Coffins' secrets soon to be revealed

October 02, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Does the smallest of three lead coffins buried 300 years ago in Maryland's Colonial capital hold the remains of a cherished infant, or the jumbled bones of Maryland's first governor, Leonard Calvert?

Over the next seven weeks, scientists hope to answer that question and many more as they re-enter what they believe to be the Calvert family crypt, discovered two years ago beneath St. Mary's City's vanished Great Brick Chapel -- birthplace of Catholicism in English America.

The elaborate, high-tech investigation of the lead coffins and their contents began yesterday. Work at the site will last at least six weeks and will cost an estimated $400,000, most of it in donated services and equipment.

"We will be working essentially seven days a week for a month," said Dr. Timothy B. Riordan, an archaeologist with Historic St. Mary's City Inc. and co-principal investigator on the project.

Built in the 1660s, the Great Brick Chapel was demolished in 1705, when Catholic worship was banned in the colony. The foundation and graveyard vanished beneath the soil, and the site became a farm field. In 1989, the lead coffins were detected during archaeological work. They were uncovered in November 1990, but reburied while scientists planned the current study.

Archaeologists believe only the Calverts had the wealth and power to command costly lead-coffin burials beneath the chapel's north transept.

The largest of the adult-sized coffins, they suggest, may hold the remains of Philip Calvert, the colony's first chancellor and son of Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. Philip Calvert died in 1682. The second, smaller coffin may hold Philip's grandnephew, Cecil, who died at 14 in 1681.

At first, scientists thought the smallest coffin might hold one of several Calvert children who died during the late 1600s.

But "in England in the 17th century, very few children were buried in lead coffins," Dr. Riordan said. Except perhaps for royalty, "children were not that important in the 17th century because most of them died."

However, he said, it was fairly common for a prominent family to dig up a relatives' bones and rebury them in a new family crypt. Dr. Riordan believes Leonard Calvert, the colony's first governor, is the Calvert most likely to have been dug up and reinterred.

Governor Calvert arrived in the colony with the original settlers in 1634, and is thought to have been buried in 1647, somewhere in the graveyard that surrounds the Brick Chapel site.

The first answer to the mystery surrounding the smallest coffin may come in about three weeks, when scientists begin peering through the lead with gamma ray imaging equipment.

"We're really hoping to see the bones of a 47-year-old man in there," Dr. Riordan said. "To find the first governor and founder of Maryland would be a very important discovery."

After the gamma ray imaging, scientists will pierce the lead and extract what they hope will be unsullied 17th-century air. NASA atmospheric scientists working on the project say there's a 1,000-to-1 chance of that happening.

"But if they do find it, they say it will be the geophysical discovery of the decade," Dr. Riordan said. Comparisons with modern air could reveal much about atmospheric changes since the 1600s.

Once the lead is pierced, fiber-optic cameras will be threaded through the holes to provide the first clear peek inside.

Early in November, if all goes well, the coffins will be moved to a climate-controlled Army Reserve medical tent nearby, where experts will open the coffins.

Chemical studies of the bones may reveal the colonists' diet, health, and even whether they were reared here or in England. New antibody tests may disclose what diseases they endured.

Forensic experts will try to help identify the remains by applying facial reconstruction techniques to the skulls. After 300 years, said Dr. Riordan, "we could see the face of someone responsible for the founding of Maryland."

The Chapel Field area will be open to visitors weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 5 through Nov. 14. Access to the immediate work area will be restricted, but cameras will relay the events to monitors in a visitor's tent. Trained personnel will be on hand to explain the project.

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