The relics of St Joan of Arc are not the remains of the fifteenth-century French heroine after all, according to a News Exclusive in Nature this week (article is free access). European experts who have analysed the sacred scraps say the relics are a forgery, made from the remains of an Egyptian mummy.
Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist at Raymond Poincaré Hospital in Garches, near Paris, obtained permission to study the relics from the French church last year. He says he was "astonished" by the results. "I’d never have thought that it could be from a mummy." He and his colleagues used a range of techniques to investigate the remains, including mass, infrared and atomic-emission spectrometry; electron microscopy; pollen analysis; and, unusually, the help of the leading ‘noses’ of the perfume industry: Sylvaine Delacourte from Guerlain and Jean-Michel Duriez from Jean Patou.
Part of the legend of Joan of Arc springs from the observation, documented in historical records, that some of her organs resisted the fire. Hundreds of pages of surviving manuscripts describe in vivid detail how she was burnt three times over to try to ensure that nothing but ash remained, and so prevent her remains being worshipped. The observation of remaining organs was interpreted as a miracle.
But "In fact, it is very difficult to totally cremate a body; organs such as the heart and intestines, which have a high water content, are very resistant to fire," says Charlier. "We see it all the time in forensics." The Joan of Arc result will be less controversial than the debunking of the Shroud of Turin, also published in Nature some years ago, but is still likely to generate large public interest, especially in France.