On a hot, humid early summer morning in 1993, two pupils at Al Khubairat Community School in Abu Dhabi buried a time capsule on a patch of ground a few metres inside the school’s gates. In doing so, the entire school made a promise to its future generations, one that is now in danger of being broken.
An eclectic basket of goods had been carefully inserted into the capsule before it was dug into the ground, with the key criteria for inclusion being that they would offer a “a real slice of 1993”.
A plan of the site and photographs of the school made the cut, as did a copy of the school fees, accompanied by a cheeky note written for those opening the capsule years later “to see if they go up or down”. A cassette tape of pop music, a floppy disk and a video recording of a typical school day were also placed inside, along with other harder to fathom items, such as empty crisp packets and chocolate bar wrappers.
The burial of the capsule had been the centrepiece of a day of celebrations marking the 25th birthday of what was, at its birth in 1968, one of the first schools in Abu Dhabi.
The capsule, a gun-metal grey box, was put in the ground and a plaque was installed next to it, which was marked with clear instructions for future generations: “to be opened in the year AD 2018 on the 50th anniversary of the school”.
The school’s head girl and head boy in 1993, Natalie Taylor and Neil Gupta, said as it was lowered into position that “we expect a great amount of change will have occurred not only in the school but in Abu Dhabi itself” by 2018. They could not have known the scale of change that would soon sweep across the ground on which they stood.
The school’s site has been thoroughly redeveloped in the past 25 years, with four phases of construction work delivering new and large primary school, secondary and sixth form buildings that provide classroom and recreation space for more than 1,800 pupils. The school was also renamed in 1999 and is now known as The British School Al Khubairat.
Not a single building that was there in 1993 still stands on the school grounds and the time capsule appears to have fallen victim to the march of progress.
It is now missing or lost, although Mark Leppard, the school’s present headmaster, says “no stone will be left unturned” as staff and students seek to track down the errant vessel and honour the pledge that was made 25 years ago.
“The challenge we face is locating where the time capsule has been buried. We have few reference points from years ago.”
A group of students have been trying to calculate the precise location of the time capsule’s burial using old photographs of the site and overlaying them with the school’s new layout. But with end-of-year exams now in full swing, that part-time detective work has ground to a halt, at least temporarily. The school has also launched a social media campaign to seek the help of former pupils.
If the capsule is still in place its location would be underneath a sports pitch on the school grounds, which was installed during the redevelopment works. To dig it up may prove prohibitively expensive and there is, of course, no guarantee the vessel is still in situ. Metal detectors could help the search.
“It is exciting trying to find it. With all of the developments to the site, it may even be that it was excavated and it is stored in the back of a cupboard somewhere,” said Mr Leppard, referencing some of the mythology that has attached itself to the time capsule’s story over the years.
Other theories, and many have sprung up, suggest the capsule was replanted elsewhere on the grounds. More pessimistic observers say the capsule was accidentally thrown out during the rebuild.
In the absence of hard evidence it is probably no surprise that such conflicting narratives exist. With the school planning 50th anniversary celebrations later in the year, Mr Leppard hopes the discovery of the capsule will make for the perfect birthday present.