Scientists peek inside 17th century coffins

October 20, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Scientists excavating what may be the burial place of Maryland's founding Calvert family said yesterday that the contents of at least two of the crypt's three lead coffins appear to be extremely well-preserved after more than 300 years.

The first gamma ray images of the two coffins' contents show apparently well-preserved skulls, with shadows that some scientists suggest may reveal soft tissue, cloth burial shrouds or even hair.

The images also clearly reveal the fine wood grain of the interior coffins, an indicator that the lead sheathing has kept the coffins relatively dry and sound.

"They [the images] are pretty spectacular," said Dr. Timothy B. Riordan, an archaeologist with Historic St. Mary's City and co-principal investigator on the project. "It's more than we expected."

"The technique is not sophisticated enough to tell us what the state of preservation [of the human remains] is," he said. "There are at least bones, but it is all interpretation after that."

Images of the smallest of the three coffins show little, if any, such detail. That, coupled with visible damage to the lead sheathing, suggests that the small coffin's contents have decomposed.

The three lead coffins were detected in 1989, and first uncovered in November 1990 during an archaeological excavation of the site of the Great Brick Chapel.

Built in the 1660s, the chapel represents the birthplace of Catholic worship in British America. It was demolished in 1705 after Catholic worship was banned.

Maryland's colonial capital had moved to Annapolis in 1694, and St. Mary's City slowly fell to ruin. The archaeological remains of the town constitute the nation's best preserved 17th century Colonial capital.

Because of the lead coffins' prominent location beneath the chapel's north arm, and the rarity and expense of such burials in the 17th century, archaeologists surmise that they must contain members of a wealthy, powerful family, probably the Calverts.

The gamma ray imaging is just the beginning of an exhaustive $400,000 study. Scientists are examining the coffins in an effort to learn who was buried in them, and when and how they lived and died.

Beginning tomorrow, scientists from NASA hope to extract air from inside the coffins, on the very slim hope that the air may have remained sealed off from contaminants since the 1600s.

Fiberoptic devices will also be used this week to peer inside the coffins. Pollen experts will collect pollen from inside the coffins for clues to the seasons in which the people died. The coffins will later be lifted from the crypt and moved to a medical tent, where further studies of the remains are planned.

The gamma ray images produced Sunday and yesterday were designed, in part, to reveal how and where the holes for air extraction and fiberoptic cables should be drilled.

The "gammagraph" images -- a sort of high-energy X-ray photograph -- were produced by Mark Moore, head of the radiation source department of the Armed Forces Radio-Biology Institute, with equipment furnished by MQS Inspection Inc. of Philadelphia.

Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City, said the gammagraph of the smallest coffin shows little that is clearly identifiable.

"It's not very clear what's inside," he said. "It may be debris that has fallen down on the bone, or dirt."

Mr. Moore, however, while cautioning that he is not a biologist, pointed to vague shadows on the image and said there may be more. "I believe this is a small skull, and these could be little bones," he said.

Archaeologists have speculated that the small coffin may contain the remains of a Calvert child, or perhaps the reinterred remains of Leonard Calvert, the first governor of the Maryland colony.

The lead sheathing around the smallest of the coffins has clearly come apart, Dr. Riordan said, so whatever human remains are inside will be badly decomposed.

The other two, larger coffins, however, appear to be very well preserved.

The gammagraph of the second-biggest coffin clearly shows the wood grain on the upper walls of the interior coffin, and an apparently intact skull lying on its left side.

Pointing to a shadow along side the skull, Dr. Riordan said it "might indicate at least some soft tissue is present."

Mr. Moore said a subsequent film showed additional shadows that could represent hair, or cloth.

Genetic scientists hope to use any surviving soft tissue for genetic studies. Comparisons with the genetic material of living Calvert family descendants might help to identify the remains.

Studies are also planned to identify disease antibodies and other indications of what illnesses the early colonists encountered during their lives.

Images of the third, and largest of the three coffins, also show the well-preserved grain of the wooden interior coffin.

There is also what appears to be a well-preserved skull, surrounded by some puzzling shadows.

"Is it a shroud cloth?" Dr. Miller asked. "Maybe, but we can't truly say."

The chief reason for the gammagraph study is to determine where to drill through the lead and wood to take air samples.

The study also reveals how the lead sheathing was constructed, aiding engineers who are planning how to support and later open the coffins after they are lifted from the crypt.

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