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As Historic St. Mary’s City works toward created a permanent display vault in the chapel where the lead coffins can be viewed during regular museum hours, visitors to the site can see the coffins only on certain dates when staff is available to assist. Dates when viewing should be allowed are May 3, June 7 and July 18 from 10 a.m. to noon each day at the Visitor Center. Additional dates may be added later.

For more, visit www.hsmcdigshistory.org or call 240-895-4990.

Henry Miller stood in an alcove in the visitor center at Historic St. Mary’s City one Tuesday afternoon last month. The area was sectioned off by red curtains, protecting the three 17th-century artifacts that Miller, a longtime archaeologist at HSMC, was looking at as he spent an hour trying to describe the objects’ value to archaeologists, historians and to the residents of St. Mary’s County.

Three lead coffins.

They are three different sizes, and only the largest includes handles at either end. They certainly look old. To the untrained eye, however, it may be hard to imagine what significant information these plain objects could impart. But scientists and archaeologists say those coffins and their contents — a high-status man, woman and infant — have filled in a lot of details about life in the early Maryland colony.

They were a “very, very significant discovery,” Miller said.

For instance, colonists apparently tried to keep their teeth clean by rubbing a poultice of tobacco ash and vinegar on them. Wealthier people tended to have bad teeth because they were the only ones who had access to sugar at that time (the woman in one of the coffins only had eight teeth remaining, and only four of them had any enamel left). Chemical analysis of the woman’s hair shows that she had been ingesting increasing amounts of arsenic in the months leading up to her death (perhaps to deal with the pain from her bad teeth).

The remains of both the infant and the woman reveal the poor medical care of the period. For instance, the infant, though probably the wealthiest of the colony, was obviously malnourished and possibly had rickets.

“Life was more difficult than we might have thought,” Miller said.

HSMC was given a grant in 1990 that allowed the excavation of the chapel site, which is visible from Route 5, across the street from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The lead coffins were discovered during that excavation.

A decision was made not to open the coffins right away. Miller and others spent the next two years “planning how to do it right,” he said.

Only two other lead coffins from the 17th century had ever been discovered in North America. And all five coffins were found in St. Mary’s City. “It was a royal way of burial,” Miller said, to explain the rarity of this costly form of interment.

The first two coffins were found in a brick burial vault at Trinity Church. The coffins of Sir Lionel Copley, the royal governor, and his wife, Anne, both of whom died in the early 1690s, were opened by two medical students in 1799. While the students just found bones in the governor’s coffin, when they opened Anne’s coffin, there she was. Her body hadn’t decomposed and they looked face to face with the long-dead woman. It was startling. Her skin had turned black, and she was wearing a cap, Miller said. “Five hours or so later, only bones were left,” Miller said, illustrating the danger of losing information if artifacts aren’t handled correctly.

So, that’s what Miller said he was thinking about when the three coffins found in at the chapel site were finally opened in 1992.

“It was exciting ... at the same time, intense worry,” Miller said with a smile.

What they found were remains in different states of preservation in each of the coffins.

The largest coffin was determined to contain the remains of Philip Calvert, son of the first Lord Baltimore. “One of the leading figures in the colony,” Miller said. He arrived in the colony in 1657 and served as its governor, chancellor of Maryland and its chief judge, according to information provided by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. From the kind of pollen and its concentration in the coffin, scientists believe he died in the winter. He died suddenly, it appears. “Our best guess would be heart attack or some kind of pneumonia,” Miller said.

Philip Calvert “built the largest private house in the colony,” Millers said. “He lived just down the road here.” From an inventory taken at his death in the late 1600s, it is known he was an unusually learned man. He owned an extensive library.

The second coffin contained the remains of Anne Wolseley Calvert, the first wife of Philip Calvert. Pollen evidence shows that she died in the fall. She had lived into her 60s, which was long-lived at that time, Miller said. But despite her advanced age, her hair was completely brown — no gray at all.

Her remains showed that she had osteoporosis and walked with a limp, due to a badly healed broken femur.

The smallest coffin contained the remains of an infant whose identity is uncertain, but who is believed to be the child of Jane Sewell, Philip Calvert’s second wife. It is not clear whether the infant was a boy or a girl.

All three were buried in shrouds, which were placed in wooden coffins, which were then encased with the lead sheeting, a covering that was known to inhibit decomposition.

Finding those three coffins was like winning the lottery for an archaeologist.

“For me, it gives us a direct connection to the founding family of this colony,” Miller said.

“This is on par with our founding fathers,” said Regina Faden, executive director of HSMC, in a later telephone interview.

For the past five years, the coffins have been part of an exhibit, “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake,” on display at the Smithsonian. The exhibit was originally meant to last two years. But “they extended it twice, it was so popular,” Miller said. “They estimate that 9 million people went through it.”

Kari Bruwelheide, a physical anthropologist who worked on the exhibit, said the lead coffins from Historic St. Mary’s City contribute “to a really deep understanding of what life was like in the 17th century ... It is really filling in the gaps in history.”

Bruwelheide noted that what has been learned about Anne Wolseley Calvert and the infant were particularly illuminating about women and children at that time. “In history, those groups have very little written about them,” she said.

The Calverts were “some of the first 17th-century individuals we analyzed,” Bruwelheide said. Since then, she and others at the Smithsonian have considered information from the remains of other individuals, she said.

Like the Calverts, the remains of numerous other 17th-century people were also discovered in and around the chapel at HSMC. Miller said that those remains represent about 70 people total from the St. Mary’s City colony.

All of these remains are still being studied at the Smithsonian. But the three lead coffins and all they represent are back at Historic St. Mary’s City.

“We’re very excited to have them back,” Faden said.

For the next year or so, visitors will be able to see the coffins at special viewing times, which are just now being worked out at the site. During that time, it is hoped work will be done to construct a dry cellar where the coffins were originally found in the chapel, which has since been reconstructed, and install glass over the top, so they will become part of the permanent exhibit there.

The new display within the chapel is estimated to cost $60,000, Faden said. Half of that cost will be funded through a grant from the Southern Maryland Heritage Area Consortium and half will come from the Historic St. Mary’s City Foundation.

Historic St. Mary’s City has applied for a permit to create the lead coffin display with the Maryland Historical Trust and work can’t begin until and if that is granted.

The remains that are being studied will also eventually be returned to the chapel site to be reinterred, Miller said. But no human remains will be visible in the chapel exhibit.

Faden said that the ideals represented by the Calverts were one of the chief things that attracted to her the job as executive director of the historic site. And those ideals and the colony’s beginnings are represented by those three lead coffins, she said.

The Calverts’ “idea that people with different beliefs and ideas could live together ... was such an extraordinary idea at the time. That’s what brought me here,” she said. “We are the stewards of these artifacts ... in trust for Maryland and everyone in the country.”

scraton@somdnews.com