Laboratory Analysis

Laboratory Analysis



Work after the excavation took many different directions. Some of the analyses undertaken were not even imagined during the planning phase because we did not know what we going to find. The work all centered on answering the three big research questions which we had laid out in the original planning meetings:


1. Identification of the occupants of each of the coffins.

2. Investigations into 17th-century health issues and mortuary practice.

3. Study of the 17th-century environment and how it has changed.




Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology took the lead on the investigation of the human remains. Careful examination of the bones by physical anthropologists determined more precisely the age of death and general health conditions of each of the burials.


The child had been approximately six months of age and suffered from serious nutritional problems including severe anemia and vitamin deficiency. Specifically, a vitamin D deficiency leading to rickets was indicated. Additionally, she had a cranial infection which had caused the lesions in her skull.


The man had been in his early fifties at the time of death, stood about five and a half feet tall, was right handed and rather corpulent. Muscle attachments suggested a relatively sedentary lifestyle.


The woman had probably been in her early sixties when she had died. In addition to the broken leg and osteoporosis, she appears to have had injured her back and had advanced arthritis Her dental condition suggested a diet rich in sugars, seeming to indicate wealth.



Other types of analysis of the human remains included investigation into the relative amount of the isotopic forms of carbon. When compared with other samples, the remains from the Chapel suggest individuals who had consumed both New World and Old World grains. These individuals would appear to have been born and raised in Europe, but had lived for a long time in Maryland.








Other analyses with the human remains involved looking at the chemical constituents of the brushite that represented much of the remains of the man. Neutron Activation Analysis by scientists at Penn State identified large quantities of aluminum in the brushite. Aluminum is a relatively rare material in the 17th century. The only ready source would have been in the form of alum. Alum has astringent and drying characteristics which would have made it a logical choice to use in an embalming process. It would appear that the man had been embalmed and seems likely that the embalming may have actually led to the more rapid decay of his remains.


A second application of Neutron Activation Analysis by scientists at Penn State investigated chemical content of the preserved hair and other samples from the coffins. The most striking finding of this study was the presence of large quantities of arsenic in the woman’s remains. The sampling of the hair showed what appeared to be increasing doses of arsenic before the death of the female. The working hypothesis is that arsenic was being administered as a medication to the woman before her death. Such was the state of medical knowledge in the 17th century.





Important clues concerning the time of year when the individuals died was provided by analysis of the pollen found within each of the coffins.  The child had been buried in the spring, the woman, based on the ragweed pollen, was buried in the fall, and the man’s coffin showed a lack of pollen indicating a winter burial. The pollen analysis also indicated that both the man’s and the woman’s internal wooded coffins had either been fabricated or stored in a setting with lots of European small grains such as a barn or granary. Very few individuals grew the European grains in early Maryland. Only the wealthiest could afford this luxury.



Overview Discovery The Team Logistics Project
Analysis Study Identification Future Phillip Calvert