Panel to examine 3 lead coffins for witness to Maryland's past

February 19, 1991|By James Bock

Dead men do tell tales -- or at least their bones do.

A panel of top experts on subjects ranging from bones to neutron radiography is being assembled to strip away the mystery surrounding three lead coffins uncovered in December -- and since reburied -- in the ruins of the 1667 Great Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City.

Historians think Colonial Gov. Philip Calvert, who died in 1682 and was the second Lord Baltimore's half-brother, and two other members of Maryland's founding family are buried in the 17th-century crypt.

Now they have called in forensic anthropologists -- scientists who glean information from bones as historians do from archives -- to identify the remains and illuminate the lives of the persons buried there.

"Lead coffins are extremely rare. No one has ever excavated one before from the Colonial period" in North America, said Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City.

"We would have only one chance. We want to make sure we give it the best shot we can. With this group, I think we can," he said.

Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist who is on the advisory committee, said: "They really have quite a striking discovery. There's no example you can point to where there has been a careful examination of these types of remains."

The coffins may contain brass nameplates or some other clue to identity.

But beyond simple identification, forensic anthropologists say the 300-year-old remains could also indicate a person's height, blood type, age at death, diet, health history and even genetic makeup.

Another forensic expert in the group, Dr. Clyde Collins Snow, who helped identify the remains of Nazi Josef Mengele, has said: "Bones make good witnesses. Although they speak softly, they never lie, and they never forget."

For his part, Dr. Owsley likened skeletons to books -- books that can speak volumes about social history often ignored in official archives.

For instance, the Smithsonian scientist once identified a 19th-century skeleton as that of a seamstress, after a scanning electron microscope revealed notches in the woman's teeth where she had held pins in her mouth.

A few years ago, Dr. Owsley said, the results of a forensic examination such as the one envisioned at St. Mary's City would have been limited.

But thanks to technological breakthroughs, both antibodies and DNA -- the material that carries genetic characteristics -- can now be retrieved from minute quantities of bone and analyzed.

Recovery of antibodies could provide "a record of the diseases the person was exposed to and suffered from in his lifetime," Dr. Owsley said.

The DNA would help fix the relationship, if any, among the people buried in the crypt.

"If we can get DNA from the bone, we can literally trace lineages from back then to the present day," he said.

Facial reconstruction, based on analysis of skulls, could show resemblances to Calvert family members of whom portraits exist, such as the Lords Baltimore, Mr. Miller said.

If tissue is preserved, it might be rehydrated and examined for diseases such as cancer, said Paul S. Sledzik, a panel member who is curator of anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.

"This is an opportunity to look into the lives of the early settlers ofMaryland," Mr. Sledzik said. "I'm real excited about it."

Before the lead boxes are disturbed, however, the forensic anthropologists and historians want to know everything possible about the condition of the coffins and the remains.

Geologists will probe the soil around the coffins -- which were only partly uncovered in December -- for clues to their condition.

Experts in remote imaging will try to penetrate the lead sheathing to show the coffins' interiors and discover whether the remains are just bones, include flesh and clothing, or are mummified.

Mark Moore, a nuclear engineer at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, said the first step might be an ultrasound test to gauge the lead's thickness.

Then high-energy X-rays or neutron radiography could be used to produce an image of what is inside. The powerful, portable imaging equipment that pipeline inspectors use might be adapted for the St. Mary's City project, Mr. Moore said.

If the coffins are sturdy enough to be moved, high-resolution X-ray tomography -- the technology the National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses to examine the internal structure of solid rocket motors -- may be brought to bear, said Dr. Joseph Heyman, a panel member and head of the Non-Destructive Evaluative Sciences Branch at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

A tomographic system's resolution is typically so fine that it could show the crack in a broken bone, the hole in a button or soft tissue that an X-ray might miss, he said.

NASA has a keen interest in another aspect of the lead coffins -- the air inside them.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.