Eager scientists begin their exploration of one coffin's interior

October 22, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Crowded around color TV monitors, scientists watched in wonder yesterday as a tiny fiberoptic camera led them on a jerky tour of the inside of a child-sized lead coffin buried here 300 years ago.

The circular color image showed fine, root-like tendrils hanging from the coffin's lead roof; a jumble of rotted material, perhaps from a wooden inner coffin; piles of brown mud washed in by groundwater, and what appeared to some to be part of a skull.

The experts struggled to identify and describe what they were seeing.

"What we're seeing is, it's full of stuff," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City. "It's surprising to me how full it is."

"The roof decay has fallen all over the top of whatever bones are in there," he said.

The coffin is the smallest of three discovered two years ago and

thought to contain the remains of members of Maryland's founding Calvert family.

The two larger coffins were scheduled for drilling today and tomorrow as scientists continue their long-shot search for traces of the pristine atmosphere of 17th century America, sealed, they hope, in the lead coffins.

Yesterday's air sampling of the smallest of the three coffins, as expected, yielded only modern air.

Archaeologists had already noted that a seam in the coffin's lead sheathing had clearly ruptured. Gamma-ray imaging of part of the coffin on Sunday showed no discernible human remains.

The air sampling procedures were carried out anyway as a kind of test run.

In contrast to the small coffin, gamma-ray imaging of the second and third coffins showed good preservation of both human remains and the wooden interiors.

In fact, scientists were trying to contain their excitement about the possible state of preservation of remains in the third and largest coffin. Careful study of the gamma ray films revealed intriguing shadows and patterns that seemed to outline a fully fleshed, if somewhat drawn face.

"There is certainly something there," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist on the project.

"It appears to the eyes of many, including me, to be a well-preserved corpse. . . . Some people can see a face, but the eyes can play a lot of tricks."

Such extraordinary preservation would be a strong sign that the large coffin's interior has remained sealed since the late 1600s.

The chances of finding uncontaminated 17th century air in any of the three coffins are rated as slim, no better than 1 in 1,000. But the potential scientific payoff in validating theories about global atmospheric change caused by human activities would be enormous.

"Scientists have been looking for decades for a sample of air from [a time] prior to global industrialization," said Dr. Joel S. Levine, senior research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

"The unique thing about lead coffins is that they are supposed to be hermetically sealed," he said.

And there is strong evidence that the technology existed in those days to seal and weld such coffins.

In the late 1700s, students broke into the crypt of Lionel Copley, Maryland's first Royal governor, located in the Trinity Churchyard in St. Mary's City.

They reported that Copley's body had decomposed, but that his wife's body, clothing and hair had been exquisitely preserved by her lead coffin after a century.

The air sampling system was designed and operated yesterday by Mark Moore, of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute.

Preliminary analysis of the samples is being done in a mobile lab provided by NASA's Atmospheric Siences Division at Hampton, Va.

After extracting air from inside the coffin, scientists flood the interior with argon, a chemically inert gas that will prevent further decomposition of the coffins' contents.

After the air sampling is complete on each coffin, a second hole is drilled to admit the fiberoptic device.

Supplied by the Olympus Corp., it consists of a half-inch-thick fiberoptic cable that carries a high intensity light into the coffin and returns color images of the interior to scientists via a 7-inch video screen and VHS recorder.

Called Project Lead Coffins, the complex, $400,000 St. Mary's City study has been the focus of intense planning for almost two years.

The presence of at least one lead coffin was first detected by ground-penetrating radar during a 1989 study of Chapel Field, site of the 17th century Great Brick Chapel.

The vanished chapel was the birthplace of Catholic worship in British America. It was demolished in 1705 after the Anglican Church became the colony's official religion and Catholic worship was banned.

The identity of the people buried in the coffins is not known. But experts believe the Calverts were the only family in the colony at the time with the wealth and power to command a costly lead-coffin burial in a prominent spot beneath the north arm of the cross-shaped chapel.

Dating the burial will help to further narrow down the identities. It is already assumed that the coffins were buried between the 1660s, when the chapel was constructed, and 1705 when it was torn down.

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