Draped with a Polish flag and a rosary, the sealed box contains a set of bones and a mystery nearly as old as the United States.
The bones soon will receive a hero's burial but the mystery cannot be put to rest: Are these the remains of Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski, the Polish nobleman killed in the 1779 Revolutionary War siege of Savannah?
In a city of ancient oaks and marble monuments steeped in history, a lack of solid proof of the bones' identity is not stopping elaborate plans for October ceremonies that, in all but name, will be Pulaski's funeral.
Historical accounts of the death of Pulaski, regarded as father of the American cavalry, clash in saber-rattling conflict. Some say he was placed in a secret grave outside Savannah, then entombed in 1854 inside the base of the city's monument bearing his name.
For the past eight years, the local coroner has sought to end the debate, painstakingly examining the remains exhumed from beneath the monument and trying to extract DNA from a tooth to compare to a sample from a living relative in Poland.
After all that, a draft report recently concluded the tooth failed to yield a complete genetic sequence and "the mystery remains unsolved."
"Of course we're disappointed we couldn't have DNA evidence," said Chatham County coroner James C. Metts Jr., who led a team of eight experts. "Had there been no such thing as DNA testing, I would be satisfied that this is Pulaski."
That is apparently enough for Savannah to go ahead with plans to give the remains full honors, with as many as 10 days of ceremonies leading up to a reburial Oct. 9, the 226th anniversary of the Savannah siege.
Tentative plans call for the bones to receive a public viewing and a Roman Catholic Mass. They then will travel by horse-drawn caisson in a funeral procession through Savannah for burial at the 54-foot Pulaski monument that towers over Monterey Square.
"History will finally have an opportunity to witness Savannah's tribute to a man who died here," said Francis X. Hayes, chief organizer of the burial events. "The fact that the remains do not have the DNA stamp of approval does not in any way lessen the need to celebrate."
Not everyone agrees. Gordon Smith, a Savannah attorney and author of several history books, wants more physical evidence.
Smith researched Pulaski's death for a book and argues that Pulaski died on a ship bound for Charleston, S.C., and was buried at sea.
"We're relating the great Pulaski to these human remains here, and what if we are wrong?" Smith said. "What you've done is put a charlatan in there. You've trivialized Pulaski's memory."
Metts's report says strong circumstantial evidence supports linking the bones to Pulaski, but it also raises new questions.
Without DNA, investigators could not even determine the sex of the skeleton. The pelvic bones had characteristics found mostly in women and in only about 5 percent of men, the report says.
However, evidence of a fracture to the right hand and a blow to the skull, perhaps by a saber or lance, fit with injuries Pulaski suffered during his military career.
Hayes stops short of calling the burial Pulaski's funeral, saying, "the remains are purely symbolic." Meanwhile, he is negotiating to have the Savannah ceremony televised live in Poland.
Billy Jones, Hayes's main City Hall liaison, also is cautious.
"We're not burying the remains of Pulaski," said Jones, the city's director of facilities. "We're burying the remains that are suspected to be Pulaski."
Pulaski came to America in 1777, exiled from Poland after helping lead an uprising against Russian incursion. Recommended by George Washington, Pulaski took command of the colonial cavalry.
After his legion of 600 troops aided in fending off the British at Charleston, Pulaski headed to Savannah for the October 1779 battle to reclaim the captured city.
The British victory in the siege became the second-most lopsided battle of the Revolution, after Bunker Hill. Pulaski fell mortally wounded by grapeshot from a British cannon.
History books have typically favored the idea that Pulaski died aboard the Wasp, a ship carrying wounded soldiers to Charleston, and was buried at sea. That story was told by Col. Peter Horry, Pulaski's second in command.
Paul Bentalou, Pulaski's aide-de-camp, wrote in the 1820s that he was aboard the ship when "Pulaski breathed his last, and the corpse immediately became so offensive that his officer was compelled, though reluctantly, to consign [it] to a watery grave."
A conflicting account sparked the debate over Pulaski's grave in the 1850s when Savannah built its monument to the Polish general.
William P. Bowen, one of the monument's main boosters, wrote in 1855 that his grandmother and aunt saw Pulaski buried at their plantation near Savannah, in an unmarked grave to protect his remains from desecration.
Bowen found the remains, buried beneath a palmetto tree overlooking the Wilmington River, and had them moved to the monument site in 1854.
Adding to the intrigue is a letter from Savannah dated Oct. 15, 1779, just after the siege, by Samuel Bulfinch, captain of the Wasp.
"I likewise took on board the Americans that was [sic] sent down, one of which died this day and I have brought him ashore and buried him," Bulfinch wrote, though he never identified the dead soldier as Pulaski.
Edward Pinkowski of Cooper City, Fla., discovered the letter in 1971. In 1996, he bankrolled Metts's DNA search with a $30,000 donation. A retired newspaper columnist, Pinkowski has spent most of his life researching Pulaski, a hero of his Polish immigrant father.
"I was born with a picture of Pulaski on the wall above my crib," said Pinkowski, 88, who believes the bones are Pulaski's. "He's a martyr to the cause of freedom and that makes him important. He was the first Polish defender of American freedom to die."
Pulaski remains an honored, if lesser known, figure in America. Ten U.S. cities and seven counties bear his name. A bronze statue of Pulaski on horseback stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. New York, Philadelphia and Chicago hold annual Pulaski Day parades. In Illinois, his birthday is a state holiday.
Metts has not closed the book on the Pulaski case. Bone fragments from the remains are being kept in the crime lab here for future DNA testing. In the meantime, he said, the bones deserve to be buried as Pulaski.
"It would be disgraceful not to," Metts said. "It's my feeling this is Pulaski and he should be honored."
Savannah is the site of a 54-foot monument honoring Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski, a prominent figure in the Revolutionary War. Some believe his bones were buried there but tests have been inconclusive.