Effort to unearth historic coffins undeterred by rain

October 10, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Heavy rains didn't slow the digging yesterday in the Chapel Field in St. Mary's City, where archaeologists are preparing to unearth three lead coffins containing what may be the 300-year-old remains of members of Maryland's founding Calvert family.

Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City, Inc. which is coordinating the high-technology study, said the excavation is sheltered by a tent and that by next week the climate there will be controlled by a portable heat pump supplied by the Army Reserve.

"We're going to try to maintain the interior at about 60 degrees, which is the ambient ground temperature," he said. "The coffins have been at that temperature for 300 years, and our consultants say it could be harmful to the contents if there are any radical temperature changes."

The lead coffins were uncovered in November 1990 within the foundation ruins of the Great Brick Chapel, the birthplace of Catholicism in British America, which stood in the Colonial capital from the 1660s until 1705.

After nine days of digging, archaeologists have not exposed the coffins. They are digging just south of the supposed Calvert crypt, studying a variety of features there while clearing space for scientists to work later in the dig.

Dr. Miller said some fragmentary human remains have been found, as expected. The chapel floor, like the land around it, was used as a burial ground by the colonists.

Archaeologists also have identified traces of a post hole, about a foot square, that may have held a support column for the brick chapel or an earlier wooden structure.

Engineers climbed into a mock grave this week with a replica lead coffin to test the custom-designed machinery that will be used next month to slide a steel plate under the coffins. The plates will be needed to support the coffins -- which may weigh up to a ton -- as they are lifted from the grave.

"We dug a hole near the chapel and got down to exactly the same geological layer the coffins are resting in . . . so the test was as accurate and close the conditions we can expect as possible," Dr. Miller said.

The first gamma-ray imaging of the coffins' contents is scheduled for Oct. 18 or Oct. 19, Dr. Miller said. A few days later, scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to pierce the lead and test for the presence of preserved 17th century air.

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