Lead coffin holds child scientists wonder why

November 10, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Someone in the 17th century Maryland wilderness thought enough of one tiny child to give it the most costly burial available at the time.

The child's remarkably well-preserved remains were found yesterday in the first of three lead coffins to be opened this week in this Colonial capital. The child appeared to have been perhaps a year old at its death.

When the coffin was opened in an Army Reserve medical tent next door to the excavation, lab director Silas D. Hurry ended speculation that it might contain the reinterred remains of an adult.

"Those are some tiny ribs," he exclaimed.

The coffin also revealed a row of vertebrae, two leg bones, an arm bone, a lower jaw, a fragmented skull and pelvis. Scientists could not immediately determine whether they were the remains of a boy or a girl.

There was some preliminary speculation -- from malformed ribs and numerous small holes in the skull -- that the child suffered from some type of deformity or nutritional problem.

"There is a lot going on with this little kid," said Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution. The rib deformities may suggest rickets, a vitamin deficiency. As for the skull perforations, "We're going to look at tumors and things like that," he said.

The discovery also fueled more speculation about the identities of the people buried in the lead coffins -- which were extraordinarily expensive at the time and generally reserved for the most prominent and wealthy citizens.

"For the period, it [the lead coffin burial] is such an unusual action to take," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City.

Clearly, he said, the child took its high social status from its family. "A normal child does not achieve anything to merit burial in a lead coffin."

And in Maryland, during the late 1600s when the grave was dug beneath the town's Great Brick Chapel, the most likely family with that sort of status would be the Calverts, the family of the proprietor, Lord Baltimore, and founders of the colony.

Scientists were also somewhat surprised to find the bones surrounded by brown loam, a rich, peat-like substance, along with partly decomposed fragments of the original wooden inner coffin.

The presence of the coarse loam inside the coffin, along with a pebble and a fragment of brick, raised speculation that the child may have been buried once, then dug up and reburied in the lead coffin.

"There was soil in there, almost suggesting a reinterment," said Dr. Miller.

But Dr. Owsley rejected that idea.

"This is a primary burial," he said, noting that the child's bones were not disturbed from their anatomical arrangement.

The coarse soil resting inside the coffin near the chest area did not wash in, he said. "I think it was intentionally placed there."

But why?

"It's confusing," Dr. Owsley said. "I've seen coffins packed with clay or lime to keep odor down, but that's 19th century stuff.

The human remains and other material were to be sent to the Smithsonian for further analysis.

Tomorrow, scientists plan to open the second lead coffin, which gamma-ray imaging has shown to contain the skeletal remains of a much larger individual.

But the real payoff for investigators will come on Friday, when the third and largest of the three coffins is opened.

The large coffin, unlike the others, is believed to have remained airtight for most, if not all of the 300 years since its burial. Gamma-ray imaging has revealed tantalizing hints of an extremely well-preserved body inside.

Scientists hope that sophisticated biomedical, genetic and chemical testing of the remains will reveal secrets of life and death in 17th century Maryland.

The child's coffin, 31 inches long, 11 inches wide and 9 inches high, was scooped from its resting place just before 11 a.m. yesterday. The delicate procedure was a bit like using a spatula to lift an under-cooked egg from a frying pan, without damaging that egg or the one lying next to it.

Using gear designed and built by the Naval Air Warfare Center at Patuxent River and the Naval Electronic Systems Evaluation Activity at St. Inigoes, engineers first used hydraulic jacks to push a slab of aluminum through the soil beneath the coffin.

The 100-pound coffin, still resting on its bed of soil, was then carefully lifted from the burial pit by a 4,000-pound gantry crane and moved to a baggage truck, where it was wrapped in an orange strap to keep it from falling apart.

As it was wheeled over to the medical tent next door, it passed briefly into the sunlight for the first time in 300 years.

From about 15 yards away, schoolchildren from the Benjamin Stoddert Middle School in Waldorf watched through a chain-link fence. They broke into applause as the coffin was wheeled by.

Inside the medical tent, scientists working in surgical masks and gloves carefully pulled the walls of the lead coffin away from its floor and lifted the shell away.

The lead outer coffin proved to have been shaped around the top and sides of the inner box, and nailed to a lead-covered wooden floor.

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