the poem that it inspired. The writing, rewriting, survival, publication and reception of the poem – entitled The Oak Tree – is one of the central themes of this unusual novel. At the end of the book, as Orlando awaits the return of her sea-captain husband, she visits the tree again:

As she flung herself down a little square book bound in red cloth fell from the breast of her leather jacket—her poem The Oak Tree. ‘I should have brought a trowel’, she reflected. The earth was so shallow over the roots it seemed doubtful if she could do as she meant and bury the book here. Besides, the dogs would dig it up. No luck ever attends these symbolic celebrations, she thought. Perhaps it would be as well then to do without them. She had a little speech on the tip of her tongue which she meant to speak over the book as she buried it” … “’I bury this as a tribute’, she was going to have said. ‘a return to the land of what the land has given me,’ but Lord! Once one began mouthing words aloud, how silly they sounded!

So she let her book lie unburied and dishevelled on the ground, and watched the vast view, varied like an ocean floor this evening with the sun lightening it and the shadows darkening it. (Woolf 2006: 287-9)

The idea of a book as a tribute or offering is a surprisingly rare one in the history of book burying, and Orlando’s half-hearted intention to offer up her prize-winning book to the land fails in the face of self-consciousness and raw practicalities. It is easy to imagine the book, inserted into the roots of the tree, as a seed being planted in the earth.


Virginia Woolf, c.1902

An alternative reading of Orlando might delve deeper into the relationship between the protagonist and the oak tree, and in particular the descriptions of the protagonist lying amongst its roots, that both open and close the novel. In the opening section of the book the boy Orlando walks through his property to the oak tree:

He sighed profoundly, and flung himself – there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word – on the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding, or the deck of a tumbling ship – it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard (Woolf 2006)

At the close of the book it is the woman Orlando who returns to the same spot:

Flinging herself on the ground, she felt the bones of the tree running out like ribs from a spine this way and that beneath her (Woolf 2006: 287)

These two descriptions of Orlando’s physical contact with a tree imbued with imagined corporeal properties suggest an alternative reading of the failed book burying as an attempt to impregnate the tree: the woman Orlando, lacking a trowel, cannot penetrate the earth that covers and surrounds the hard roots.


Woolf, V. 2006. Orlando: a Biography. London: Penguin.

Probably the best known example of a buried book is the bound collection of manuscript poems that Dante Gabriel Rossetti placed in the coffin of his late wife Lizzie Siddal. The book of poems is famous not so much for its burial, as for the fact that Rossetti decided several years later to retrieve his manuscripts, and had his wife’s coffin opened.

NPG P29,Dante Gabriel Rossetti,by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

Siddal modelled for several of the pre-Raphaelite painters, most famously as Millais’ Ophelia and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix. Siddal and Rossetti’s volatile relationship included a decade-long period of on-off engagement and infidelity (on his part), before their marriage in 1860. In February 1862, after a long period of illness and severe depression exacerbated by Rossetti’s ever variable affections, Siddal died of a laudanum overdose, possibly a deliberate suicide.

In a grief-stricken and typically melodramatic gesture Rossetti, who had been unable to take a full part in the funeral proceedings, placed two books inside the coffin: Lizzie Siddal’s bible, and his own manuscript book, telling a friend that “I have often been writing at these poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go” (quoted in Marsh 1999: 244).

While his friend Ford Madox Brown begged him to reconsider, Rossetti’s brother William encouraged the sacrifice, regarding it as a moving and honourable act born of contrition. Rossetti reportedly placed the books inside the coffin, hiding them in Siddal’s long hair. She was buried in Highgate cemetery (Marsh 1999).


Lizzie Siddal

In 1868, some six years after Siddal’s burial, Rossetti’s friend and agent Charles Augustus Howell offered to arrange the retrieval of the poems from her coffin, but Rossetti declined. However in the summer of 1869, as he prepared to publish a volume of his poems, Rossetti reconsidered the offer and instructed Howell to proceed with the exhumation, but to keep it absolutely secret. The process was eased somewhat by the fact that the Home Secretary at the time, whose permission was necessary for the exhumation to take place, was a personal friend of Rossetti’s.

