Scientist Snow agrees to study remains of 3 Expert to help plan a look into the past in St. Mary's City.

February 18, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

Clyde Collins Snow, the forensic scientist who identified the remains of the Nazi "Angel of Death," Joseph Mengele, has agreed to help Maryland archaeologists plan a study of the remains in three lead coffins found during excavations last fall in St. Mary's City.

The coffins, found within the ruins of the Great Brick Chapel at Maryland's first Colonial capital, are believed to be what's left of the crypt of the Calverts, Maryland's founding family.

Snow, the author of "Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell," is to serve on a committee of scientists that will meet in March to discuss methods of studying and identifying the remains.

Snow's colleagues on the committee include people whose expertise suggests the possible course of the investigation:

* Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who has assisted with studies of the remains of soldiers from the Antietam National Battlefield.

* Joseph Heyman, director of the Non-Destructive Evaluation Sciences Branch at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an expert in state-of-the-art remote sensing.

* Mark Moore, director of the Radiation Source Department of the Armed Forces Radio-Biology Institute, an expert in remote imaging.

* Dr. Richard Froede, medical examiner at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

* Richard Malt, an archaeologist at the Museum of London and an expert in English cemetery excavations.

* Gerald Johnson, a geologist at the College of William and Mary.

Henry M. Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City, said additional scientists may join the committee. One still being pursued is an expert on atmospheric gases who could help with the extraction and study of any 17th century air that may be sealed in the coffins.

Miller said he hopes at least some of the committee members will sign on to help with the actual analysis of the crypt, the coffins and their remains.

"This is a first-rate group. I am very pleased," Miller said. "We are going to be getting out of this group, I think, state-of-the-art advice on what to do."

After they were first unveiled to the public Dec. 4, the lead coffins and other artifacts were reburied to protect them from winter weather and vandals. Excavations are scheduled to resume in June.

Miller has speculated that the largest of the three coffins contains the remains of Philip Calvert, Maryland's first chancellor and half-brother of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. Philip died in 1682.

The second coffin may be that of another Cecil Calvert, son of Charles Calvert and grandson of Cecil, Lord Baltimore. He died in 1681 at the age of 14.

The third coffin is much smaller and may contain the remains of an infant child of Charles Calvert.

Miller said there are no firm plans for proceeding with the study.

"What we are seeking is [the committee's] expertise on what is the best approach to take. We want this to be the best possible job we can do. . . . We don't want to focus in on one approach until we look at the realm of possibilities," Miller said.

Snowe and Owsley may help suggest ways in which the remains inside the coffins might be identified, he said. Froede "may be able to tell us fascinating things about health and diseases of the 17th century."

Heyman and Moore should provide advice on how to determine the condition of the coffins and the remains before they are opened, and guidance as to whether they should be opened at all.

If the coffins have remained sealed over the centuries, they might provide scientists with preserved samples of 17th century air, the composition of which then could be compared with modern samples. The results might reveal such things as increases in carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases over the years.

The coffins' interiors also might yield pollen grains that could help determine the season in which the coffins were sealed, a clue to the identify of the remains, Miller said.

"If we opened them and modern pollen got in, we would lose that chance," he said.

While some remote sensing of the coffins and their contents could be conducted at the site, the coffins would probably be moved to a laboratory for opening and study.

After deciding how to conduct the investigation, Miller said, the scientists will have to estimate the costs. The investigation will then be modified to fit the funds available, or delayed until more money can be raised.

"I would rather wait to do it right if at all possible," Miller said. "We only have one shot at it, and this is a unique situation. I think would be unprofessional of us to try to do something that wasn't the best we can do."

Funding may eventually be sought from such sources as the National Geographic Society or the Rockefeller Foundation.

When the scientific work is done, Miller said, the remains will be reburied in the crypt.

"My hope is that we will be able to reconstruct the Great Brick Chapel, and, as part of that reconstruction, the grave of these individuals will be marked in the best appropriate manner," he said.

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