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Old Coffin Opened, New Mystery Found : Archeology: Scientists had hoped 17th-Century grave would yield secrets, but disinterment brings only more questions.

November 14, 1992|EUGENE L. MEYER | THE WASHINGTON POST

ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. — When the last of three Colonial coffins unearthed here was finally opened Friday, there were no quick and easy answers.

The initials or date that scientists 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 fiber-optic and gamma-ray examinations.

The lead coffin, the largest of three dating from the 17th Century, contained the partly decomposed remains of an adult who had long curly blond hair held in place by copper pins and covered with a fabric cap. Of that much the experts were sure.

But despite great expectations and intense publicity, almost everything else remained a mystery, especially the person's identity. Were these, as some had speculated, the remains of Philip Calvert, the first chief justice and chancellor of Colonial Maryland? And were the others who were buried in similar lead coffins Calvert's first wife, Anne Wolseley, and possibly their 6-month-old child, of whom there is no record?

"Well, we still have to suppose it's Philip Calvert, because there is no better candidate," said Lois Green Carr, chief historian of St. Mary's City, the Colonial capital abandoned in 1694 when the seat of government moved to Annapolis.

"Of course I'm disappointed there were no tacks on the top, and that the body wasn't better preserved," Carr said. "But I am delighted just the same. We may learn a great deal."

Analyses over the coming weeks and months will add to the data.

The modern-day saga of the St. Mary's coffins began to unfold with their discovery more than two years ago in a field long used to pasture cows. Researchers determined that the coffins had been set into the foundation of an early Roman Catholic church that had been dismantled in 1704, when the colony's Protestant rulers outlawed Catholicism.

The St. Mary's City Commission, a state agency created to preserve at least a memory of the vanished town, assembled a team of experts in the fields of forensic pathology, wood, pollen, fiber, archeology, physics and nuclear technology to examine the remains. Various state and federal agencies also sent specialists, and an Army medical unit provided security at the fenced-in excavation site.

Ethical questions were raised and dealt with early. The project won the blessing of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which includes Southern Maryland, and from descendants of the Calverts, Maryland's founding family.

"We had absolutely no negative vibes at all," said Richard Wilson, president of the St. Mary's City Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the commission. "Reinterment, that's the important thing. We're not putting them out to exhibit in some museum or something."

With project costs estimated at $400,000, the organizers accepted all offers of in-kind help, including one from ABC-TV "Nightline" host Ted Koppel, who owns a house nearby. In return for providing St. Mary's City with film for publicity purposes and perhaps a cut of the profits, the network received exclusive filming rights and virtually complete access to the dig.

Media interest increased as scientists speculated that the largest coffin contained air dating back to the 17th Century. The possibly pure, if stale, pre-industrial air even became the subject of satire on "Saturday Night Live." However, tests conducted on the air samples are still inconclusive, said Mark Moore, the project's technical director.

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