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Project Activities, News & Events

This page offers updates on research progress and activities relating to the tower capsules project.

Lavater Room at St Peter's Zurich

Above: A moment of anticipation in the (cosy) Lavater lounge opposite St Peter's church in Zurich on 13 March 2024: what might be in this intriguing package kept in the parish archive? Pic: BK.


Pic left: The present tower of the village church at Fällanden was added in 1933 (building history). Previously, deposits had been made in a sphere on a roof turret on no fewer than 8 occasions.

Blog Post 12:
Rounding off Research

25 March 2024

Earlier this month I returned to the Canton of Zurich to see some sources which had been inaccessible back in the autumn. One set was in the newly opened central archive of all the capital's Reformed parishes, another in the nearby rural community of Fällanden (including a craftsmen note from 1600). The highlights were 6 small lead plates engraved between 1505-1641. Now preserved in a cigar box (!) at St Peter in Zurich, they provided me with the first opportunity to study metal deposits in the original.

Last week brought helpful discussions with advisory board members, who encouraged a move from data gathering to interpretation, while the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung featured project materials relating to Bavaria.

Fällanden church tower

Fällanden church. Pic: BK.

Workshop 2 data


'Tower Capsules' reviewed: James Brown (Sheffield), Chris Langley (Open University), Tom Pert (Warwick), Luca Scholz (Manchester) and Felicita Tramontana (Roma 3) kindly agreed to assess project progress so far.

Blog Post 11 - Workshop II: Data

20 February 2024

Over the last few months, the project's emphasis has been on field work. Visits to archives, libraries and sites have yielded plenty of information on locations (over 1300 at the last count), deposit chronologies (from the late 14thC to the present) and contents of tower capsules (from brief written notes to multimedia packages). First attempts to process case study data have been made available on the ‘sites & distribution’ section, using Google Maps based on Excel spreadsheets (the 'start-up' package identified back in September; see Blog Post 4 below). It was thus very helpful to get further feedback during PROJECT WORKSHOP II held in hybrid format last week. Digital Humanities practitioners and researchers with extensive dissemination experience advised on software options, related sites (including ‘The Concealed Revealed’, addressing comparable customs from the finders’ perspective) and further analytical tools. On the whole, the comments were encouraging and I’m indebted to all colleagues for sharing their impressions and ideas so generously.

Memories in the Making

Christoph Huss with the 2024 tower capsule document

Just a few days ago, I got the rare chance to participate in a tower capsule filling ceremony myself. It took place at the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine in Neuwied / German Rhineland, where hailstorm damage had necessitated major repairs to the church.

On the night, we started off in the workshop of the craftsmen – Peter Gampp & Sezai Dani – who are currently re-painting and -gilding the globe, weathervane (carrying the date of 1784, when the Kirchensaal was built as part of a settlement scheme granting Moravian Brethren a quadrangle in the Prince of Wied’s newly-founded town) and morning star (symbolizing Christ at the very top of the turret). They had all last been restored in 1972 - remarkably by Karl Gampp, the father of today’s painter - and the deposits from that occasion were duly found at the capsule-opening back in December.

Then, at the ceremony in the packed assembly hall, attended by heritage / museum experts and covered by the local media, pastor Christoph Huss (pictured) kindly invited me to say a few words on the history of the phenomenon. The highlight followed when a range of new items – including a fresh 'charter' (calligraphically written on stone paper), postcard, copy of the Rhein Zeitung and set of Euro coins – were carefully fitted in the protective cartridge (in fact a piece of drainpipe!) to be placed inside & set up with the globe upon completion of all roofing work.

Blog Post 10

6 February 2024

BK with Neuwied sphere

For me, it was a privilege to get up close & personal with a real tower sphere, find out more about the Herrnhuter community (with roots in 15thC Bohemia), witness the custom at the core of my project actually practiced and a total surprise to be presented with a specially commissioned gilded micro globe as part of the proceedings!

Blog Post 9

22 January 2024

Ex Voto Bildstein

Ex voto painting, commissioned in gratitude for the healing of an animal in 1683, displayed at the pilgrimage church of Bildstein overlooking the Rhine valley. Pic: BK.

Another change of scenery – this time field work has taken me to western Austria. Vorarlberg enriches the project for many reasons: Alpine setting, rich cultural exchange – it borders on Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland – and agricultural heritage mixed with early industrialization (the 1893 tower capsule document of Bürs near Bludenz records longstanding tensions between the commune and powerful factory owners). Perhaps most striking of all, compared to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Zurich, is the Catholic spirituality which still pervades the scenery: wayside chapels & crosses, religious houses, frequent sounding of bells, numerous pilgrimage sites and votive paintings (pictured). Direct invocations of God’s might appear a little less prominent in the chronicles here, but they come with a great range of devotional supplements: images of saints, prayers, relics and indulgences. A nice fusion of academic, monastic and customary dimensions can be found at the Vorarlberger Landesbibliothek in Bregenz, where a deposit was made for the first time just a few decades ago, even though the tower sphere had been found empty when opened in 1992.



