ST. MARY'S CITY -- In a sort of dress rehearsal for the excavation later this year of three lead coffins believed to hold the remains of Maryland's founding Calvert family, scientists have entered another 17th century churchyard crypt to study the coffins of Maryland's first royal governor and his wife.
Experts on April 30 entered the massive brick burial vault of Sir Lionel Copley and his wife, Anne, in the Trinity Episcopal churchyard. The Copleys died in St. Mary's City in 1694. At a news conference here yesterday, scientists said the daylong entry into the Copley vault, done with permission of church officials, provided them with important data on the construction of lead coffins in the 17th century.
The information was needed as scientists prepare for a high-tech project next October to dig up and open three other lead coffins found in 1990 at the site of the vanished Great Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City.
Those coffins are thought to belong to members of Maryland's founding Calvert family because of the cost and rarity of lead coffins in the 1600s, and their prominent resting place under the north transept of the cross-shaped chapel.
Together, the five coffins are the only 17th century lead coffins known to exist in North America.
Archaeologists believe that one of the supposed Calvert coffins may contain the remains of Philip Calvert, Maryland's first chancellor and half brother of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. Philip Calvert died in 1682.
In addition to confirming the identity of the human remains, scientists hope to extract and study samples of air and pollen sealed inside the coffins since the burials in the late 1600s.
Forensic experts will study any human remains to learn about the colonists' health, and attempt an identification. Other experts want to study and preserve any remnants of wood and clothing.
Historic St. Mary's City is the state's outdoor museum of history, archaeology and natural history, located at the site of Maryland's first Colonial capital. Founded in 1634, St. Mary's City was
gradually abandoned after the capital was moved to Annapolis in 1694.
The six-week project is estimated to cost $400,000, of which $300,000 has already been promised in donated services and equipment.
"But we're still going to have to raise about 100,000 dollars," said Dr. Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City. "You need the money before you start . . . or we don't do it."
St. Mary's City is considered to be the best preserved 17th century archaeological site in North America.
"I think it's going to be not only a fascinating project, but . . . one that will tell us a wealth of information about early America," Dr. Miller said.
Planning for the Lead Coffin Project has been under way since August 1990, when ground-penetrating radar detected coffins below what had been the floor of the Great Brick Chapel, the first Catholic church in English America.
The coffins were partially uncovered in December 1990, then reburied to await planning for a more careful study.
Dr. Miller said there is "a good chance" at least one of the three lead coffins at the Great Brick Chapel site remains sealed after more than 300 years.
Lead coffins were used to improve the preservation of human remains, especially when survivors intended to ship the remains over long distances for reburial.
The October date for the project was chosen because "the heat of summer or very cold conditions can be a real problem, especially if there are very well preserved remains," Dr. Miller said.
Dr. Miller said the condition of the Copley remains represents "the worst-case scenario we would expect to find at the chapel site."
Forensic experts from the Smithsonian Institution noted that the Copleys' skulls had been sawed open and their brains removed before the embalming, a procedure unheard of for Colonial America before now, Dr. Miller said.
The underground brick vault had been entered at least three times before. The first entry was in 1799 when a local medical student, Alexander McWilliams, and a number of companions broke into the vault and opened the coffins. Church officials and others entered the 10-foot-square, 8-foot-high crypt again in 1823 and 1922.
The students found Mrs. Copley's body, hair and clothing well-preserved after a century. Only bones were found of her husband's remains.
Dr. Miller said the team that entered the vault last month found Mrs. Copley's lead coffin to be "incredibly well-made." Its seams were skillfully soldered, which "may explain why she was so well preserved."
Sir Lionel's coffin, by contrast, had been "thrown together" by joining 13 irregular pieces of cast-lead sheeting.
Sir Lionel, 45 when he died, was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall and his bones showed "many injuries," perhaps from his military service, Dr. Miller said.