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Detailed plans readied for study of Calvert coffins


Intricate plans are being made for the excavation and opening of three lead coffins believed to hold the remains of Maryland's founding Calvert family, said Dr. Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary's City.

After archaeologists uncover the upper ends of the three coffins -- the same portions exposed in December 1990 -- Mark Moore of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda will use gamma-ray imaging to peer through the lead and locate bones, nails and wood inside.

Using that information, Dr. Joel Levine, an atmospheric scientist with NASA's Langley Research Center, will select a spot to bore through the lead coffin and extract a sample of the air inside. A fiber-optic device will then allow scientists to look inside. The interior will then be filled with argon gas to prevent decomposition, and the hole will be sealed.

Dr. Gerald Johnson, a geologist from the College of William and Mary, and Dr. Gerald Kelso, a pollen expert with the National Park Service in Boston, will then assist archaeologists in fully uncovering the coffins, examining the soil, dust and pollen layers around them.

More gamma-ray imaging will follow, to examine the lower ends of the coffins. The coffins will then be tested and weak spots will be reinforced before the coffins are placed in metal cradles and hoisted from the crypt.

Before the coffins are moved, William Curlin, Catholic bishop for Southern Maryland, will conduct church rites at the site.

The coffins will be taken to a portable field hospital to be erected alongside the excavation. The structure will provide environmental and bacteriologic controls to protect the remains.

There, the coffins will be opened, and experts in preservation, pollen analysis, physical anthropology and forensic medicine will begin the work of preserving and studying the contents.

Any pollen sealed in the caskets will constitute "one of the most well-dated samples we'll ever get of what . . . the environment was like in one of the earliest cities in America," Dr. Miller said. The pollen "may allow us to establish the season in which the individuals died."

Genetic tests and facial reconstruction may also be done to help identify the remains.

After the scientists' work is completed, the human remains will be returned to their burial place with the appropriate Catholic rites.

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