Scientists planning the study of three 17th-century lead coffins discovered last November in St. Mary's City say they may try to match any genetic material found in the coffins to that of a modern-day descendant of Maryland's founding Calvert family.
Forensic anthropologist Clyde Collins Snow said today that if no nameplates or other conclusive identification are found inside the coffins, a DNA, or genetic, match may be attempted. But its success will hinge on several critical problems:
"Whether we can extract this [genetic] material from the bones, if it's still there . . . if we can find a female descendant [of the Calverts], and then if she is willing to give us some hair, or blood."
Snow, who identified the remains of the Nazi "Angel of Death," Joseph Mengele, is a member of the technical advisory team that gathered today in Annapolis to map a strategy and timetable for studying the coffins and the remains in
side them. The initial outlines of that plan were to be released late today.
Best known for his work identifying the remains of people "disappeared" by rightist South American regimes, Snow said he was "intrigued" by the St. Mary's City coffin project.
"I think the combination of the historic aspects and the scientific aspects will be fascinating to work with," he said. "And, it's a nice break from having to deal with the skeletons of young people with gunshot wounds to the back of the head. I'm very pleased they thought of me."
The coffins were discovered last November during an archaeological dig at the site of the Great Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City, Maryland's first colonial capital. The chapel was demolished in 1705, and the site is now a grassy meadow, still called Chapel Field.
The prominent location of the coffins, beneath the floor of what had been the north transept of the cross-shaped church, and their costly lead construction led Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City, to conclude they may represent the lost Calvert crypt.
He 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.
Miller said today that the advisory team has already concluded that "the only way these individuals can be properly identified is if the coffins are opened and we physically examine the remains."
Although techniques for extracting DNA from blood, semen and other fresh tissue are well established, those for finding it in long-dead bone remain experimental, Snow said.
Still, he said, scientists would be "guardedly optimistic" if the coffin contains a reasonably intact skeleton, and the bones can be removed for study without contamination by modern tissue.
If the lead coffins remain well sealed, he said, they may even contain "considerable soft tissue," which would make the job easier.
"The other problem is going to be to find someone in the female lineage from Lord Calvert," Snow said. Since the Calvert name followed the male lineage, the genealogical search may be difficult.
A woman is needed to link the remains to the Calverts, Snow said, because the only portion of our genetic makeup that remains virtually unchanged from one generation to the next is a portion passed strictly along a female line.
Snow said the team will also use more routine anthropological techniques to identify the remains. Examination of the skeletons should quickly reveal the age, sex, race, height and build of the individuals, and clues to their occupations.
The skulls will also undergo "facial reconstruction" by artists using clay to rebuild the missing soft tissues. Such reconstructions, when done well, are as accurate as a portrait "by a skilled amateur portraitist," Snow said, and can be "photographic."
Although no portraits of Philip Calvert are known to exist, Snow said, "I think it would be . . . important to see what this person looks like." The face could be compared with portraits of Calvert's parents and his brother, which do exist.
If the coffins have remained sealed since the 17th century, the air inside them could also provide clues to changes in air quality and composition since then. The remains may hold clues to the colonists' health and diet.