Coffins May Hold Buried U.S. History : Research: Forensic and genetic studies of the remains of three members of a Maryland family could yield details about 17th-Century life.
Mortuary facilities at Dover Air Force Base, Del., used since the Vietnam War to process the remains of America’s war dead, may soon be pressed into the service of Colonial archeology.
Henry Miller, chief archeologist for Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s first Colonial capital, said that, pending final approvals, three 300-year-old lead coffins thought to contain the remains of members of Maryland’s founding Calvert family will probably be opened at Dover as early as next spring.
“According to our forensic experts,” Miller said, the Dover mortuary “is one of the finest in the world.”
There, the fragile caskets can be opened under carefully controlled environmental conditions to protect their contents.
If enough human tissue has survived, scientists hope to conduct state-of-the-art genetic and forensic tests to help identify the people buried in the coffins, what they looked like and how they lived and died.
The lead coffins were discovered last year beneath a meadow covering the ruins of the Great Brick Chapel in St. Mary’s City. The church was built around 1667 and demolished in 1705.
The largest coffin is thought to contain the remains of Philip Calvert, who died in 1682. He was Maryland’s first chancellor and a half-brother to Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore.
Miller has said that a smaller lead coffin found buried beside the first may contain Philip’s grandnephew, Cecil, who died in 1681 at age 14. The third coffin, sized for a small child, may hold the remains of one of several other children of Charles Calvert, Cecil’s father.
After they were uncovered last December, the coffins were reburied while Historic St. Mary’s City assembled a panel of experts to map a high-tech strategy for studying them and identifying whatever remains they contain.
The preparations, Miller said, have been “like planning for D-Day.”
The first challenge, Miller said, has been to determine how to handle the coffins by learning how they were built in the 17th Century.
A small model coffin was crafted by Mark Moore of the Armed Forces Radio-Biology Institute in Bethesda, Md., and is being tested at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center in Virginia “to figure out how strong these coffins are,” Miller said.
“We modeled it from the data I collected in the field from the smaller of the three lead coffins,” he said. “We learned a lot about how they couldn’t have been built.”
The scientists also were able to estimate the weights of the three coffins. The biggest, Miller said, contains close to 1,000 pounds of lead. The smallest has perhaps 120 pounds of lead.
By January, Miller said, a tent or building will be erected over the chapel site to help dry the soil and protect the excavation. Navy Seabees from Annapolis, Md., have offered to do the work.
“Probably in late February, we will start the excavations to get the work area cleared and get down to the layer where the coffins are,” he said. “In March, we’ll do the uncovering.”
Once the coffins are exposed, scientists will conduct a battery of remote sensing tests to determine the condition of the coffins and their contents.
“NASA people have been urging us to wait another year or more” until a new sensing device is fully developed, Miller said. “But we can’t wait that long.”
Scientists will then pierce the coffins, flood the interiors with inert argon gas and draw off, for study, any 17th-Century air trapped inside.
Donated medical fiber-optic devices will be used to peer into the coffins to determine the condition of any remains.
After they are moved to Dover in a cushioned truck, the coffins will be placed in a controlled atmosphere to exclude modern contaminants. If the remains are intact, the coffins will be opened like lunar rock samples: in an inert, oxygen-free atmosphere by remote-controlled devices or by technicians working in airtight suits.