Mysterious Coffins Featured In New Exhibition

Mysterious Coffins Featured In New Exhibition

Historic Find Sheds Light On St. Mary’s City


Contact: Laura Rodini [email protected] 410-685-3750 Ext. 322 

BALTIMORE, February 20, 2015 –- The Maryland Historical Society proudly presents a new exhibition, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Coffins: Living and Dying in 17th Century St. Mary’s City’ that will open on Maryland Day, March 25, 2015. The coffins, which are made of lead, held members of the Calvert family and represent the only physical remains of Maryland's founding family scholars have ever recovered. The exhibition contains the coffins in the exact arrangement as they were discovered in the foundation of the Jesuit Chapel, the oldest brick building in Maryland. 


Visitors will gain vivid insights into seventeenth-century life from what settlers ate to the often gruesome medical practices they faced to their religious and burial customs that present a complete view of the harsh reality of seventeenth-century living. In addition, ‘A Tale of Three Coffins’ will highlight the process of archeological investigation, including film footage of the surprising discovery made in 1990. The exhibition will run through December 6, 2015; after which time, the coffins will be reinterred beneath the chapel in St. Mary’s City.


“The Maryland Historical Society regards this project with great respect,” says Maryland Historical Society President Burt Kummerow. “For a short while, we will serve as the guardians of these coffins, which belong to Maryland’s founders. We wish to tell their story to as many people as possible. Because the coffins will be reburied, this is literally the only time you will be able to see them before they returned to their original location in the recreated 17th century Chapel in Historic St. Mary's City. ”


A Short History of the Discovery


Aerial photo of St. Mary’s City, courtesy Historic St. Mary’s

In 1634, a new English colony was founded in the northern Chesapeake, at a place the settlers named St. Mary’s City. The English crown granted the land to a Roman Catholic — Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore. Maryland had no established state religion.


But in 1688, a revolution in England overthrew James II. The Calverts lost control of the charter, Maryland became a royal colony, and, as religious freedom ended, the Jesuit Chapel was locked shut. Maryland’s capital moved to Annapolis. St. Mary’s City was abandoned and turned into farmland, which was a blessing in disguise. This rural setting helped to preserve the fragile ruins of the early settlement under a thin layer of plowed soil.


In the 1970s, archaeologists began explorations on behalf of Historic St. Mary’s City (HSMC), the Maryland state museum at the site of the colony’s first capital. In 1983, they found the Jesuit Chapel’s foundation. Dr. Henry Miller and Dr. Timothy Riordan embarked on a five year-investigation in 1988, locating the cemetery and excavating 68 burials. Smithsonian forensic anthropologists analyzed the remains. Their work marked the first large, systematic study of seventeenth-century skeletons and burial practices in the Chesapeake.


“The Chapel site gave us many fascinating insights about the people who built early Maryland, their lives, work and medical conditions, as well as the care they were given in death,” says Dr. Henry Miller. “It showed that surviving was a challenge and success even harder, making us have an even deeper appreciation of their achievements in creating a new society on the shores of the Chesapeake.”


What’s On Display in ‘A Tale of 3 Coffins’


The capstone discovery was the three lead coffins buried deep inside the Jesuit Chapel’s foundations. ‘A Tale of 3 Coffins: Living and Dying in 17th Century St. Mary’s City’ displays the coffins in the exact arrangement as they were discovered.


• The largest of the three lead coffins contained the poorly preserved, possibly embalmed remains of a male in his mid-50s, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, right-handed, with no evidence of heavy physical labor. Carbon-isotope testing indicated that he was English but had lived in Maryland several years. Pollen evidence in the coffin indicated that he died in the winter.


Only one man matched the male’s forensic profile—Philip Calvert, son of the first Lord Baltimore. He had come to America in 1657, and served as Maryland’s governor, chancellor, and chief judge. He died in the winter of 1682-1683.


• A woman’s coffin was placed close to his in an arrangement typical of a husband and wife. His first wife, Anne Wolseley Calvert, matched the forensic profile of the female buried there.


• The smallest coffin contained the remains of an infant buried later than the other two. Much mystery surrounds the child, and to whom it belonged. Portions of the skeleton of the child will be on display; its bones are very fragile and some are quite small. An investigation into the child’s life reveals it suffered from extreme maladies, such as rickets, and was possibly swaddled to death. “There was much sadness in this coffin,” says Miller.


The Brutal Reality of Life in the Chesapeake


Bone and burial data reveal the rigors of life in the Chesapeake. Brutal summer heat and humidity taxed the colonists’ endurance. Heavy labor and outbreaks of conflict could gravely injure them. No one escaped illness. Limited medical knowledge and lack of larger family support made their lives even more precarious.


In addition to the coffins, the archeological investigations uncovered the remains of ‘everyday life,’ such as houses, pots, and food. Using these details, archeologists have been able to piece together remarkable insights into the colonists’ lives.


Other items to be featured include:


• Handprints and footprints discovered in brick
• Personal effects, such as rosary beads
• Advertisements from the era illustrating gruesome medical practices, including death from plague and ‘toothache’
• Forensic evidence of Anne Wolsey’s tooth decay
• Rosemary sprigs, discovered within the coffin. They were considered ‘symbols of remembrance’
• And more


“It is very fitting that this exhibit will be opening on this Maryland Day, the 381st birthday of the Old Line State,” says Kummerow. “Maryland deserves a special day to honor its important place in American History. With this special Maryland Day partnership between Historic St. Mary’s City and the Maryland Historical Society, visitors will have an opportunity to pay homage to the brave settlers who founded our state against long odds.”


The Maryland Historical Society thanks Dr. Douglas Owsley, Dr. Kari Bruwelheide and Vicki Simon of the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History for their able assistance.


This exhibition is made possible by The Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maryland, with additional support from Historic Saint Mary's City, the Society of the Ark and the Dove, Colonial Lords of the Manor, Hereditary Order of Descendants of Colonial Governors Chapter I – Baltimore, Maryland – The Colonial Dames of America and The National Society of the Colonial Dame of America in the State of Maryland (NSDCA-MD).


About The Maryland Historical Society


Founded in 1844, The Maryland Historical Society Museum and Library occupies an entire city block in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore. The society's mission is to "collect, preserve, and interpret the objects and materials that reflect Maryland's diverse cultural heritage." The Society is home to the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner and publishes a quarterly titled "Maryland Historical Magazine." Visit


For more details, contact Marketing Director Laura Rodini at [email protected] or by phone: 410-685-3750 ext. 322.