Alas, Poor Philip, We Know Him Not

April 10, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Walking in the fields earlier this spring I came across the skull of a squirrel, so white in the afternoon sunlight I thought for a moment it was a golf ball. As I picked it up it fell into two pieces in my hand.

At first I wasn't sure it was a squirrel, but a little forensic scratching around in the grass turned up the rest of the skeleton. There was a little hair still attached to the tailbone. I left most of the bones where they were, but put half the skull in my pocket to take home to show my daughter.

Later, after we'd wondered how the squirrel had died, and contrasted the fragility of the bone with the hardness of the teeth, we put the little artifact aside. It ended up in the old ashtray on the kitchen table where paper clips, broken pencils and other valuables seem to accumulate. It was still there Wednesday, as I sat at the table reading the newspaper.

On The Sun's front page that day was the story about the dead Calverts, two adults and a child exhumed from 300-year-old graves in St. Mary's County.

Researchers think they have established that the bodies are those of Philip Calvert, his first wife Ann Wolsey Calvert, and his infant daughter by a second wife.

The Calverts' crypt was discovered a year and a half ago, and since then has been the cause of great delight in archaeological circles. At one point it was suggested that their lead coffins might contain ''300-year-old air,'' but unfortunately it turned out that the bodies had not been vacuum-packed, and the air around them was as polluted as that we breathe today.

Science aside, researchers from the Smithsonian Institution recognized immediately that the Calverts' cadavers, marketed right, could have enormous publicity value.

So, like Geraldo Rivera about to open Al Capone's tomb on prime-time television, they turned to secrecy and showmanship. In order to whet public interest, their scientific findings -- including the presumed identities of the deceased stars of the show -- were kept closely guarded until their release at a Washington media event.

After I'd read and listened to the news reports, I wondered if there wasn't something just the slightest bit obscene about the whole thing.

What would Ann Calvert's survivors have thought, as they walked away from her grave after her funeral in 1680, if they'd been told that in 314 years her bones would be on public display? They'd perhaps conclude that all efforts to civilize this rough new continent had failed, and that the savages they were trying to wrest it from had thrown the colonizers back into the sea.

What would Philip Calvert himself have thought, had he been present at the Smithsonian to hear himself described, on the basis of his skeletal remains, as ''corpulent'' and therefore sedentary? Might he have wished to retort that the life he'd lived, however privileged by contemporary standards, had been a lot harder in almost every respect than the lives of those so casually poking at his bones?

One of the researchers announced to the cameras, with an unconscious but overpowering arrogance, that ''we know more about Philip Calvert than Philip Calvert knew about himself.''

Good Lord! They know just about nothing about Philip Calvert, no matter how sophisticated their analysis of his skeleton.

They don't know what he thought when he and Ann first set sail across the broad ocean in 1657, the year chocolate was introduced in London and Oliver Cromwell refused to be called King. They don't know if he felt exhilaration upon his arrival in the New World, or simply an over powering homesickness.

The researchers don't know what Philip Calvert talked about with Ann on the long winter evenings, or if they fought, or if he felt lost when she died. They don't know what made him laugh, or what his favorite season was, or whether his religious faith was genuine or prudently feigned. They don't know these things, and never will.

Then I remembered the squirrel's skull. I took it out of the ashtray and turned it over in my hand. All they're doing is what I'm doing, I realized. They have some bones, and they're wondering about them, the way the living usually do when they come across the remains of the long-dead.

It isn't really obscene, or even disrespectful. It's just curious. ''The past is a foreign country,'' wrote L.P. Hartley in the opening lines of his novel ''The Go-Between'' ''They do things differently there.'' And one of many ways of trying to understand the foreign country of the past is studying old bones.

Eventually, after we've had our look at them, the Calverts' bones will be returned to the earth. So will the squirrel's skull.

While it's a prerogative of the living to look at bones, in doing so it's important to observe the proprieties, because someday somebody might be looking at ours.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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