ST. MARY'S CITY -- A 17th-century crypt containing at least three lead coffins, possibly the burial place of Colonial Gov. Philip Calvert and other members of the family that founded Maryland, was uncovered here yesterday.
Discovery of the crypt beneath the remains of the 1667 Great Brick Chapel, the cradle of Roman Catholicism in English-speaking North America, was hailed as among the most significant archaeological finds ever in the state.
"In terms of religious and political significance, it ranks extremely high," said Dr. Edward Papenfuse, state archivist. "It's probably as important as any Maryland site so far."
Ground-penetrating radar revealed last year that a lead coffin might be buried under the church, but it was only in recent days that archaeologists found three coffins in the crypt as well as an unexplained skull and a few bones.
"I wasn't expecting this at all," said Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City, who is overseeing the dig. "To have a Calvert family crypt is really neat. There could be more in there."
The three lead coffins visible so far -- roughly 9, 18 and 30 inches wide, big enough for an infant, an adolescent and an adult, respectively -- have no nameplate or other markings on the halves of their lids now exposed.
But historians think Philip Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore's half-brother, who died in 1682, is buried in the large coffin. Only a man of his wealth and influence could have afforded a lead coffin and been accorded a privileged spot near the altar in the cross-shaped church's north transept, they say.
The medium-size coffin might hold Cecil Calvert, the son of the third Lord Baltimore, historians say. He died in 1681 in Maryland at the age of 14. The infant is also a Calvert, they theorize.
The lead coffins may contain clothed, well-preserved bodies -- which could help establish who they are as well as provide a wealth of information about health, diet, social status and even air quality in Colonial Maryland.
Dr. Miller said the staff would consult with experts before deciding whether to open the lead coffins.
"If we did it, we would want to do it in a sterile, oxygen-free environment," he said.
The dig was briefly suspended yesterday morning so that Philip pTC Calvert's political descendant, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, could arrive to help Molly Quast, 22, a staff archaeologist, dig through the last 2 inches of dirt atop the large coffin in search of a nameplate.
The governor, lying flat on a piece of plywood, dug with a trowel in the crypt for four minutes before rising, slightly flushed but none the worse for wear except for a little dirt on his charcoal-gray suit.
"I just told him to pop up the top layer of dirt, and I would remove it by hand. We had a system going," a relieved Ms. Quast said later.
The excavation of the "Chapel Field" that led up to the discovery of the crypt began in 1988. It is partly underwritten by a $110,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Great Brick Chapel is a symbol of perhaps Maryland's foremost legacy to U.S. democracy -- the right to religious freedom. It was demolished in 1705 after the Calverts lost control of the colony and Catholic churches were banned.
The church was one anchor of the careful baroque plan of St. Mary's City. The other, the 1676 brick State House, was exactly a half-mile away, Dr. Miller said.
The building itself, which measured 60 feet by 58 feet and had a foundation 3 feet thick, was one of the largest structures in Colonial America. Most 17th-century Marylanders lived in 10-foot-by-12-foot wooden huts, Dr. Miller said.
The only structures in St. Mary's that would have approached the church in scale were the State House and St. Peter's, a private residence built in 1679 on the outskirts of town by Philip Calvert.
The Calvert mansion had two brick chimneys and was the size of the Governor's Palace built 25 years later in Williamsburg, Va. In 1694, it was leveled when 17 barrels of gunpowder stored in the cellar mysteriously exploded.
The same quest for grandeur may have led Philip Calvert to import the lead for a custom-made coffin. Domestically, Maryland craftsmen probably shaped a thin covering of lead around a wooden coffin, Dr. Miller said.
Dr. Papenfuse said the cost of the lead alone would have equaled five to 10 years' income for the ordinary 17th-century Marylander.
Lead coffins were extremely rare in Colonial Maryland. No others have been found in the dozens of graves located in the Chapel Field excavation, and only two others have been found in Maryland, those in which royal Gov. Lionel Copley and his wife were buried in 1692.
When students opened the Copley coffins as a lark in 1799, Mrs. Copley's clothes and body were well-preserved, but only a skeleton remained of the governor.
Philip Calvert was born in England in 1626 to the second wife of the first Lord Baltimore. His father sent him to the colony in 1657.
Philip, an educated man who had a vast library for his day of more than 100 books when he died, immediately became a member of the privy council and was governor in 1660-1661 until his nephew Charles arrived to take over.
Relations between the two Calverts were strained, and Charles complained to his father in 1664 that, "What [Philip] has endeavored to doe is to draw the Affections of the people from me which I doe not fear in the least."
St. Mary's relics
The only surviving furnishing from the Great Brick Chapel of St. Mary's City is a 17th-century baroque tabernacle now on exhibit Tuesdays through Sundays at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.
Owned by the Sisters of Mercy, the wooden tabernacle is part of a show entitled "Maryland: First Catholic Colony."
When the chapel was torn down by the Jesuits in 1705 in compliance with laws barring public worship by Roman Catholics, the tabernacle was saved and given to Charles Carroll the Settler, whose descendants presented it to the Sisters of Mercy.