Scientists extract more air from St. Mary's coffins

October 24, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Crouched at the bottom of a 17th-century grave, hopeful scientists yesterday extracted more than 2 liters of air from a sealed lead coffin.

But they'll need the best 20th century equipment to show if the air is free of modern pollutants -- and the key to a breakthrough in atmospheric science.

Initial analyses by NASA researchers failed to confirm whether the coffin air has, in fact, been sealed off since the 1600s. The samples, in steel cylinders, were sent to a better-equipped lab in Virginia for further analysis over the weekend.

"If it's a 300-year-old sample, it will provide an important baseline to understand what the atmosphere was like prior to global industrialization, and the impact of human activity on the atmosphere," said Dr. Joel Levine, senior researcher at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

But just knowing that the lead coffin appeared to airtight brought smiles to the faces of the elated scientists who have been planning the study for two years.

Two other coffins tested here this week showed air leaks. Knowing this one was its last chance, the team worked with surgical intensity to carry out the 138 steps of the carefully choreographed operation.

Earlier gamma ray images of the coffin's interior showed the human remains inside to be in a high state of preservation.

Fiberoptic examination of the coffin's interior yesterday showed the wooden interior coffin to be intact. That was in sharp contrast to the first two coffins examined this week. Unfortunately, the hole drilled to admit the camera to the third coffin yesterday was too high to reveal any human remains.

After an initial analysis of the air samples at a portable laboratory yesterday afternoon, NASA atmospheric scientists said their findings were inconclusive -- probably because there were too many compounds from the decomposing body for their portable equipment to sort out.

What the scientists are trying to measure is the presence, or absence of freon.

Freon is a chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, one of a family of compounds blamed for the deterioration of the

ozone layer that shields the Earth from ultraviolet radiation.

Since they were first manufactured as refrigerants in the 1940s, CFCs have dispersed throughout the atmosphere.

Their absence in the coffin air would confirm that the samples are at least older than the mid-20th century. And coupled with the condition of the coffin's contents, a strong case could be made for it being real 17th century atmosphere.

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

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