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


November 9, 1992
Chapel Field
Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland

Ever since laying eyes on Sir Lionel Copley and Lady Ann Copley in the lead coffins buried beneath Trinity Episcopal Church, Owsley had conjured up images in his mind of what he’d find in the lead coffins entombed in the foundation of seventeenth-century Brick Chapel, which shared the same property. The day had finally arrived to look inside.

The sign reading LEAD COFFINS had an arrow pointing toward a ten-acre field encased by an old farmhouse, a barn, and tall trees. In the middle of the field, television satellite trucks parked along the outside perimeter of a chain-link fence erected around the exposed foundation of the Brick Chapel. After showing his credentials to a security guard at an opening in the fence, Owsley entered, walking past two portable toilets and into a green-and-white nylon tent that covered the crypt found beneath the church’s foundation. Under the tent, the U.S. Navy had constructed a cradle system to hoist the lead coffins—two of which weighed five hundred pounds or more—from the crypt. Before their removal, an engineer from the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute used nuclear-powered gamma rays to take X ray–like pictures through the metal and discovered that only one coffin appeared sealed. NASA scientists then used a tiny borescope to extract an air sample from the sealed coffin. They hoped to obtain seventeenth-century air that could provide priceless information about changes in the earth’s atmosphere over three centuries. But even the ancient air taken from the sealed coffin contained some modern gases composed of man-made substances that did not exist in the 1600s, including Freon.

While waiting for the first coffin to be lifted from the crypt, Owsley left the recovery tent and entered an adjoining tan field hospital tent set up by the U.S. Army Reserve. It was equipped with examination tables and medical instruments, and provided a controlled environment in which Owsley and his colleagues could remove and analyze the contents of the coffins. While Owsley put on a white medical coat and rubber gloves, his assistants, twenty-six-year-old Kari Sandness and twenty-five-year-old Pam Stone, prepared for the first coffin to arrive.

Sandness laid out the magnifying glasses, tweezers, brushes, dental picks, rulers, and other instruments needed to analyze the skeletons. Owsley had met Sandness while visiting the University of Nebraska, and after she obtained her Master’s degree in physical anthropology, Owsley hired her as his personal assistant. Behind her Meg Ryan looks, Sandness had an unusually high level of skill and professionalism for someone fresh out of graduate school. Her job title was officially Museum Specialist. Unofficially, she was Owsley’s troubleshooter.

Stone, a new intern who was about to start her graduate studies in anthropology, set up a laptop. Her internship duties included making an on-site computerized record of all the skeletons Owsley examined. Smithsonian photographer Chip Clark, a burly, barrel-chested man, rounded out the team. He positioned his equipment alongside the main observation table. His photographs would become part of the historical record archived at the Smithsonian.

As soon as they were ready, the first coffin, a crudely made lead box, was raised up and brought before Owsley. It was less than three feet long and eight inches wide. Inside they found a wooden box, the top of which had deteriorated. Soil was inside it. Beneath the soil, Owsley spotted the skeleton of an infant. Its lower legs were missing; some shroud pins and finely woven linen remained.

Owsley looked at the skull and noticed a cluster of tiny circular holes. With a flashlight, he leaned over the coffin, peering directly into the holes. He searched for fracture lines or other signs of trauma on the skull. There were none, leaving him to conclude that the holes had been caused by something internal, a cranial infection of some sort.

Carefully inspecting the infant’s other bones, Owsley saw lesions on the ribs, a sign that, when coupled with the skull’s condition, convinced him that the infant had had rickets, scurvy, and chronic anemia. He had seen the same symptoms in some American Indian infant skeletons racked with rickets, a disease that stems from a lack of vitamin D and insufficient exposure to sunlight, resulting in defective bone growth. The holes in the infant’s skull were likely the result of an inflammation tied to the rickets. He figured the Colonial practice of bleeding diseased patients had probably exacerbated the infant’s anemia. “This was a terribly sick little child,” Owsley said.

Using tweezers, he collected tiny bone fragments and had them taken to the portable X-ray tent. Stone recorded a complete inventory of each bone.

Next the engineers brought in a five-hundred-pound coffin. It too contained a wooden box, with an adult female skeleton. She had been buried in a linen shroud. Her wrists, knees, and feet were bound in silk ribbon. Rosemary sprigs lay across her body. Everything was consistent with seventeenth-century English burial practices.

Instantly it was clear to Owsley that he was witnessing the best-preserved seventeenth-century colonist ever discovered in North America. Desiccated skin tissue still adhered to the bones. Body and scalp hair were present. Most of her teeth were missing, but the ones that remained showed signs of abscess and extremely heavy wear.

Examining her bones, he noticed that her right leg was shorter than her left leg. The right femur had a spiral fracture. Judging by the condition of the bone regeneration along the fracture lines, he gauged that the woman had broken her leg two to five years before she died and that it had been improperly reset, resulting in her walking with a limp until she died. The poorly set leg might have had some connection to her death too, as the bones from the lower part of her right leg were inflamed, indicating she was suffering from infection at the time she died.

As the intrigue and mystery over the identity of the skeletons mounted, the number of reporters and interested spectators from the surrounding county grew outside the medical tent. By the time the final lead coffin was hoisted from the crypt and brought into the examination area, ABC’s Nightline crew was on hand to observe. The coffin was the largest, best-crafted of the three, a six-sided box with iron handles at the head and foot. A cedar coffin rested within.

When the engineers opened the lid, Owsley was speechless. From the waist down, the skeleton’s bones were in excellent condition. But the upper body and nearly the entire skull were reduced to white crystals. Almost no bone remained. Yet eight-inch strands of shoulder-length auburn hair were perfectly preserved.

