Mystery vault may yield papers of Francis Bacon

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

August 21, 1992|By Bentley Boyd | Bentley Boyd,Newport News Daily Press

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists begin digging this week for a pocket of disturbed soil that could mark a sand bar, a tree root or the blueprint to Utopia.

In 1985, radar-like equipment revealed that there was something under Bruton Parish Church's graveyard that was different from untouched soil. That something may be a vault containing writings of British scientist and writer Sir Francis Bacon, some believe.

But the anomaly could just be the footprint of an earlier search for Utopia. Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Andrew Edwards said it could be surface dirt used to fill in a 1938 excavation that sparked the modern controversy over the existence of Bacon's vault.

"It's easy to be fooled by this stuff. What we're doing now is like exploratory surgery, when the X-rays fail," Mr. Edwards said. "There is no scientific evidence to any of this. The only way you're going to find out is to dig."

The three-week dig began Tuesday when the Colonial Williamsburg crew removed the topsoil on a 20- by 20-foot section.

The dig will not be sheltered from the rain, and work will continue except in downpours, Mr. Edwards said. "We will excavate any disturbance that is man-made, whether it's the unauthorized dig a year ago or the 1938 dig or something done three centuries ago," Mr. Edwards said.

In November, New Age mystic Marsha Middleton and two others were caught digging on church grounds in the middle of the night. By court order, those three are forbidden from returning to Virginia.

This time, a crew of eight professionals, including Mr. Edwards and Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Marley Brown, will retrace the steps of the 1938 dig to answer a question that has lingered since the last day of that effort.

After seven days of uncovering remains of the original church walls, workers looking for Bacon's vault dug about 9 feet deep and reportedly found an object with brass tacks in it. Church officials said it was a casket and would not allow them to dig further.

That object is the goal of a loose collection of people that includes Dagmar von Toal of Williamsburg. "I'm not sure there is a vault. There may be. Something is down there," she said this week as she visited the site. "If there is a vault, it may have some philosophies on how people can find some common ground."

In a report she prepared for this month's dig, Ms. von Toal guesses the object could be a double coffin, a time capsule left by the Founding Fathers or part of the church's cellar floor.

Marie Bauer Hall of Los Angeles led the 1938 search. She said she was led to the site by a book written in 1635 by a man named George Withers and by codes inscribed on Bruton Parish Church headstones. If Ms. Hall returns to Williamsburg for this dig, she and her followers will have to stand behind a fence, said the Rev. Richard May, rector of Bruton Parish.

Workers erected an orange plastic barrier Monday to ensure that only the Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists would be working

on the site northwest of the current church.

The dig will be videotaped, Mr. May said. "Nobody can accuse us of covering up, and when there's nothing in the hole, everyone can see it," he said.

When asked if he had proof there was no vault, Mr. May said, "There's no evidence that there is. The findings show no vault. Why would there be one there?"

The search will begin above the supposed site of the vault and go down 10 feet. Archaeologists will then explore the brickwork and original floor level of the original church, which dates to 1683.

Ms. von Toal and Mr. May both hope this excavation answers once and for all the question of whether writings of Bacon are buried near the original church.

Ms. von Toal said that if there is no vault, "we fill in the hole and we go on our merry way."

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