Vorarlberger Landesbibliothek

The dome over the former abbey church of the Gallusstift, now a reading room of the Vorarlberger Landesbibliothek. A tower ball deposit was made here thirty-two years ago. Pic: BK.

Blog Post 8: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

23 November 2023

Straight after a first dissemination opportunity, a lecture on ‘Parishes & Plurality’ for the POLY research college at Frankfurt a.M. (which provided encouraging feedback), Field Trip 2 has brought me to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in northern Germany. Compared to Zurich, there are equally beautiful landscapes, but the region is more sparsely populated, punctuated by large forests and entirely flat!

Apart from enjoyable trips to several sites in the lake district and notable Hanseatic cities like Stralsund & Rostock, archival visits have yielded gems like original tower chronicles (at the Kirchenkreisarchiv Mecklenburg, in the case of Ankershagen parish complete with the – rather rusty - metal cartridge in which it was placed) and detailed documentation for the building of a new tower (PICTURED) at the Marienkirche in picturesque Alt-Röbel during the 1850s (at the Landeshauptarchiv Schwerin, shedding light on the compilation process and associated costs, including for ‘calligraphic writing’). Today it's the turn of Stralsund's city archive promising a range of parchment deposits and inscribed metal plates from its tower capsule sites.

From Gersau, meanwhile, came the news that our filming there last month for a Gerda Henkel video series has made the regional newspaper (see the article in the Schwyz daily Bote der Urschweiz).

Marienkirche Roebel
Hombrechtikon foundation stone

Blog post 7: Contextual Evidence

3 November 2023

Running around historic sites yields collateral benefits; you may be looking for particular things – like evidence of tower capsules – but then spot a lot besides. For early modern ecclesiastical historians, the Zurich region certainly has much to offer. Atop the twin towers of the former monastic church of Rheinau on the border with Germany, for example, you find deposits not just in the golden spheres themselves, but also the trumpet angels placed above them (not to mention that, at one point, gusts of wind made their instruments sound out across the island they overlook!). At Hombrechtikon, numerous assigned pews survive in both choir (for members of the Stillstand – Zurich’s consistory) and nave (ordinary householders). Most feature the owner’s name, place of residence, year of acquisition and some even family crests (pictured is Casper Kuntz from Langacher in 1785 with a crossbow). Outside the church, on the south-west corner, the foundation stone was placed in 1758 and likely filled with deposits, too. Last but not least, in Uster’s parish archive, a visit with my film crew (sic – watch out for the video series coming in spring 2024!) revealed not only the chronicle of 1656 we came to see, but also a copy of a previously unknown 1781 document (BELOW) flanked by corroborating evidence in the consistory records and churchwardens’ accounts of the same year.

Uster 1781

Blog Post 6: Workshop Paper & Zurich Field Trip

18 October 2023

An early modern workshop within the Dresden-Warwick exchange provided the first opportunity to present project findings: I talked about a ‘Custom in Exile’, referring to tower capsule deposits among Transylvanian Saxons. At Mediasch in present-day Romania, these included a clandestine note from Hungarian workers in 1927, stating that they had to do all the hard jobs but were barred from adding something in their own language.

Straight after I embarked on an extended field trip to the Zurich region. Over the first few days, I visited the city’s tower capsule sites (see the panorama below); at nearby Rümlang, however, I got distracted by the legacy of Kleinjogg, an 18thC peasant pioneer of agricultural reform who gained sufficient celebrity status to attract guests like Goethe; after his first visit in 1775, the German poet wrote to a friend that he had met ‘one of the most splendid creatures that the earth has produced’! Now it's the turn of document research: at Zurich's Central Library, appropriately, the reading room looks out to the Predigerkirche, one of the sites of particular interest.

Kleinjogg House near Zurich

Jakob Gujer ('Kleinjogg') lived in this house at Katzenrüti, a hamlet of Rümlang near Zurich.

His innovations included better fertilization of fields, using clover for animal feed and the cultivation of potatoes.