Examining the hip and leg bones, Owsley could tell the remains were male. Measurements confirmed he was about five and a half feet tall at the time of his death. None of his bones showed signs of trauma or infection.

Speculation over the skeletons’ identity mounted. Surely they had been Catholic. And the lead coffins and elaborate burial confirmed that they had been wealthy and most certainly of nobility. Plus, they had to have died before the Brick Chapel was dismantled at the close of the seventeenth century.

The next step was to transport the skeletons to Owsley’s lab at the Smithsonian so that he and his team could confirm their age, sex, race, and cause of death. Historians were busy checking St. Mary’s City records for Catholics who died prior to 1700 and would have qualified for lead-coffin burials. Pollen samples were taken from the coffins, the results of which would determine the season that each individual died. Scientists also collected over a dozen types of insects, which constituted the only substantial collection of seventeenth-century American insects. Once identified, they would help confirm the seasonal evidence provided by the pollen samples. And hair samples were collected from both adult skeletons, another seventeenth-century first. Since hair generates a record of ingested foods as it grows, analysis of hair strands can provide a record of diet in the months leading up to a person’s death. With all this information at his disposal, Owsley’s task was to help answer the ultimate question: Who were the individuals in the coffins?

December 2, 1992
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Snow fell lightly as a black hearse backed up to the rear loading dock and a tall, well-built funeral-home director in a dark blue trench coat stepped out. Owsley, in his white lab coat, helped him wheel out a contemporary silver casket with chrome handles and maneuver it onto a yellow hydraulic lift. Elevating to the dock, they wheeled the casket into the museum and up to Owsley’s office.

Owsley’s assistant Kari Sandness removed clear plastic containers that held the remains recovered from St. Mary’s City. One by one she unpacked the bags and assembled them on the table in anatomical order. While she documented, Owsley identified the remains.

His analysis of the adult male skeleton went quickly. Without a cranial vault, Owsley couldn’t certify the man’s race. Nonetheless, he knew the individual had been Caucasian, as few Blacks were present in early colonial Maryland and it was most unlikely that anyone other than a Caucasian would receive such a royal burial at that time. Owsley detected arthritis in the individual’s knees, ankles, and various other bones. Analyzing the arthritic bones under a microscope and the seventeen teeth, all of which showed almost no wear or calculus deposits, he estimated the age at death was in the range of forty-five to fifty-five years.

So the profile was complete. Coffin one contained a forty-five-to fifty-five-year-old white male who stood five feet, six inches tall, with shoulder-length reddish hair. His bones showed no signs of trauma or infectious disease. At the time of his death, he was suffering early stages of arthritis.

When Owsley lifted the bones of the adult female, he sensed they were unusually light. The more he handled them, the more convinced he became that she had had severe osteoporosis, a disease that erodes bone density. The bones also showed signs of widespread arthritis and malnourishment.

Using a dental pick, he examined her remaining teeth. Twenty of them had abscessed or been lost prior to death. None of her remaining teeth were touching each other. Observation of her hair samples showed that she had ingested large doses of arsenic in the weeks leading up to her death. The arsenic in her system could have been a result of poisoning. But Owsley doubted it. The condition of her bones suggested the arsenic was probably administered as a medication to treat her disease.

After taking measurements, he estimated her age at fifty-five to sixty-five years at the time of death. She was five feet, three inches tall and walked with a limp due to her leg fracture.

The third coffin contained a five-to six-month-old infant, likely a female that was suffering from rickets and iron and vitamin deficiency at the time of her death.

Results from the pollen lab suggested the infant was buried in the spring.

The adult female’s coffin had signs of ragweed, indicating an autumn burial, while the lack of pollen in the male’s coffin suggested a winter burial. The insects from all coffins confirmed the findings.

Owsley’s composite information was turned over to the research recovery team and coupled with the other profile data gathered by researchers and scientists. Only one man matched all the evidence: Philip Calvert, the youngest brother of the colony’s founder and a man of wealth and power. The half brother of Lord Baltimore, Philip arrived in Maryland in 1657 and served as governor from 1660 to 1661. From 1657 to 1682 he was the colony’s chief judge, negotiating and enforcing all treaties with American Indians. He also restored religious toleration. In 1678 he built a large home in St. Mary’s City and called it St. Peter’s. He owned 3,900 acres when he died in 1682. William Penn was among those who paid their respects.

A process of elimination identified the female skeleton. The coffin beside Philip Calvert’s was positioned in a manner typical of the way husband and wife would have been buried in those days. Philip’s first wife, Anne Wolsey Calvert, fit the age profile Owsley found. Born into a prestigious English Catholic family, Wolsey married Philip in England and died in Maryland in 1680.

Identifying the Calverts deepened the mystery of the child’s identity. Historical documents said Philip died without children. And Owsley’s age profile of Lady Calvert placed her at approximately sixty when she died, making it virtually impossible that she could have given birth to the child. Nor would her deteriorated physical condition been conducive to child bearing.

Also, infants were rarely buried in lead coffins. Even royal children in England usually did not receive lead-coffin burials, especially female children.

The focus next shifted to Philip’s second wife, Jane Sewall, a younger woman whom he married shortly after his first wife’s death and just before his own passing. Researchers agreed that the baby was probably hers. After Philip’s passing, Sewall returned to England, where she later died and was laid to rest.

At the conclusion of Owsley’s work, all three skeletons were stored in his lab. Eventually, they would be returned to historic St. Mary’s City for reburial underneath a yet-to-be-constructed new Brick Chapel, complete with historical markers indicating their identity and honoring their contribution to Maryland’s colonial history.