Clues to Early Maryland, #37 – The Mystery of Burial 53

One of the most unusual graves excavated at the Chapel was Burial 53. To prepare the site for the reconstruction, drainage and to collect more data, we excavated a corridor 10 foot wide around the entire exterior of the structure in 1995-1996. Numerous archaeological features were found including scaffolding holes from the Chapel’s construction, two postholes that are probably from the burned 1635 wood chapel, and nearly 60 human graves. Some burials dated between 1635 and c. 1665. Other graves were from the period the brick chapel was in use, and a few from after its destruction. These are part of an estimated 400+ human burials at the Chapel site.

When the foundation trench for the Chapel was originally dug, some earlier burials were cut through by the diggers, and over a dozen of these have been found. Archaeologists working near where the door of the chapel once stood found another burial that also appeared to have been truncated by the digging of the chapel foundation trench. Its location is indicated on the picture here.

The Brick Foundation of the Chapel showing the approximate location of Burial 53.

Working under the direction of Timothy Riordan, the archaeologists found that the top of this grave contained quantities of brick, mortar and plaster fragments from the demolition of the chapel. But as they got deeper, the fill became a sandy soil with virtually no brick or mortar. This implied that the original grave was pre-chapel in date. Riordan directed the crew to work very carefully as they reached the lower portion of the grave shaft where the skeletal remains would be found. As the worked, they detected long dark stains indicating there had once been a wood coffin and found the nails used in its construction. The skull and pelvis, being the highest parts of skeleton, were uncovered first and their size suggested it was an adult.

But something was not right. At the foot end, where it was assumed the brick foundation had cut through the bones, an unexpected gap in the brickwork was revealed. And the foot bones were laying in that gap. The mason had laid the brick foundation around the foot of the coffin, a completely unique situation at the site. This picture shows what the archaeologist discovered.

Grave 53 showing the lower legs and the hole in the foundation. Photo by Timothy Riordan (HSMC)

Excavators proceeded to fully uncover the bones and Riordan then carefully examined the findings. It was clear that the coffin had been buried before construction of the Chapel began. But it must have been quite recent because the coffin wood was still strong enough to support bricks laid over the foot end. Riordan reasoned that in digging the five feet deep and three feet wide foundation trench, the workers encountered the end of the coffin, the top of which was a bit less than two feet below the land surface at the time. Instead of cutting though or moving it, they left the foot end of the coffin exposed in the trench, resting on an undisturbed pedestal of soil for support. Then, when the mason reached this part of the foundation, he placed bricks along the wooden sides of the coffin, creating a 1 foot wide and 9 inch deep niche, and put a thick layer of mortar on the top of the coffin in which to lay more brick. The presence of the coffin disturbed the pattern of brickwork here but in laying the rows of brick above the coffin, he returned to the standard “English” bond used in the rest of the building.

In that act, the mason unintentionally captured the impression of the wood coffin. Wood grain of the boards are clearly visible in the mortar. Measurements show that the coffin was 13 inches high, 10 inches wide at the foot end, and made of boards 3/4ths of an inch thick. Using the wood stains and nails in the rest of the grave, Riordan determined that the coffin was 6.2 feet long, built in a hexagonal shape 16 inches wide at the head end and 19 inches wide at the shoulders. The bottom of the grave was slightly over 3 feet below the land surface, a typical depth for 17th-century burials. Here is the picture of the niche after the excavation was finished, and the bones removed. You can see the natural undisturbed orange colored subsoil at the bottom of the grave and an extension of it into the niche; this is the remnant of the soil pedestal the workers left under the coffin while digging the trench.

Completed excavation of Burial 53 showing the niche for the coffin left in the Chape’s brick foundation.

The grave was a normal Christian interment with the body place on its back, hands resting on the pelvis and the grave oriented east-west with the head on the west end. Analysis by Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution determined that it was an adult male between 30 and 40 years of age. This picture shows the full grave. As can be seen, the skull and body are slightly shifted to the right side of the coffin (left in the picture), probably due to tilting the coffin during transport or in the burial process.

The fully uncovered remains of the person found in Burial 53.

This is the most peculiar burial found at the Chapel site. No other grave was allowed to remain within the foundation trench. And it is also one of the few that contained an artifact intentionally included in the burial. There are two cases in which beads, probably from rosaries, were interred with the deceased. Seventeenth-century practice was to bury the person unclothed, without grave goods, and wrapped in a shroud, following the way Jesus was buried in the Bible. Over time, coffins became more common and were universally used at the Chapel site by the early 1700s. Burial 53 was in a wooden coffin but no shroud or face cloth pins were present; a shroud could also be tied or just draped over the body rather than pinned, and that may be the case here.

It was a surprise when excavators uncovered an oval flat lead object draped over the right arm. It is about 3.5 inches long and 2.5 inches high and features a number of puncture holes. The purpose of this specimen is unknown. The picture below shows it as found, resting on the right humerus of the upper arm. As can be seen, soil pressure in the years after the coffin collapsed deformed it to match the shape of the underlying bone. Riordan evaluated the holes in this object and tried to find letters or numbers but no such pattern is present. A drawing of the object is seen below, oriented to its appearance in the picture. There do appear to be four lines of holes running more or less left to right and one large hole at the bottom on the drawing. The possible lines consist of three holes at the top, two lines with four holes each in the middle and one with three holes at the bottom. One hypothesis is that this was a painted badge affixed to some garment or part of a ceremonial sash that extended over the right arm but no evidence of paint, other decoration, or fabric has survived on the artifact. Nevertheless, the position and deformation of the disk indicates that it was in close contact with the body at the time of burial rather than an accidental inclusion in the grave fill.