Zurich Panorama

Blog Post 5: Data Collation & Visualization

3 October 2023

Time to start thinking about standardizing & presenting some data collected for this project! Equipped with advice from advisory board and workshop discussions, I intend to use the three case studies in Austria, Germany & Switzerland as 'guinea pigs', experimenting with ways to disseminate tower capsule information (such as locations, types of buildings and references) as well as visualize the distribution of sites in different regional settings - mindful of both my technical limitations and the fact that such collations will always be 'work in progress'. Considering the main audience, textual elements appear in German.

I've had a first stab at the Zurich material (image left: screenshot from Google Maps - click on pic to get to interactive version; provisional dataLink opens in a new window) - feedback & suggestions very welcome !

As for preliminary impressions, Reformed parish churches (green symbols) predominate and the custom seems to be spread across all areas and (urban / rural) settings of the canton.

Block content

Blog Post 4: Workshop I - Planning

18 September 2023

Workshop Discussions 14 September 2023

A key element of project management is periodic review. At the outset, the formulation of clear research questions and the identification of feasible targets / methods seems particularly important.

Confronted with a complex phenomenon, extensive primary & secondary materials, diverging conceptual frameworks and numerous possible avenues to pursue, I was keen to get some peer feedback on my plans and current priorities.

I am very grateful to Chris Langley (Open University), Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge), Felicita Tramontana (Roma Tre) and Peter Wilson (Oxford) as well as Warwick Leverhulme Research Fellow Thomas Pert (Centre for the Study of the Renaissance) and my PGR student Daniel Gettings (History) for taking the time to take part in Project Workshop I, held in hybrid format on 14 September 2023, and offer their advice. Among the many helpful suggestions were new leads about English terminology (‘tower capsules’), database structure (clarification of core fields), outreach potential (via archives / museums) and visualization opportunities (offered by various software options).

The outcome left me reassured about many aspects but also with plenty of food for thought!

Blog post 3: Berlin

26 August 2023

Got through a lot of rare and some obscure materials during a trip to Berlin’s great state library, where the service is excellent and the café known for delicious cakes.

Now I think I have a good sense of edited tower capsule contents and related scholarship.

In nearly every case, there are intriguing peculiarities, be it in terms of taking down / setting up ceremonies or anticipated future developments which – for us, of course – now lie in the distant past.

Berlin Mitte Panorama

In and around the capital, there are plenty of actual sites to admire (the pic shows Dom, Schloss and – to the far right – the twin towers of St Nikolai, all rebuilt after WW2, in Berlin-Mitte). St Nikolai is now a museum, which features deposits notable for numismatic treasures and recovered by chance decades after the church's WW2 destruction.

Holy Trinity Brandenburg

When visiting nearby Brandenburg an der Havel, on the other hand, I was sorry to find that Holy Trinity – a Catholic church known to have placed writings in its tower capsule at least in 1850 – seems to have lost the architectural feature altogether.

Blog post 2: UK Research Libraries

9 August 2023
Spent some time catching up on recent memory work in the Bodleian’s congenial Radcliffe Camera (pictured) and came across a couple of intriguing literary reflections of my topic when going through printed sources at the British Library: in a 1782 ‘epistle’, the personified Turmkugel of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna addresses a sphere overlooking the nearby church of Maria am Gestade with some observations on the ‘new world below’ (noting declining clerical power and rising lay literacy under the ‘enlightened’ reforms of Emperor Joseph II), while in Joseph von Eichendorff’s nineteenth-century short story Schloβ Dürande a Turmknopf appears – albeit fleetingly – as an incorruptible repository of law, unaffected by any violations of rights down on earth.
Radclifffe Bodleian
Tower Ball Document Gersau 1655
Gersau Deposit Contents

Gersau Parish Archive (Pics: BK)

Blog post 1: Getting Started !

12 July 2023

It’s always exciting to embark on a new project, although – to be fair – this one has been with me for a while. I first came across tower capsules during my work on imperial villages, at Gersau on Lake Lucerne about a decade ago. Here, the oldest preserved document of 1655 (pictured) opens - very typically, as it has since turned out - with an account of church repairs, but further deposits found in 1983 also included objects: a strip from the Gospel, pictures of saints and a tiny bag of relics. Why did local communities do this, which kinds of messages were selected and what did their descendants make of it? How widespread is the custom? At present, it looks as if we are dealing with a peculiarity of areas which once belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Ever since, I have looked up prominent buildings to watch out for the – often gilded – metal spheres which may or may not hold information from the past and, whenever there was a chance, searched library catalogues and archival holdings for related evidence. By now, nearly 1000 sites with known deposits have made it into my ‘work in progress’ database (see some examples here). Over the next academic year, I’ll attempt to investigate the phenomenon more thoroughly, look forward to interacting with local communities and am very grateful to the Gerda Henkel Foundation for making this possible.