ANNAPOLIS -- Three 17th-century lead coffins unearthed last December in St. Mary's City may yield their secrets -- including whether they contain members of Maryland's founding Calvert family -- as early as this fall.
A panel of top experts on subjects ranging from neutron radiography to human remains met here yesterday to map out a plan for finding out who was buried in the coffins and what they can reveal about life in Colonial America.
"This is truly a unique project in the annals of American archaeology," said Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City, the site of Maryland's 1634 settlement. "It is a direct link to the origins of Maryland," he added.
Dr. Miller and others believe that Colonial Gov. Philip Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore's half-brother, and at least two other Calvert family members were buried in the crypt in the ruins of the 1667 Great Brick Chapel. The lead coffins are the oldest ever found in North America.
The experts said the project could reveal not only who was buried in the three coffins, but also whether they were related, what diseases they suffered from and maybe even what 17th-century air was like.
"This sets a precedent in many ways nationally for this type of cooperation, this type of careful thought," said Edward C. Papenfuse, state archivist. "Money's going to be a concern, but I suspect this is not just a regional or state question but a national question, and I suspect there will be national interest."
Burton K. Kummerow, executive director of Historic St. Mary's City, said that he didn't know how much the project would cost but that fund-raising would begin immediately.
The experts outlined a two-pronged plan of attack: to study the coffins and remains without opening them and then to make a forensic analysis of the remains themselves.
The panel first would use X-ray, ultrasonic, eddy current and gamma ray absorption tests to gauge the coffins' strength and contents. Then two small holes would be bored in each coffin and used to tap samples of the 17th-century air that may be trapped inside. The drilling would be done in an inert atmosphere of Argon gas, so that no oxygen or present-day air could reach the remains.
Fiberoptics would be inserted into the same holes to get the first look at the coffins' contents. Finally, the coffins would be opened and the remains examined for evidence about each body's age, sex, race, height, health history, cause of death and even whether the person rode a horse or what hand he or she wrote with.
If enough bone and tissue is left to permit DNA to be extracted, the persons' relationships could be established and perhaps compared to present-day descendants of the Calvert family.
However, DNA tracing is best done on the mother's side of the family, and all that is known about Philip Calvert's mother is that her name was Joanna, according to Lois Carr, chief historian at St. Mary's City.
No portraits or diaries of Philip Calvert have been found, but it is known that at 53 he married a 17-year-old woman and built the most magnificent brick mansion in English-speaking North America.
Philip can't be called a victim of midlife crisis because most men lived only into their early 40s at the time. Whatever finally claimed his life did so suddenly, Dr. Carr said, because he left no will.