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The Lead Coffins Collaboration

“All archaeological excavation carries the professional obligation to preserve the materials recovered through proper and appropriate conservation treatments”

(Society for Historical Archaeology 1993)

While preparing for the rebuilding of a 17th-century Roman Catholic chapel at Historic St. Mary’s City, archaeologists conducted test excavations and discovered that nearly 500 people had been interred in the area. With the aid of a ground penetrating radar survey, it was found that three members of this early community had been buried in lead coffins within the limits of the building foundations. These unique coffins were discovered in the north transept of the chapel in 1990. They were reburied until a specialist team could be assembled.

Before Digging Begins

Every archaeological project involves planning prior to excavation. Including a conservator in the early stages will save time and money and insure objects are not damaged during removal. Knowledge of the site, its materials and the expected condition of artifacts will help the conservator plan treatment during and after excavation

In the Fall of 1992, a multi-disciplinary team that included archaeologists, archaeological conservators, forensic anthropologists, geophysicists, nuclear physicists, engineers, pollen analysts, and atmospheric scientists assembled in St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Timothy B. Riordan and Henry M. Miller served as project directors. The common goal of the team was to recover these unique coffins while preserving their contents so as to answer as many research questions as possible. Within was valuable information about the colonial inhabitants of St. Mary’s City and their society and environment.

Before the project began, members discussed the goals of the project, the line of communication, and members’ roles, including the role of the conservator and the conservation budget.

Conservation Starts in the Field

Sort and Stabilize

Understanding What You Have

An Ounce of Prevention

To Display or Not to Display

Sharing the Story

Learn more about the excavation of the coffins and some of the information gathered by visiting the Project Lead Coffins page.