No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)

Chapter 2. OPENING COFFINS

April 30, 1992
Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland

White headstones dotted the ground of the Trinity Episcopal Church cemetery as Owsley, wearing a blue goose-down coat and a baseball cap against the spring chill, ducked under a tent erected to protect a large monument and the ground around it. A granite coping encased the ground beneath the tent, outlining a family burial plot. A historic preservation team of archaeologists and engineers that headed up “Project Lead Coffins: The Search for Maryland’s Founders,” welcomed Owsley. They had asked him to drive down from the Smithsonian to help them examine the contents of the only two seventeenth-century lead coffins known to exist in America.

While taking notes on his laptop, Owsley watched as the team dug back the soil and exposed a brick surface, through which they chipped a hole. Through the hole they dropped an extension ladder to the floor of an underground vault. It contained the coffins of Maryland’s first royal governor, Sir Lionel Copley, and his wife, Lady Ann Copley. Born in England, the Copleys arrived in Maryland in 1691. Both died shortly after arriving, Lady Copley in 1692 and Lord Copley in 1693. They were the only seventeenth-century individuals known to have been buried on American soil in lead coffins, a sign of royalty or nobility.

But in 1990, archaeologists working at St. Mary’s City, less than a mile from the Copley Vault, discovered the ruins of a 1667 Catholic Church, the first Catholic Church constructed in England’s North American colonies. Maryland was founded in 1634, when Cecil Calvert, an English nobleman who had received a charter to the colony from King Charles I, established St. Mary’s City as the colony’s capital. The Calverts were Catholics, making Maryland the first English colony owned by a Catholic family. Calvert made religious toleration the official policy of the colony, and Jesuits built a church, later called Brick Chapel.

Catholicism was outlawed in Maryland in 1704, and the chapel was subsequently dismantled. The field on which it had stood was used to grow tobacco and wheat over the following two centuries, erasing all aboveground traces of the chapel. Eventually, Maryland declared St. Mary’s City a living museum and authorized archaeologists to dig for the church’s original foundation.

Aided by ground-penetrating radar, the archaeologists detected a dense mass concealed in a grave shaft. It was customary for seventeenth-century Catholics to bury their dead beneath church floors. The dense mass was probably lead coffins. Before exposing the coffins, the archaeologists wanted to learn more about them.

Since the only other lead coffins known to exist were the Copley coffins, the historic preservation team obtained permission from the vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church to examine them. The purpose was to study their construction in hopes of composing a plan to safely recover and preserve the ones believed to be beneath the foundation of the Catholic church. Owsley’s role was to examine the Copley skeletons and provide an assessment of their condition. It would be a rare opportunity to look at remains from one of the oldest known burial sites in the American colonies.

The ladder firmly set, Owsley replaced his baseball cap with a yellow hard hat and descended into the damp and musty Copley vault. Reaching the dirt floor, he immediately spotted the lead coffins. Fallen bricks and broken mortar littered the ground around them. The tops of the coffins had been crudely cut off, the edges crimped and badly damaged. Owsley had expected that. Before his arrival, the research team had shared with him a historic letter dated August 1, 1799, written by Dr. Alexander McWilliams, a surgeon in the navy. When McWilliams was a medical student in the St. Mary’s City area in the 1700s, he and roughly twenty colleagues broke into the Copley vault and forced open the coffins. Such actions under today’s standards would have led to professional sanctions and criminal prosecutions. McWilliams’s letter described what they saw when they pried open the coffins.

We removed the lid and to our surprise saw within another coffin of wood. The lid of this being knocked off, we saw the winding sheet perfect and sound as was every other piece of garment. When the face of the corpse was uncovered it was ghastly indeed, it was the woman. Her face was perfect, as was the rest of the body but was black as the blackest Negro. Her eyes were sunk deep in her head. Her hair was short, platted and trimmed on the top of her head. Her dress was white muslin gown, with an apron which was loose in the body, and drawn at the bosom nearly as is now the fashion only not so low, with short sleeves and high gloves but much destroyed by time.

In the coffin of the man was only the bones which were long and large. His head was sawed through the brain removed, and filled with embalmment, but he was not so well done as the other, or had been there much longer as he was much more gone.

Owsley knelt down beside the coffins. He lived for moments like this, the anticipation of what he would find beneath the lids fully captivating his attention. It was a rare chance, he felt, to climb into a time capsule and take a journey back to seventeenth-century colonial America.

Surrounded by archaeologists, Owsley was nonetheless alone in his thoughts as he opened the coffin. Lord Copley’s eyes, both still preserved in a dry state, stared up at him. His short hair still existed on the front of his head.

At lightning speed, Owsley processed what he saw. All of Lord Copley’s bones were in the correct anatomical position. The skeleton was in excellent condition, despite signs of some rainwater and debris that had undoubtedly fallen inside as a result of the original break-in. Gingerly, Owsley lifted the two pieces of Lord Copley’s skull and examined them. The cut mark was clean, indicating the skull had been sectioned consistent with seventeenth-century embalming procedures, a process that entailed removing the brain and organ tissue and filling the vault with spices and herbs.

Lady Copley’s skeleton was in a more disarrayed state, with displaced bones. Looking at the skull, Owsley detected numerous tiny cuts, indicating the embalmer had made numerous false starts. The cuts were also cruder. Lady Copley’s sternum had also been sectioned longitudinally.

For Owsley, the Copley skeletons were a book of knowledge, ready to be read and interpreted. They gave an insight into, among other things, seventeenth-century embalming procedures in colonial North America. In those days, opening the sternum to remove and replace vital organs with herbs and spices was common. But Owsley thought of another scenario to explain why the cuts on Lady Copley’s bones differed from those on Lord Copley: an autopsy. He knew that autopsies were performed in the seventeenth century; in those days the scantily documented process involved sectioning the chests and craniums of the dead. Historical records from St. Mary’s City confirmed autopsies being performed in the colony as early as 1642.

Since the vestry would not permit removal of the skeletons, Owsley handled each bone one by one, recording on his laptop their lengths, physical conditions, and any evidence of trauma. Then he documented the condition of the teeth from both skeletons.

When Owsley emerged from the vault, he assured the recovery team that he had gleaned enough information to prepare for the highly anticipated opening of the coffins beneath the Catholic church. The Copley burials would provide some context in which to compare the conditions of the other skeletons. Exhilarated, Owsley could hardly wait to return when it was time to enter the crypt beneath the old Catholic church.