It’s May 1940, and a welder fires up their soldering iron with eyes on the door of an underground vault. There’s one job for the day: seal the chamber shut so that no one can re-enter it. Someday, someone will be able to walk inside and see the treasures hidden within. But that won’t happen until the year 8113.
The door in question can be found on the campus of Oglethorpe University – just north of Atlanta, Georgia. Historian and university president Thornwell Jacobs made it his mission to create the vault and fill it full of the era’s treasures. He had an age-old model to follow and hoped that his collegiate crypt would be similar to those tucked into Egyptian pyramids.
But the Oglethorpe University chamber – named The Crypt of Civilization – didn’t look much like an Egyptian tomb. Namely, the stunning list of contents differed greatly from the riches you’d find residing next to the mummy of a pharaoh. Plus, the space was welded shut, and it will be thousands of years before anyone can see the range of objects contained within.
Thornwell Jacobs gained national recognition during his time as president of Oglethorpe University. His most recognizable efforts included his propensity for awarding honorary doctorates to famous faces. Indeed, the likes of Amelia Earhart, William Randolph Hearst and Franklin D. Roosevelt received such diplomas from him.
Jacobs also spearheaded one of the country’s first attempts at distance learning. The pioneering “University of the Air” initiative broadcasted college-level classes over the airwaves for students far and wide. And then, of course, there was the Crypt of Civilization – a project he began after delving into Egyptian history.
Apparently, the idea for the Crypt of Civilization stemmed from research conducted by Jacobs. The Oglethorpe University president studied the Egyptian pyramids, but he couldn’t believe how little information existed on these ancient people in spite of all the structures they had left behind. That sparked an idea for creating something of a tomb of his own for people to find one day.
Jacobs didn’t just take the idea of the tomb from the ancient Egyptians. He used their timings to choose a very specific date upon which a future civilization could open his vault. First, the historian counted backward to the first-ever recorded date in history: 4241 BC. We have this recording because of the ancient Egyptians, who established their calendar in that year.
By the time Jacobs had studied the ancient Egyptians it was 1936, some 6,177 years after the famed population had created its calendar. So, the Oglethorpe University president looked to the future – 6,177 years ahead, to be exact. Only at that time could anyone unlock the fruits of his intended labor.
What Jacobs came up with would be called The Crypt of Civilization and, little did he know, his idea would be replicated across the nation as soon as word got out of his plans. The Westinghouse Company, for instance, built a metal torpedo-shaped time capsule and buried it at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Furthermore, they banned anyone from opening the container for 5,000 years.
But Jacobs didn’t want to bury something so relatively small. Instead, the historian began work on a fully fledged crypt, as the name of his project implied. The Crypt of Civilization would sit halfway underground beneath a Gothic-style building made of granite. Before, the space contained a swimming pool; but now, the historian could see it would make the perfect vault.
First, though, there would have to be some renovations on the underground swimming pool. Construction began in 1937 and would last for three years. The project had workers leveling out the room’s floor with concrete. They also covered the walls in enamel plates, while the 7-foot-thick roof would protect the chamber’s contents.
With the floor leveled, the workers covered it in stone that stretched 2 feet deep – another protective barrier. In the end, Jacobs had a room that measured 20 feet in length and 10 feet in width. And even with the extra-thick roof and flooring, the crypt was 10 feet tall from floor to ceiling.
Through it all, the Oglethorpe University crew had expert advice as they constructed their crypt. Namely, the National Bureau of Standards – based in Washington, D.C. – provided the school with chamber-building tips. They also told Jacobs and company how to store the items they wanted to preserve for thousands of years.
The National Bureau of Standards’ experts recommended that Jacobs place all of his inventory items into stainless steel containers, all of which were meant to be lined with glass. Then, the Oglethorpe University president would have to fill each receptacle with nitrogen, which would further preserve the goods.
The National Bureau of Standards gave the green light to Jacobs’ plan to seal his crypt. He wanted to use a stainless-steel door panel, which would then be welded shut. The sealing of the door was a long way away, though; the Crypt of Civilization still needed to be filled with all of the pieces that the historian had in mind.
Jacobs couldn’t complete such an involved task on his own. So instead, he hired Thomas Kimmwood Peters, whose job it would be to oversee the crypt’s construction. He would also work as its archivist, and he took on the responsibility of photographing documents to slip into the half-underground chamber.
Peters was up to such a task; he had invented the first-ever camera that used microfilm, after all. So, he used his medium of choice to photograph some of the must-haves on Jacobs’ lengthy inventory list. The project took three years, and the professional photographer enlisted the help of student assistants to get the job done.
Of course, Peters and his team had no idea how well 35 mm film would hold up after sitting in a crypt for 6,000 years. So, the team also prepared paper-thin metal film records of everything that Jacobs had designated for the archive. And those who opened the Crypt of Civilization wouldn’t have to wonder how to look at the film, either.
Peters included all of the then-current technology that someone would need in 6,000 years to unlock all of the crypt’s treasures. The head archivist outfitted the chamber with projectors and microreaders, both of which ran on electricity. And he had another contraption in case future populations relief on a different energy source.
In the Crypt of Civilization, Peters also placed a windmill-powered generator which would work regardless of plug shapes and sizes in the future. He also added a handheld magnifier which would expand microfilm seven-fold and make his snapshots legible without any electronic device. The team also considered language – people of the future may not speak English, after all.
To help them understand the contents of the vault, Peters placed a device called the language integrator outside of the Crypt of Civilization’s steel door. The machine had a simple purpose, albeit one that would be tough to execute. It would teach people how to speak English before they entered the Oglethorpe University vault.
