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Sacred Joan of Arc relics actually from Egypt

Mummy, not martyr

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Expert analysis of remains purported to be those of Joan of Arc has shown they're actually bits of Egyptian mummy, The Telegraph reports. In 1431, the English burnt the 19-year-old as a witch in Rouen, Normandy, elevating the "Maid of Orleans" to instant martyrdom.

The jar of bits and bobs - marked "Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans" - was allegedly discovered in 1867 in the attic of a Paris pharamacy. French bishops whisked it off to a musuem in Chinon, where it has to this day attracted suitable worship of the Joan of Arc legend.

However, the relics - comprising a "charred-looking human rib, chunks of what seem to be carbonised wood, a six inch fragment of linen, and a cat femur" - actually date back to between the third and sixth century BC, according to Dr Philippe Charlier of the Raymond Poincaré Hospital in Garches, near Paris.

Charlier got permission to test the remains and conducted a barrage of tests "including various forms of spectroscopy to reveal the chemical make-up, electron microscopy [and] pollen analysis". This being France, he also recruited perfume industry "noses" (Sylvaine Delacourte of Guerlain, and Jean-Michel Duriez of Jean Patou) to sniff out the olfactory evidence.

The conclusions of the 15-strong team's efforts were that "microscopic and chemical analysis of the black crust on the rib and on the cat femur showed that they were not burnt and had no trace of muscle, skin, fat or hair"; that "the black material was consistent with an embalming mix of wood resins, bitumen and chemicals such as malachite"; and that "the linen cloth had a coating characteristic of mummy wrappings".

The "noses" also picked up on burnt plaster and vanilla essences, the former consistent with Joan of Arc possibly being burnt at a plaster stake "to prolong the agony", although the latter "is inconsistent with cremation". Charlier explained: "Vanillin is produced during decomposition of a body. You would find it in a mummy, but not in someone who was burnt."

The plaster odour most likely comes from gyspsum on the linen wrapping, which also carried pine pollen. As The Telegraph notes, "pine trees did not grow in Normandy at the time that Joan of Arc was killed" although "pine resin was used widely in Egypt during embalming".

To drive the final nail in the relics' coffin, "Carbon-14 analysis dated the remains to between the third and sixth centuries BC, long before she met her end" while "the spectrometry data from the rib, femur and black chunks matched those from Egyptian mummies from the period, and not those of burnt bones".

Anastasia Tsaliki of the University of Durham called the analysis "a fascinating project" and a "tour de force" of palaeopathology. The Church, meanwhile, is "ready to accept the results", Charlier noted.

The team's study, L’étude scientifique du Bocal de Chinon, reliques présumées de Jeanne d’Arc is discussed in the latest Nature. ®

Bootnote

The presence of the cat femur could have been explained by the practice of throwing black cats onto condemned witches' pyres, The Telegraph adds. As to how a jar of mummy bits came to be in a Paris chemists, it was apparently common practice to use bits of dead Egyptians in exotic cures.

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