Unearthing the original Maryland colony

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Carol Sorgen

In Historic St. Mary’s City, costumed interpreters bring 17th century Maryland to life. Archeologists continue to excavate the site, including three coffins of residents from the 1600s, which are now the subject of an exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society.
Photo courtesy of Visit Maryland

In 1634, a new English colony — named St. Mary’s City by its settlers — was founded in the northern Chesapeake. The English crown granted the land to Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, but in 1688 a revolution in England overthrew King James II.

As a result, the Calverts lost control of their land charter, Maryland became a royal colony and, as religious freedom ended, the Jesuit Chapel founded by Lord Baltimore, a Roman Catholic, was locked shut.

Maryland’s capital moved to Annapolis, and St. Mary’s City was abandoned and turned into farmland. That, fortunately, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as this rural setting helped to preserve the fragile ruins of the early settlement under a thin layer of plowed soil.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when archaeologists began explorations on behalf of Historic St. Mary’s City — the Maryland state museum at the site of the colony’s first capital.

“It (St. Mary’s City) is an archaeologist’s dream,” said Burt Kummerow, director of Historic St. Mary’s when the explorations began, and now director of the Maryland Historical Society.

“Hundreds of acres of open ground with untapped artifacts, foundations, post molds and fence lines (stains in the dirt caused by rotted wood that are magical to the trained eye). A combination of prodigious 17th century records carefully mined in the Maryland State Archives, and many years of persistent digging in endlessly rich sites, have remade everyone’s view of what life was like in Maryland’s ‘ancient’ capital.”

In 1983, archaeologists found the Jesuit Chapel’s foundation, and in 1988, Henry Miller and Timothy Riordan embarked on a five-year investigation, eventually locating the chapel’s cemetery and excavating 68 burials in the first large, systematic study of 17th century skeletons and burial practices in the Chesapeake.

Daily life in the 1600s

Opening on Maryland Day (March 25) at the Maryland Historical Society, a new exhibition, “A Tale of Three Coffins: Living and Dying in 17th Century St. Mary’s City,” will feature three of the lead coffins found in the investigation.

These held members of the Calvert family, and represent the only physical remains of Maryland’s founding family that scholars have ever recovered. The exhibition contains the coffins in the same arrangement as they were discovered in the foundation of the Jesuit Chapel, the oldest brick building in Maryland.

 To give visitors a comprehensive look at life in 17th century Maryland, the exhibition will also offer insights into the customs of the day — 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 17th-century living.

In addition, it will highlight the process of archeological investigation, including film footage of the surprising discovery. The exhibit will run through the fall of 2015, after which the coffins will be reinterred beneath the chapel in St. Mary’s City.

 “The Maryland Historical Society regards this project with great respect,” said 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 are returned to their original location in the recreated 17th century chapel in historic St. Mary’s City.”

“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,” added 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.”

Who’s in the coffins?

The highlight of the exhibition is the three lead coffins buried deep inside the Jesuit Chapel’s foundations. The largest 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 forensic profile of the remains — 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. An investigation reveals it suffered from extreme maladies, such as rickets, and was possibly swaddled to death. “There was much sadness in this coffin,” said Miller.

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 his blog, “An Amazing Discovery,” Kummerow wrote that St. Mary’s City was “not a place for the faint of heart.”

“The first rugged frontier for British America…life for the settlers was short, hard and lonely,” he wrote. “Success often hinged on survival, and death was everywhere.”

 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.

 Among other items featured in the exhibition will be 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, and rosemary sprigs discovered in a coffin (rosemary is considered a symbol of remembrance).

The Maryland Historical Society is located at 201 W. Monument St. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors. On the first Thursday of every month, admission is free. For more information, visit www.mdhs.org or call (410) 685-3750.