Second lead coffin contains modern air, but remains appear well-preserved

October 23, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Scientists yesterday discovered two tiny holes in the second of three lead coffins buried here in the 1600s, --ing their hope of finding pre-industrial air inside.

But a peek inside the coffin with a fiberoptic camera revealed a well-preserved skull, apparently with skin and thin black hair attached. The find has opened the door to studies that may reveal details of the health, diet and environment of Maryland's earliest colonists.

"We lost the air, but there's probably a lot more things we can capture out of this," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City.

"If it is hair, we can do a lot of important trace element analyses," he said.

As it grows, hair stores chemical elements that can reveal a great deal about a person's diet and health. Soft tissue, such as skin, can also yield antibodies to any diseases to which the person was exposed.

Dr. Miller was also encouraged by the well-preserved bone.

"If we get that kind of preservation on the outside, it means the interior will be superbly preserved," he said. That will enable experts to extract material for genetic studies that might help identify the people in the crypt.

Miller said a team of pathologists, forensics experts and anatomical conservators would meet Monday to review the findings and plan their studies of the remains.

The three coffins are scheduled to be opened beginning Nov. 12.

Today, scientists were to draw an air sample from the third and largest coffin, and then take a fiberoptic look inside. Gamma-ray images made Sunday and Monday suggest it is the best-preserved of the three, with the best chance of being airtight.

The lead coffins were discovered two years ago beneath a field where this Colonial capital's Great Brick Chapel once stood. The chapel was the center of Catholic worship in 17th century British America.

The expensive lead-coffin burial, in a prominent spot beneath the church's north transept, has led archaeologists to believe this may be the family crypt of Maryland's founding family, the Calverts.

The holes in the second coffin apparently were drilled by its maker for the attachment of a handle. They had gone unnoticed until yesterday because no handle was ever found, and the holes were plugged with dirt or corrosion.

By yesterday afternoon, the dry air in the tent had caused the plugs to crumble and fall out.

Meanwhile, scientists have begun a good-natured debate over the age of the person buried in the smallest of the three lead coffins.

Because of the small size of the coffin, archaeologists initially assumed that it held a child, perhaps one of several Calvert children who died during the period in which the Great Brick Chapel stood, from the 1660s to 1705.

But archaeologist Dr. Timothy B. Riordan, co-principal investigator on the project, said children were rarely given such costly lead-coffin burials because so many of them died in those days.

He suggested that the coffin might hold adult bones, perhaps the reinterred remains of Maryland's first governor, Leonard Calvert, who died in 1647, before the Brick Chapel was built.

The apparent skull visible in Wednesday's video image of the small coffin's interior failed to resolve the question.

"I think it's a young individual . . . based on its size," said Dr. Miller.

Mark Moore, of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute, who was directing the air sampling and fiberoptic investigations, said the skull appeared to be just 3 to 4 inches across, clearly too small to be that of an adult.

Dr. Riordan clung to his theory, although he admitted it had been reduced to "a remote possibility."

"We don't have a good view of it yet," he said, "I have to admit it's a very small skull. It's just unusual to have a child buried in a lead coffin."

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