One of the thrills of being a forensic scientist is positively identifying human remains, which can be hundreds of years old and revered as relics. Other times forensic science can be used to debunk a hoax, and the really interesting part here is exposing the strange ways the hoax was executed.
A bundle of ashes and bones were discovered in a Paris pharmacy in 1867 with a label that read: “Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans.” Joan of Arc (ca. 1412-1431) was a folk hero of France and Catholic saint, who was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1431 in Normandy.
The bundle contained bones and linen that had a dark coating as well as charred wood. This was consistent with remains gathered from a smoldering pile after someone was burned at the stake. The relics were recognized as authentic by the Catholic Church and were displayed in the French town of Chinon for more than half a century.
A few years ago, Philippe Charlier and a team of French forensic scientists got permission to test the relics attributed to Joan. The team used a variety of techniques including carbon-14 dating, spectrometry, pollen analysis, and something new-odor analysis. Odor analysis is a technique used by palaeopathologists and is based on the idea that human remains left to decompose in different environments will produce specific smells.
After a battery of tests, the French forensic team found the remains believed to belong to Joan of Arc consisted of a human rib and a cat femur that had been mummified. The dark coating on the rib, cat bone, and cloth contained a mix of bitumen, resins, gypsum and other chemicals commonly used by Egyptians to embalm corpses. Carbon dating revealed that the human rib, cat bone, wood, and scrap of cloth dated to between the 6th-3rd centuries B.C, predating Joan of Arc by centuries.
The researchers believe that the Paris pharmacy, where the remains were first found, stored the remains as “mummia.” Mummia was a powder made from ground mummies. During the Middle Ages, doctors believed that the resin used by Egyptian embalmers in the mummification process had valuable medicinal properties and used them in compresses and other “medical preparations.” Mummia was sold as late as 1908 in medical catalogues.
The research process and techniques used by this forensic team are truly fascinating and deserve a read (links below).
The debunked relics are now at Chinon’s Museum of Art and History, located in central France.
Joan of Arc ‘Relics’ Confirmed to Be Fake. (2013). Retrieved on February 22, 2014 from: http://news.discovery.com/history/religious-relics-joan-of-arc-forgery.htm
Butler, D. (2007 April 5). Joan of Arc’s relics exposed as forgery. Retrieved on February 22, 2014 from: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v446/n7136/full/446593a.html
Charlier P, Poupon J, Eb A, De Mazancourt P, Gilbert T, Huynh-Charlier I, Loublier Y, Verhille AM, Moulheirat C, Patou-Mathis M, Robbiola L, Montagut R, Masson F, Etcheberry A, Brun L, Willerslev E, de la Grandmaison GL, Durigon M. (2010). The ‘relics of Joan of Arc’: a forensic multidisciplinary analysis. Forensic Sci Int. 2010 Jan 30;194(1-3). Retrieved on February 22, 2014 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19913375
Than, K. (2007 April 4). Joan of Arc Relics are Fake. February 22, 2014 from: http://www.livescience.com/7261-joan-arc-relics-fake.html