Given the unique nature of the discovery, we needed to involve a number of experts with special knowledge to plan the best way of approaching this rare find Experts in atmospheric science, nuclear physics, geology, pollen analysis, archaeological conservation, non-destructive analysis, history, and forensic anthropology were invited to participate in the planning. In a series of meetings, research goals and a protocol for the investigation were established. Three major research questions were defined:
- Identification of the occupants of each of the coffins
- Investigations into 17th-century health issues and mortuary practice.
- Study of the 17th-century environment and how it has changed.
Knowing the identities of the coffin occupants was the basic historic question that needed to be addressed. The potential for very well-preserved human remains in the lead coffins could allow medical science to begin investigating what it was like to live and die in early colonial Maryland. We knew that the death rate among early settlers was extremely high, but we did not know exactly what was killing them. Finally, if the coffins were air-tight, an unparalleled opportunity to extract a sample of antique air was present.
The oldest sample of atmospheric air which has been studied dates only to the mid-20th century. Only by knowing what gasses were present in the past can we begin to understand how modern pollution is effecting the air we breathe and the ozone layer which protects us from the sun’s radiation. As sealed time-capsules, the coffins could provide a host of other environmental data in the form of pollen which would allow us to better recreate the environment as it was being changed by the colonists. Additionally, since different plants produce pollen at different times of the year, pollen analysis could help provide crucial data as to the time of death.
The next nearly two years were spent in designing and testing devices to make the investigations possible and arranging resources and donations to do the job right.