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Iron Coffin Is Unexpected Time Capsule

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Iron Coffin Is Unexpected Time Capsule

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Iron Coffin Is Unexpected Time Capsule

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This week scientists prepared to open what amounts to a time capsule from another century.

(Soundbite of drills)

INSKEEP: They drilled out some bolts that held on the lid. They vacuumed the rust that fell from its sides. And they waited to see what they would find inside. This team at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is working to open a coffin made of cast iron. The rust-red container was found at a construction site here in Washington. Since before the Civil War, the solid iron protected the contents from air and water, preserving the body of a person unknown. The scientists hope the remains will help them learn a name and even glimpse a 19th-century life.

(Soundbite of hammering)

INSKEEP: One of the researchers is anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide.

Ms. KARI BRUWELHEIDE (Anthropologist): They're opening the seal of the coffin. They're trying to separate the top lid from the bottom.

INSKEEP: We're looking at a coffin that's--it's in the shape of a body. It's not a box so much as a form-fitting cast-iron sleeve.

Ms. BRUWELHEIDE: It resembles--if you've ever seen an Egyptian sarcophagus, it kind of resembles that shape.

INSKEEP: You basically have workers with a hammer and a screwdriver.

Ms. BRUWELHEIDE: Yeah. There's no pretty way to do this.

Dr. DOUG OWSLEY (Anthropologist): Let me give you a little background. This will be a choreographed procedure in the sense...

INSKEEP: The team leader, Doug Owsley, gives a little speech as they prepare to lift the lid for the first time in more than a century.

Dr. OWSLEY: The odor will not hurt you...

INSKEEP: Owsley wears a dark blue smock and pale blue gloves. Unlike some other people in this room, he doesn't bother wearing a surgical mask. He's a noted forensic anthropologist who's investigated murders and even examined human remains from the September 11 attacks. He's examining this body at the request of the Washington, DC, government. DC officials hope it will be identified so it can be properly buried. What Owsley knows so far is that the body was buried in a kind of coffin popular around the time of the Civil War. Families who could afford them used cast-iron coffins to preserve bodies brought back from battlefields. This coffin is likely from a little before the war, maybe the 1850s. It's named after the man who patented them, a man named Alman J. Fisk. And Owsley speaks of his creation the way you might speak of a Tiffany lamp.

Dr. OWSLEY: And what we have here is a Fisk original. They're quite rare. I've only seen one other...

INSKEEP: Lines run along the cast-iron lid, as if to suggest the folds of a funeral shroud. After a preliminary X-ray of the sealed coffin, Owsley calculated that he's dealing with a person who likely died around the age of 13.

Dr. OWSLEY: We recognize that this is a person and we want to tell this person's story. This person--nobody knows who this is and this is our opportunity to let this individual, probably a young woman, tell her story so that we can better acknowledge who she was and what she's contributed to who we are today.

INSKEEP: When members of the crew lift off the lid, nobody gasps and few people pause. The scientists have work to do. There's more life in this room than death.

(Soundbite of hammering)

INSKEEP: What we can see is a body tightly encased in the coffin, wrapped protectively, it seems, in a brown shroud. The face is uncovered, still recognizable as a face, the skin darkened somewhat. Some of the hair even remains. You feel like you might be looking at an old photograph, almost; one of those old Civil War-era photographs. It's grainy. You don't have an exact view, but you have an idea.

The experts now surrounding the coffin believe that they can put a name to that peaceful face with its leathery skin. They're taking little samples of tissue and cloth.

Dr. OWSLEY: So you've got this overall wrapping here and then you've got the garment underneath it.

Ms. BRUWELHEIDE: Right. So it looks as if we have a...

INSKEEP: When photographers move in to document the body, Doug Owsley takes a short break. His mind is already calculating the facts that he'll have to work with.

Dr. OWSLEY: We've got some sort of sheetlike affair that is nicely folded over the body, and underneath that you can see portions of pants. You can see a pocket on the left side. It's not exposed yet, but you can see that there are stockings on the individual, that there's going to be some sort of burial garment, so it can tell us a lot about the burial process for this particular person.

INSKEEP: And what are some of the ethical and moral issues that are raised by what you're doing?

Dr. OWSLEY: When we go back in time, there's not anything that you can think of in the archaeological records, historic or prehistoric, that can tell you more about a person, what their life was like, than examining the human remains. That's what we're doing. We're telling this person's story. And that's their legacy.

INSKEEP: Owsley knows that some people will find his work disrespectful to the dead, but he feels so strongly about his work that he once filed a celebrated lawsuit to examine the ancient remains known as Kennewick Man, and he's perfectly at home in this part of the Smithsonian, where the hallways are lined with drawers full of human bones.

Dr. OWSLEY: We can tell how tall they are. We can tell how robust they are. We can look at the muscle development, the muscle attachment areas, and determine information about their activities, whether they were engaged in heavy physical labor, strenuous labor. If you know how to listen to these bones, if you know how to read these bones, they can tell you volumes; certainly not everything, but when you combine it with a costume analysis, the clothing analysis, when you combine it with the forensic pathology team, it's amazing where it can take you.

INSKEEP: As Doug Owsley speaks, members of his team are taking photographs and tiny samples from that unknown body in its cast-iron coffin. Within a short time, the team has answered the first of many mysteries they hope to explore in the coming days. The well-preserved lungs suggest the young person may have died of pneumonia. The experts also took the first step toward their essential job, learning the person's identity. This is not a girl, as first suspected. It's a boy, buried and preserved, lost and found.

You can see photos of the coffin being examined at the Smithsonian by going to our Web site, npr.org.

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