Ashes May Hold Joan of Arc's Secrets

Scientists plan to conduct DNA tests on what are believed to be the ashes of Joan of Arc, kept in a French museum since the late 1800s. Forensic anthropologists hope to end a debate about who Joan was and how she died.

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A bundle of ashes and bones reputed to be those of Joan of Arc have been on display in the French town of Chinon for more than half a century. Now a group of 22 European scientists are getting close to deciding once and for all whose ashes they are and where they really came from.

Anita Elash reports from Chinon, in the Loire Valley.

ANITA ELASH: The historical record seems clear - Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and her body cremated twice more before her ashes were thrown into River Seine. So she shouldn't have left behind any remains. But as the curator of Chinon's historical museum, Fabrice Masson is in charge of a cardboard box which contains what many people think are the relics of Joan of Arc.

Mr. FABRICE MASSON (Curator, Chinon's Historical Museum): (French Spoken)

ELASH: There are two pieces of bone, a fragment of blackened cloth and what appear to be pieces of coal.

Mr. MASSON: (French spoken)

ELASH: As Masson explains, the remains were found in the attic of a Paris pharmacy in the mid-19th century. They had been placed in a glass jar dating back to the late 17th century, more than 200 years after Saint Joan was burned as a witch in Rouen. The parchment lids said they were the remains of Saint Joan, and the jar's contents have become an important part of her story.

Mr. MASSON: (Through translator) These objects are an integral part of her myth. Her story was revived in literature in the 17th century, especially by Voltaire and Jean Chempalin(ph). And then in the 19th century, Joan of Arc became the incarnation of French heritage. She became the incarnation of the people's outrage against their Prussian invaders at the time.

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ELASH: The Joan of Arc story is especially prominent on the narrow, medieval streets of Chinon. The 19-year-old claims she was acting on messages from God when she came here in 1429 to meet the French King-in-Waiting Charles VII. Then she raised an army to liberate France from the English.

Two years later, after being captured and handed over the English, she was condemned by the Catholic Church as a witch and burned at the stake. Today, she's a hero to almost everyone in France, where people admire her as a feminist, as a saint and for her defense of their country. She's even been adopted as a symbol by some political parties, most recently by the extreme right-wing National Front.

In Chinon, there are three streets named after Joan of Arc and four statues of her.

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Dr. PHILIPPE CHARLIER (Forensic Pathologist, Leading Scientists): This is a black (unintelligible) from the surface of the rib, the human rib, which is maybe the rib from Joan of Arc.

ELASH: From his lab in Paris, forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier is leading the scientists, who have been analyzing the presumed Joan of Arc relics since March. A church-appointed committee examined the remains just before Joan was beatified in 1909, and concluded they were probably - but not certainly - hers.

Now Charlier is looking for a series of clues that will give a definitive answer.

Dr. CHARLIER: No, no, no. There were not a lot of witches about in this period. There were a lot during the 17th century and the 18th century, but not during the 15th century. So if we find that the so strong traces of authenticity, it will not be due to only a chance.

ELASH: DNA tests will show if the human bones are from a man or a woman. And carbon-14 tests should help date them. A study of pollens attached to the bones will show if they originated in (unintelligible), and if, like Joan, they were burned in the spring.

Charlier hopes to have some final conclusions in a few months. No matter the result, Joan of Arc will keep her sainthood and her position as France's favorite hero.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Chinon.

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