A woman of a certain age awaits her admirers today

April 05, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

After more than 300 years in the darkness of a forgotten grave, the face of one of Maryland's earliest and most prominent settlers will be set before the public today.

Described as "striking" by scientists, the woman's face has been reconstructed from the skull recovered in November 1992 during the excavation of three lead coffins from beneath the ruins of the 17th century Great Brick Chapel in St. Mary's City, the state's first Colonial capital.

Dressed and coiffed in a 17th century style, the woman was expected to be the dramatic highlight of a news conference today at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to announce the first scientific results of the investigation.

"Really, she mesmerizes you," said Dr. Henry Miller, chief archaeologist for Historic St. Mary's City. "It's a very poignant image."

Officials refused to release photographs prior to the 2 p.m. unveiling.

They were also withholding any announcement on the identities of the woman, the 45- to 55-year-old man and the infant buried beside her.

Scientists were to confer one last time today prior to the news conference to resolve several nagging issues and reach a final conclusion.

The speculation thus far has pointed toward members of Maryland's founding Calvert family. The expensive lead coffins and the honored position under the chapel's north transept suggest a Catholic family of wealth and influence.

The man may be Philip Calvert, the colony's first chancellor, who died in 1682 at 56 and was a half-brother to Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore.

Speculation about the woman's identity has focused on Anne Wolseley, Philip's first wife, who died in 1681 in her late 40s or early 50s. They remain strong contenders.

But historians have compiled a list of 10 other male candidates -- including Thomas Notley, the colony's fourth governor, who died in 1679, and Edward Pye, a prominent planter who died in 1696.

The final identification must survive detailed comparisons of historical data with the new archaeological evidence.

No attempt has been made yet to identify the remains using genetic data, Dr. Miller said.

Scientists are confident they can isolate the adults' mitochondrial DNA -- a type that passes almost intact along a maternal bloodline. But due to the costs involved, no comparisons with modern descendants will be tried until researchers can agree on likely identifications.

Sharon Long, a University of Wyoming forensic artist, rebuilt the woman's face with modeling clay from a precise cast of the skull -- and has been kind.

When she died, the woman was in her 50s to early 60s, emaciated and terribly ill. Her right leg had been broken and healed badly with a chronic bone infection. She also suffered from osteoporosis, arthritis and spinal degeneration, and had just five teeth left, none of which met.

Made her younger

"We didn't think it would be proper to bring her back to that point," Dr. Miller said. "So we made her younger . . . probably in her mid-40s."

She had brown hair, and the artist gave her blue eyes.

Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian who helped identify victims of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, was present when the coffins were opened. He advised Ms. Long and has performed detailed studies of the remains.

The skull, he said, is remarkably long and narrow, with oddly placed eyes. Dr. Miller said the woman was 5 feet 3 inches tall. She was buried in a linen shroud, her wrists tied with silk ribbons.

Rosemary, the herb of remembrance, was sprinkled in her coffin.

Neutron activation analyses of her hair by Mark Moore, of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, and scientists at Kansas State and Pennsylvania State universities, found enough silver in her hair to suggest she normally wore silver jewelry there.

"That's an indicator of high status," Dr. Miller said. The piece was not buried with her.

More hair analysis

Scientists plan to perform more detailed chemical analysis of her hair, centimeter by centimeter, to learn about her diet and medical treatment during the last year of life.

"One of the things we can already say is that she clearly had been ingesting large quantities of arsenic, probably as medical treatment," said Dr. Miller.

A deadly poison in sufficient dosages, arsenic was a component of many cosmetics and medicines of the time.

What was going on? Probably not foul play, according to Dr. Miller. "It's more likely they were trying to treat and help her."

Man was healthy

The man whose remains were recovered from the largest lead coffin had been in good health.

He was about 5 feet 6 with shoulder-length auburn hair. "From the ruggedness of the musculature marking the bone . . . he was right-handed," Dr. Miller said.

That information may prove useful in making an identification. Maryland state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse and Dr. Lois Green Carr, chief historian for Historic St. Mary's City, have compiled handwriting samples to eliminate any lefties from the most likely candidates.

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