Image of the Lead Disk as uncovered in Burial 53 at the Chapel site.

Drawing of the Lead Disk showing the holes. From Riordan’s Dig a Grave Report (2000)

The big questions about this burial are why was it treated so differently and who was the person that merited such an approach? We can say that the coffin must have been recent for the wood still to be strong enough to support the brick. Our best estimate is that work to construct the chapel began in the mid-1660s. It is therefore almost certain that the grave was still visible and perhaps marked and the workers probably knew who the individual was. Moving the coffin to another location would have been feasible since it was still intact. Or simply uncovering the coffin and doing a small amount of new digging at the head end would have allowed it to be shoved 10 or 12 inches westward, moving it out of the way of construction. And yet they chose to leave it in place.

It is reasonable to assume that this person must of have been of some importance and respected to warrant such treatment. Unfortunately, no burial registry for the chapel cemetery has survived and we only conclusively state the identities of only three people out of the hundreds of individuals who were laid to rest here. They are the Calverts and are only known because they were interred in lead coffins. Skeletal analysis by Douglas Owsley shows that the individual in Burial 53 was an adult male who was between 30 and 40 years old at death. Is it possible that a Jesuit priest would have been so highly regarded to be given this special treatment? In the research at Oxford University, I had access to a broad range of often rare publications. One of these was Necrology. English Province, Society of Jesus: 1 June 1561 to 31 December 1937. Published in 1938, this volume included valuable information about the Jesuit priests and brothers who had served in England and early Maryland. One entry caught my attention, a Father John Fitzwilliam. The description found on page 93 of that book reads as follows:

“Fitzwillam or Fitywilliams, John, Alias Villiers. Priest. Born 1635, Lincolnshire? Of William and Francis (Sullyard). Ed. St. Omers College 1648 or earlier – 1654. SJ 1654, Watten (Nov) 1655; Liege (Phil) 1656-58, Liege (Theol) 1659-63). Ordained Priest 24 March 1663. Maryland 1663-1665. Died October 30 1665, Maryland.”

Fitzwilliam was a highly educated priest with years of training in the classics, philosophy and theology from premier Jesuit colleges. He served the Maryland mission for only two years before his death in late 1665. Could Burial 53 be Father Fitzwilliam? Archaeology shows that the grave dates very near to the time work on the Brick Chapel began. The individual was male and aged between 30 and 40 years old. Fitzwilliam was 30 or 31 at death. Perhaps this was the grave of the recently deceased Father Fitzwilliam.

That can explain why he was respected, but the question remains why he would have been given such special treatment. The coffin was still very solid and could have been moved just 10 or 12 inches to take it out of the foundation trench with only a small amount of work. Another relevant piece of evidence is the soil pedestal they left under the coffin. This gave more support for the coffin and was not done accidentally but on purpose. At that time, the wood coffin was still sufficiently strong for brick to be laid on top of it. This pedestal is another piece of evidence for intention but why take that extra step? Curator Silas Hurry once quipped that “whoever the person was, there is no doubt they were firmly footed in the Catholic Church”. While humorous, perhaps there is a real element of truth in that statement. There is no question that the person was Catholic. Were they somehow also associated with the Chapel project? Did Father Fitzwilliam come to Maryland with the assignment to build a permanent church for the Catholic community? Was leaving a portion of the coffin within the foundation intended to be both a physical and symbolic expression of the person’s connection to this significant effort to build the first major Catholic Church in English America? Unfortunately, no evidence has been found thus far to tell us who was involved in the Chapel’s planning and construction, nor have more insights been forthcoming into Fitzwilliam’s background. While this is admittedly speculation on my part, I can come up with no better explanation after years of pondering this strange grave. There was obviously something special about this person for his grave to be treated so differently from the other burials around the chapel.

Perhaps more research into the Jesuit educational programs at Watten and Liege will uncover insights about architectural training, maybe even of Father Fitzwilliams. And the clue that he was from Lincolnshire, England could permit future chemical and isotopic analysis of his teeth; we now know that such analysis could determine the general area where a person lived during their childhood. For now, we can only contemplate the possibilities. But there must be a good reason why the workers made a conscience decision to leave this coffin undisturbed and then integrate it into the masonry fabric of the Chapel. There was intention in that act. But for now, the answers to Burial 53 must remain another unsolved mystery of St. Mary’s City.

About the Author

Dr. Miller is a Historical Archaeologist who received a B. A. degree in Anthropology from the University of Arkansas. He subsequently received an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Michigan State University with a specialization in historic sites archaeology. Dr. Miller began his time with HSMC in 1972 when he was hired as an archaeological excavator. Miller has spent much of his career exploring 17th-century sites and the conversion of those into public exhibits, both in galleries and as full reconstructions. In January 2020, Dr. Miller was awarded the J.C. Harrington Medal in Historical Archaeology in recognition of a lifetime of contributions to the field.