On 5 October 1869 Howell and a team of workmen dug up Siddal’s coffin and removed the book before reburying it and replacing the stone. Also present at the exhumation of the book was Dr Llewellyn Williams, who had been instructed to disinfect the book if necessary. While Howell wrote to Rossetti that the book was damp and damaged, the truth was a little more extreme. By the time Rossetti received the book two weeks after the exhumation he found it damp, decayed, worm eaten and stinking of disinfectant. Many of the pages were stuck together and a several of the poems including Jenny which he had most hoped to retrieve were badly damaged with only fragments remaining legible (Marsh 1999).

worm eaten page

Part of the manuscript from the coffin

Despite Rossetti’s hopes for secrecy the story of the exhumation soon became public, and it was quite reasonably seen as an unsavoury and disreputable act that reflected badly on its initiator. In 1900 the writer Arthur Symons recounted an opinion of the actress Eleanore Duse, that “All Rossetti is in that story of his MS. buried in his wife’s coffin. He could do it, he could repent on it; but he should have gone and taken it back himself: he sent his friends.” (Symons 2004: 345)


Marsh, J. 1999. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Symons, A. 2004. Studies in Strange Souls. In H. Jones (ed.) Lives of Victorian Literary Figures II: The Brownings, the Brontës and the Rossettis by their Contemporaries. Volume 3: The Rossettis. London: Pickering and Chatto, 343-51.

In 1995 the recently-established University of Western Sydney received a generous donation of 40,000 books from the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library, intended for the new university’s library at its Campbelltown campus.

At the time, the perpetually cash-strapped UWS was suffering from a particularly severe funding deficit, and no money could be allocated to catalogue the donation; nor was there sufficient space to store the books while more funding was sought. Administrators explored a number of possible solutions, including selling or pulping the books, before arriving at what they felt was the most economically rational decision: 10,000 of the books were secretly buried under the campus (Marks 2001).


The UWS library

Amazingly, the university seems to have been able to keep this interment secret for almost five years. Attempts by students to recover the books revealed that they had been damaged beyond repair, but that amongst the thousands buried on the campus were rare first editions and books which the students, in the absence of sufficient library resources, had been forced to find off campus – including, ironically, in the Fisher Library itself.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald – quoted in a New South Wales parliamentary debate about the university – used the story as an example of economic rationalism gone mad, stating that “The ghosts of 10,000 buried books haunt the University” (Knox 2001). Amidst criticism from students, who compared the book burial to food discarded by corporations while millions starve, UWS officials initially claimed that they had no other option, before finally admitting that it had been a “thoughtless act” and would not happen again (Marks 2001).


Knox, M. 2001. The university of hard knocks. Sydney Morning Herald 8 July.

Marks, K. 2001. Cash-hit university buried old books to save room. The Independent 22 March.

In the news  – people in Mali burying their family’s collections of ancient manuscripts in the desert to prevent their destruction by Islamist insurgents, after fighting in the area had apparently affected the Ahmed Baba Institute library of Timbuktu manuscripts.


Part of a TImbuktu Manuscript on astronomy

The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research in Timbuktu holds tens of thousands of historic manuscripts dating back to the late 13th Century, from the period when Timbuktu was a major trading settlement and centre of scholarship.  Ironically many of the manuscripts in the library had survived for centuries buried in the sand or hidden in caves.  It isn’t yet clear how many manuscripts have been destroyed or stolen.

An unknown number of the historic Timbuktu Manuscripts – possibly hundreds of thousands –  remain in private collections held by Malian families.  Some of these manuscripts are being buried in the desert for safekeeping: hopefully they’ll all be recovered soon.

H/T John Giblin