Mystery of the Lead Coffin Baby

A Mystery Solved

 

 

One of the perplexing unknowns of Project Lead Coffins in the 1990s was the identity of the baby in the small coffin. Using a lead coffin was such an unusual form of burial in North America, it makes the baby very unique. This and its placement in direct association with the two adult lead coffins suggests there must have been some type of family relationship. But historical documents provided not a single clue about this child.

 

Forensic Scientist Kari Bruwelheide examining the remains of the Calvert Baby (Courtesy: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution)

Forensic Scientist Kari Bruwelheide examining the remains of the Calvert Baby (Courtesy: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution)

Forensic analysis during the project by Dr. Douglas Owlsey and Kari Bruwelheide of the Smithsonian Institution and other specialists concluded that the baby was about 6 months old, suffered from rickets, scurvy and iron deficiency and was probably a girl. However, they cautioned that the sex was difficult to determine from the physical remains of such a young individual. The child must have had some feeding or digestive problem, but also the practice of swaddling infants meant that the baby was rarely exposed to sunlight that would have allowed its own body to produce the vital Vitamin D to prevent rickets.

 

Based upon a wide range of evidence, the identity of the person in the large coffin was found to be Philip Calvert, the youngest son of the first Lord Baltimore. The middle coffin contained his first wife Anne Wolseley Calvert. However, she could not have been the child’s mother for several obvious reasons; she was in her 60s at death, she was in very poor health, and she died several years before the six month old baby died and was buried.

 

We did attempt DNA analysis but the methods in the mid-1990s were crude and we were only able to retrieve some mitochondrial DNA from the maternal line. We had no prospective mother to compare the baby’s DNA sample with. Thus, it seemed impossible for us to conclusively determine the baby’s identity and this would remain one of the enduring puzzles of Project Lead Coffins. Our best guess was that this might have been the only child of Philip’s second marriage to a young woman named Jane Sewall, but that was speculation.

 

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Lead Coffins as uncovered at the site of the chapel at St. Mary’s City in 1992. Philip Calvert on the right, Anne Calvert in the middle and the baby on the left.

 

This remained the case for two decades until early in 2016. Dr. Owsley learned of the efforts by a Harvard scientist to develop a new DNA methodology that might allow DNA to be more effectively extracted from archaeological remains, even potentially paternal DNA which was not previously possible. Dr. David Reich of the Department of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School and his team have led research in trying to obtain DNA from ancient people, as far back as Neanderthals. His goal was to obtain both paternal DNA along with maternal DNA from archaeologically excavated human remains. Owsley proposed that the new methodology might help answer a notable question from colonial times, specifically the identity of the lead coffin baby. Reich agreed to assist us and HSMC eagerly gave permission for the testing.

 

The results came back in September of 2016. Paternal DNA proved that the baby was indeed related to Philip Calvert, but their maternal DNA indicated they had different mothers. A father and child relationship is the most likely explanation for this, given the ages of the people. And we were surprised to find out that the baby was a little boy instead of the girl we had long thought. That means Philip Calvert knew he had a son and heir before his sudden death on January 14, 1683. But sadly, the archaeology and forensics shows that his son only survived three to four months longer, before he succumbed to nutritional deficiency diseases. The second wife, Jane Sewall Calvert, is almost certainly the mother and she must have thought that since his father had been buried in lead, the son deserved a similar treatment.

 

 

The technical report on this finding is provided here, courtesy of Dr. Reich and Dr. Owsley.  It is also available along with the raw data on Reich’s Harvard website.

 

Such a finding could not have been made even two years ago. New methods and techniques mark the progress of science and frequently allow us to resolve puzzles of the ancient and not so ancient worlds, like early Maryland. HSMC wishes to express its gratitude to Dr. Reich and his team as well as our Smithsonian colleagues led by Doug Owsley in solving this mystery, which for so long was thought to be unsolvable.

coffins_2016

In 2016 the lead coffins were returned to their original burial location inside the rebuilt chapel of 1667, under a glass floor so visitors may observe them.

When analysis is completed by the Smithsonian, all the human remains excavated from the Chapel site will be placed in the same vault where the three lead coffins now rest, with a formal funeral service. This interment area will not be visible to the public out of respect for the individuals. However, they will be accessible if future scientific methods are developed that let us learn even more from these people, perhaps as with the Calvert baby, even revealing the identities of some of these long forgotten founders of Maryland.

 

 

DigDeeperDig deeper into the mystery of the baby in the lead coffin.

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