Soil around 3 lead coffins may contain clues to past

November 04, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Soil samples dug last week from above and below the three lead coffins buried in St. Mary's City 300 years ago may hold microscopic clues to what grew in the colonists' fields and gardens.

The clues are the tiny pollen grains that drifted into the graves while they lay open in the late 1600s.

"We do not have any information on what the landscape . . . was like," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Project Lead Coffins.

"Was it all pretty much settled? What kinds of trees and other plants grew there? Pollen is the one tool that can be used to let us reconstruct that ancient landscape."

The types and amounts of pollen grains also may reveal the season in which the graves were dug, and perhaps how long they remained open to the breezes.

The soil will be studied under a microscope and identified by Dr. Gerald Kelso, a National Park Service palynologist, or pollen expert, from Lowell, Mass.

Dr. Kelso spent part of his week taking pollen samples from other sites around St. Mary's City in an effort to assemble a complete chronological record of the changing vegetation that grew on the site from the time before the Englishmen arrived.

"Every time it rains, pollen and other chemicals migrate downward in the soil, and it appears to move at a fairly regular rate," said Dr. Miller.

To identify what grew when, "you need a place where we can measure how far it has moved down, go to that depth and look at the pollen that was being deposited."

"The problem is, pollen only survives for about 200 years before bacteria, oxygen and chemicals in the soil destroy it," Dr. Miller said. To find identifiable pollen older than that, you have to look where buildings stood to protect it from rainwater.

Dr. Kelso drilled soil cores from beneath the 1841 Broom-Howard House and its slave quarters, which should yield pollen data reaching back to the mid 1600s.

Cores from the site of a 1758 granary disassembled and removed several years ago should provide pollen data back to the mid 1500s.

"This is a pioneering effort for us," Dr. Miller said.

Previous pollen studies by Dr. Grace Brush of Johns Hopkins University have provided some data on airborne pollens that fell into nearby creek sediments.

But Dr. Kelso's soil studies should reveal less mobile pollens from the grasses, shrubs, herbs, field crops and garden plants that grew in the Colonial capital.

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