Third coffin opens . . . to a mystery

November 14, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY -- There were no quick and easy answers yesterday for the scientists who opened the last of three 300-year-old lead coffins discovered here two years ago.

But, like nearly everything else about this project, the adult skeleton uncovered in the ruins of Maryland's first Colonial capital will provide a team of researchers with priceless information about life, health and environmental issues in 17th-century America.

"The value of this is the interdisciplinary approach to understanding these people in their time -- in their social, political, cultural context, their world of disease, and their ecology," said Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist.

The scientists who labored for two years over plans to examine the burial site had hoped to find evidence that the coffins held the remains of members of Maryland's founding Calvert family -- and that yesterday's skeleton was that of Philip Calvert, the colony's first chancellor, who died in 1682.

But when the scientists lifted the wooden lid off the interior coffin at 1:45 p.m., the initials or date they expected to find spelled out in brass tacks on the inner coffin lid simply weren't there. Nor was there a flesh-bearing skull. They, apparently, were optical illusions produced by high-tech fiberoptic and gamma-ray examinations.

Because of debris in the coffin -- some black and some snow-like -- the researchers couldn't immediately determine the occupant's sex or age, although the weight of the bones and other signs argued for an older male.

Now the team of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, pathologists, geologists and pollen, tree-ring and fabric experts will take the remains back to their labs. It may be months, or even years before they're ready to announce their conclusions.

Even with the early uncertainties, scientists were delighted, and expressed confidence that the remains will yield more information than will remains found in either of the other two coffins, which were opened earlier in the week.

"In terms of all the material inside, this one certainly surpasses the other two," said Paul Sledzik, curator of anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

In addition to observing well-preserved leg bones, forensic experts found that the coffin's occupant had shoulder-length hair held in place by copper pins and covered with a fabric cap.

The wooden inner coffin appeared to be in excellent condition, promising to provide historians with tree-ring data that could pinpoint the date of the burial and provide a clue to the identity of the person buried.

"We still have to suppose it's Philip Calvert, because there's no better candidate," said Dr. Lois Green Carr, chief historian for Historic St. Mary's City. Analyses over the coming weeks and months will add many-fold to the data.

The second coffin, opened Wednesday, held the remains of a woman of at least 50. She suffered from a chronic infection of her right thigh bone, the result of a badly healed compound fracture. Speculation about her identity has centered on Anne Wolseley, the first wife of Philip Calvert. She died in 1681.

Dr. Richard Froede, chief medical examiner at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said he has already extracted red blood cells from the woman's skull.

"It's extraordinarily rare," he said. "I think we got enough to do our studies on it." Those tests will include blood typing and immunological studies. One may determine whether the woman suffered from malaria -- a major problem for Maryland's settlers.

The first coffin, opened Monday, contained the remains of a baby about 6 months old, who evidently suffered from scurvy, rickets, or both, and probably other illnesses.

Among the visitors to the Great Brick Chapel site yesterday was Gov. William Donald Schaefer and his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops. The governor viewed the open coffin, got a briefing from scientists and snapped a few pictures with his own camera.

"It's utterly amazing," he said. "I don't have words to describe it."

Although the leg and foot bones of the body appeared intact, everything from the hips to the head looked as if it had been consumed by fire. Nothing of the rib cage and little of the skull was visible. But scientists said that there was bone under the debris and that it was well-preserved.

"DNA extraction should be feasible," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist on the project. Those genetic studies may reveal familial links among the three bodies, an additional aid to their identification.

As for the complex job of sampling the coffin air, exhuming the coffins without damage and beginning the long job of extracting data from the remains, he said, "I am absolutely delighted with how well everything went."

Mark Moore, of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute, who designed and directed the procedures for sampling and examining the coffins' interiors, lifting and opening them, pronounced the operation a success.

"I'm extremely well-pleased," he said. 'We put together a team that worked well together and we succeeded. We handed them [scientists] an opportunity, and they're going to hand us back the information."

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