In October of 1992, the archaeologists began the process of uncovering the coffins. After the coffins were exposed to the same degree as they had been at the time of the original discovery, the next step in the process was the imaging of the contents so that an appropriate location for drilling the air-sampling holes could be determined.
In order to use the radiation source that could generate enough gamma particles to produce images, it was necessary to erect a sandbag wall around the test site.
Then, special x-ray film, donated by the Kodak Corporation, was placed in the correct location and the radiation source used to expose the film. The images were very clear and striking. Details such as the locations of the human remains and the overlap of the lead coffin construction were clearly visible. Each coffin in turn was imaged and this information fed directly into determining where the air sampling hole could be drilled.
With the results of the imaging in hand, each coffin was carefully tapped with a self-sealing bit connected to the air sampling device to attempt to extract air. It was clear even before we began this step of the process that the small coffin and the middle sized coffin were not air tight. However, we stuck to our protocol and went through the process of extracting air samples from each of the coffins to test procedures. Only the large coffin held out any possibility. When the sample was extracted from the large coffin, the system actually held a vacuum suggesting we had an air-tight container. The sample was rushed to the lab where it was found to contain a very complex mixture of gasses. Only later, after months of analysis, did we determine that there had been infiltration of outside air in the sample. While we had failed to recover the antique air we sought, the system we had developed to extract the samples had worked flawlessly, and NASA considers the system a model for future attempts to recover the crucial samples needed to understand how our environment is changing.
Following the air sampling, we began pumping chilled argon gas into each of the coffins to maintain the integrity of the human remains inside. The next step in the project involved taking the first peek inside each of the coffins using a fiber optics borescope provided by the Olympus Corporation. This step allowed us to begin to evaluate the condition of the coffin contents. The borescope showed very well-preserved human remains and intact wood in both the small and middle sized coffins. It was not possible, because of where the hole had been drilled, to see fully into the largest coffin. All we could see was a perfectly preserved inner coffin of wood.
We continued to pump chilled argon gas into the coffins as we carefully excavated the remaining soil from above each of the coffins. The layers of soil were recorded, and photographed with film donated by the Agfa Corporation, providing us with crucial information about the relative sequence of the burials. After all the soils above and around the coffins had been removed, we were ready for the next team of specialists to begin their job.
A team from NASA who specializes in Non-Destructive Evaluation (NDE) began the job of searching for hidden cracks and other weakness which would make it impossible to lift the coffins out of the ground. Utilizing a range of techniques including ultrasound, eddy which showed some weakness in the coffins but that they were generally stable enough for lifting. This team was also able to estimate the weight of the coffins based on lead thickness measurements so that the next step – lifting the coffins – could begin.current, and infrared diffusivity, the specialists determined that there were a few areas which showed some weakness in the coffins but that they were generally stable enough for lifting. This team was also able to estimate the weight of the coffins based on lead thickness measurements so that the next step – lifting the coffins – could begin.
The system which was developed to remove the coffins from the ground involved a cradle which held a steel plate which could be propelled under each coffin by means of hydraulic jacks. The coffin was then gently pulled back and on to the cradle which was then lifted out of the pit using a chain hoist and gantry.
The small coffin was lifted without difficulty and transported to the medical tent where it was very carefully opened. It held the remains of a 6 month old baby girl who had severe medical problems including obvious skull lesions and a flaring at the end of the ribs characteristic of dietary problems.
The middle coffin was extracted without incident and the lead lid of the coffin carefully removed. Under this we discovered very well-preserved wood from the inner coffin and the extremely well-preserved remains of an older woman.
Preservation was excellent with silk ribbons intact and preserved herbaceous material which turned out to be rosemary, the herb of Remembrance. Examination of the skeletal remains showed that this woman had suffered a severely broken leg, but had survived the injury. Her bones showed evidence of osteoporosis and her teeth were severely decayed.
The final challenge facing us in the field was the removal and opening of the largest coffin. Based on estimates of lead thickness and consideration of how much soil we needed to remove, we estimated the lift weight for the large coffin to be approximately 1,500 lbs. Good engineering practice told us to design for a lift of twice that much, or 1.5 tons. The coffin was successfully lifted and transported into the medical tent. We carefully removed the lead outer shell and were presented with a perfectly preserved inner wooden coffin. We carefully removed the wooded lid and were amazed at what we found.
We discovered the highly deteriorated remains of an adult male. The human remains had undergone some sort of transformation which had reduced the upper third of the skeleton into a white crystal compound known as brushite. Later, we were to create an hypothesis of what had caused this chemical reaction.
This completed the field phase of the project, but the real work had just begun. Months of painstaking analysis were to follow. The true secrets of the coffins were to emerge as a result of this careful study.