Of course, understanding written English wouldn’t be required to interpret all of the Crypt of Civilization’s contents. Peters had, indeed, archived hundreds of his inventory items on microfilm. But that just scratched the surface of the incredible archive that he put together at Jacobs’ behest. The rest of the space would be filled with physical remnants of civilization as it had advanced up until that point.
For Jacobs, though, none of this felt like a job to him. Instead, he helmed an NBC radiocast in April 1937, where he discussed the crypt he was then in the process of curating. At the time, he said the task was his “archaeological duty” to chronicle his generation, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
It makes sense that Jacobs called for such an extensive list of contents for the Crypt of Civilization. After all, what he curated could become a museum in the future – at least, that’s what he envisioned. The space contains 6,000 years’ worth of knowledge, as well as pop-culture highlights from his era. And all of that combined added up to a packed vault that no one will see for six more millenia.
Luckily, though, Oglethorpe University has a webpage dedicated to the Crypt of Civilization, which lists the vault’s contents in full. The inventory ranges from sensical items to downright strange ones. Artifacts sit on the floor and on shelves, just as they were once displayed within Egyptian tombs.
And, although its inspiration came from the pyramids, the Crypt of Civilization has little in common with an Egyptian tomb when it comes to contents. For starters, there was Peters’ extensive microfilm inventory. This covered a whopping 800 textbooks and authoritative reference materials on the topics most important to mankind in the 1930s.
The microfilm catalogued all of mankind’s greatest inventions at the time – such as transportation and methods of communication – all of which were drawn to scale. Future generations could also peruse records of all of the games, pastimes and sports that people played. They could also read through 200 chronicled works of fiction.
Then, there is the motion picture library, which contains footage of major events in United States history. Peters also created sound clips to capture the era’s most powerful leaders and cultural icons. So, alongside recordings of Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt, there were sound bites of the cartoon character Popeye the Sailor and a top-ranking hog caller.
By the late 1930s, when Peters filled Jacobs’s vault, the U.S. also had a thriving film industry. So, the crypt holds an original copy for Gone with the Wind, which was donated by the film’s producer David O. Selznik. Future generations can also leaf through a special issue of The New York Herald-Tribune – created especially for inclusion in the vault.
Furthermore, the Crypt of Civilization contains a slew of advancements from the early 20th century. Future visitors will find an air-conditioning apparatus, as well as a cash register and radio. The vault contains a typewriter, too; the first modern, functional computer was invented in 1938, but the then-newfangled contraption didn’t land in the vault.
And then, there were the Crypt of Civilization’s more unique selections. Future explorers will find a two-piece obstetrical model along with a “lady’s breast form,” according to Oglethorpe University’s online inventory list. They will also get to rifle through the contents of a woman’s purse, as well as hair clips, artificial fingernails, hair curlers and manicure scissors.
If future generations don’t save their pennies, then they’ll be baffled by the Crypt of Civilization’s sole plastic bank. They can also inspect 1930s-era dress patterns and slip their hands into a single DuPrene glove – made of a rubber substitute. Furthermore, the vault contains an odd assortment of kitchen supplies: from a salt-and-shaker set to a doughnut cutter.
Future vault visitors will be able to make themselves a cup of coffee, too – so long as they can figure out how to operate the Crypt of Civilization’s drip coffee maker. The caffeine lover’s must-have appliance comes alongside a cream and sugar set, which clearly aimed to show how humans once took their morning brew.
For those uninterested in a cup of coffee, the Crypt of Civilization also contains approximately one quart of beer – specifically a Budweiser, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Any other beverages would have to be provided by vault visitors, but Jacobs and Peters made sure to include five drinking cups and a sole wine glass in the archive.
The Crypt of Civilization’s inventory includes plenty of toys, as well. For instance, there’s a pinball game and airplane figurine, as well as a toy pistol and a pair of baby dolls. The vault also contains a Donald Duck toy, nearly two dozen toy soldiers, 12 toy civilian dolls and a faux anti-aircraft gun.
And then, there’s the downright strange inclusions as curated by Jacobs and Peters. In glass cases reside a male and female mannequin. Future visitors will also find a set of dentures and a roll of dental floss. The vault apparently even contains a glass bookend sculpted to resemble a girl’s head.
Since the welders sealed the Crypt of Civilization shut in 1940, though, Jacobs’ pet project has faced mounting criticism from those who have examined its inventory list. Namely, experts have noted that the contents don’t provide a complete picture of the U.S. and the world at the time of the vault’s creation. Specifically, it looks at important objects and artwork from a white person’s perspective only.
Ferris State University sociology professor David Pilgrim was one to point this out in a 2018 piece in The Atlantic. He pointed out how the Crypt of Civilization contains no record of African-American achievements, such as a Billie Holiday recording or film of Jesse Owens’ famous win at the Olympics.
However, the publication added that no one has ever proposed opening and editing or adding to the Crypt of Civilization’s contents to paint a more complete picture of American life at the time. And, although it made Oglethorpe University and Jacobs famous at the time of its creation, today’s students pay little mind to the historical and cultural remnants hidden beneath their feet.
The Crypt of Civilization was completed on May 25, 1940, and it was a relatively subdued affair. Jacob and Peters welded it shut just eight months into World War II. As such, the Oglethorpe University president recorded a final message to those listening in 8113 AD. He said, “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.” Even with its faults, the strange and spectacular vault will be an incredible find for people who unlock it in the future.