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Coffin from Civil War uncovers mystery

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Smithsonian / AP Anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide, right, and Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, center, and others, examine the remains of an iron coffin at the museum in Washington.

The rusty iron coffin stubbornly resisted hammer and chisel as researchers in a warm Smithsonian laboratory sought a glimpse of an American who lived more than a century and a half ago.

An electric drill, its orange cord snaking around the pre-Civil War artifact, finally freed the lid.

"This is a person and we want to tell this person's story. She is our primary obligation," anthropologist Doug Owsley said as the lid was lifted to reveal a young body wrapped in a brown shroud.

The scientists hope to identify the remains so they can have a properly marked grave. In the process, they have a chance to learn about mortuary practices of the period, what disease and trauma people may have suffered, their diet, past environments, clothing and perhaps even social customs.

Based on the small size, they had expected the coffin to contain a female body. On examination, it turned out to be a boy, about age 13.

Read the full article at NBC News