Archaeologists now must decide what to do with coffins

December 05, 1990|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Having discovered what they believe is the 300-year-old crypt of Maryland's founding Calvert family, archaeologists here are now beginning to puzzle over what to do with the three lead coffins found in the grave.

A key question, they say, is whether the sealed coffins should be opened.

"We really don't know yet what we're going to do," said Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City.

The lost crypt was rediscovered during a week-long excavation in what was once the north arm of the 323-year-old Great Brick Chapel in St. Mary's City.

No markers or inscriptions were found on the coffins, but, because of their prominent place in the church, and the high cost of lead coffins, Miller has theorized that they must be those of the colony's most wealthy and powerful family.

He believes the largest of the three contains the remains of Philip Calvert, Maryland's first chancellor. Philip died in 1682 at the age of 50.

The second, much smaller coffin may be that of a woman, but Miller's best guess is Cecil Calvert. Cecil was Philip's grand nephew and grandson of the first Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore and Proprietor of the colony. The younger Cecil died in 1681 at the age of 14, Miller said.

The third coffin appears to be sized for an infant, and Miller believes it could hold the remains of one of several children of Charles Calvert, Cecil's father.

But there also has been speculation that the small coffin holds the bones of Maryland's first governor, Leonard Calvert. Leonard is believed to have been buried somewhere in the chapel cemetery. But Miller said his bones might have been exhumed and reinterred in the family crypt after its construction.

Miller said opening the caskets would require a great deal of money, and access to some high-tech equipment. The coffins would have to be opened in a sterile, oxygen-free environment to prevent the rapid decomposition of any human remains, clothing or other artifacts inside them.

For the time being, he said, the crypt will probably be filled in some time in the next two weeks to protect it as the approach of cold weather forces an end to excavations at the chapel site for the season.

St. Mary's was Maryland's first permanent settlement and Colonial capital. The city declined and disappeared beneath farmers' fields after the Colonial capital was moved to Annapolis in 1695. As an archaeological site, it survives as the nation's best-preserved 17th century Colonial capital.

The chapel -- the first Roman Catholic Church in English America -- was built in the 1660s and dismantled in 1705 after public worship by Catholics was made illegal in Maryland. By the mid-1700s, its foundation walls and cemetery had vanished beneath a meadow, still known as Chapel Field. Archaeologists returned to explore the site last summer.

As he stood above the excavation yesterday, Miller was still clearly astonished by its significance.

Ground penetrating radar in August detected the likely presence of a lead coffin, and therefore an important burial, Miller said. But "this was a surprise; we were expecting one [coffin]."

"Whew!" he said, shaking his head. "I wasn't expecting this at all. I mean, the Calvert family crypt!"

The three light-gray coffins were uncovered during a week of digging that climaxed yesterday with the removal of the last few inches of dirt by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

In remarks delivered before he began digging, Schaefer called the discovery "the most remarkable thing we've done in archaeology in this state, for now, and for years to come."

"These are the people who walked up on that shore and made it possible for us to be here today," Schaefer said.

Then, surrounded by television cameras and a crowd of about 100 people, Schaefer stretched out prone on a muddy sheet of plywood and leaned into the grave to trowel away at dirt on the coffin lid.

Schaefer, dressed in a suit and tie, was assisted in his digging by archaeologist Molly Quast, 22. Quast said she reminded the governor not to nick the soft lead with his trowel, but noted that "he did pretty well."

"I told him to stick to the top layer [of dirt], and I did the rest with my fingers," she said.

Miller had hoped that Schaefer's removal of the last layer of dirt on the large coffin would reveal a name plate or inscription that would positively identify it as Philip Calvert's.

But there was none on that casket, or on either of the other two uncovered earlier. Miller said lead coffins in England frequently contain a nameplate on the lid of a wooden interior coffin inside the lead sheath.

The coffins lie side by side in a 3-foot-deep excavation about 5 feet square. The true length of the coffins has yet to be determined because the foot of each one extends beyond the wall of the pit dug by the archaeologists.

The tops of all three coffins are concave, apparently bent in by the weight of the earth piled in on top of them.

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