I’ve been meaning to get around to commenting on the Joan of Arc relic testing story for a while now, because it’s a good example of the bizarre way that journalists dance around to avoid saying that something is demonstrably false.
A year or so ago, the remains of Joan of Arc were turned over to a forensic scientist for study. And by “remains of Joan of Arc,” I mean, “some burnt bones and rags found on a shelf in the nineteenth century that people insisted on pretending belonged to the famous historical figure even though no one could account for where the bones had been for the four hundred years in between.” Or maybe I just mean, “the fake remains of Joan of Arc.”
“But,” I can hear you saying, “weren’t those bones verified by the Vatican in 1909 as belonging to Joan?” I can hear this, because I know of your long-held interest in all things Joan. And I have a good imagination.
It’s true, the Vatican’s top scientists were on the case back in 1909. But they might have been just a wee bit biased, as 1909 was also the year that Joan was made into a Saint, Junior Grade.* They had every reason in the world to confirm the story–and even if they’d wanted to really put it to the test, what would they have done? The tools for bone-debunking available in 1909 were not extensive. Yet, for some reason, the AP story back in February about the initial results of the retesting of these fake bones didn’t even broach the idea that maybe the Vatican’s beatification in 1909 and the Vatican’s verification in 1909 were somehow connected in a more than coincidental way.
Still, the final findings of Dr. Charlier’s group won’t necessarily stymie those who want to continue to pretend that these are Joan’s bones. Even before he started work, it was known that one of the bones in the jar was actually a cat’s femur. Yet, instead of seeing this as evidence that these were just some random bones being passed off as relics, people claimed that it was actually evidence that they were relics. Cats, you see, sometimes were thrown onto the pyres of suspected witches. So the inclusion of a cat’s bone is perfectly consistent with it being Joan of Arc’s remains. Even though nobody mentioned throwing a cat onto Joan’s pyre in the contemporary account, and even though the inclusion of a cat’s bone is also perfectly consistent–indeed, more consistent–with the bones being fake.
And even before Charlier got on to the DNA testing of these bones**, his chemical tests had already proven that what looked like bits of char on the scrap of fabric with the bones was actually dye, and the bits of char on the bones themselves were actually plant matter like you’d get if you’d embalmed something, but not if you’d burned it.
The latest round of tests on the faked relics revealed something more interesting, though. Turns out, the bones are probably from a mummy. Carbon dating shows they’re actually from before Christ was born. And the chemicals in the resin are all consistent with Egyptian mummification preparations. And if that wasn’t interesting enough, part of the testing involved bringing in professional perfume sniffers, who determined that the bones smell like vanilla. Apparently, vanilla is produced when a body decomposes.***
So let’s recap. The bones in question 1) were found on a shelf, 2) have no certain provenance, 3) were first ‘verified’ by people with a very good reason for lying, 4) are partially feline, 5) came packaged with a rag dyed to look like it had been burnt, 6) are covered in vegetable resin, not ash, 7) date to 300-700 years before Christ, and 8) smell like vanilla. And yet, these are the headlines that accompany the story:
Analysis Shows Bone, Remains Not Likely to Be From Joan of Arc — The Washington Post
Scientist: Remains are not those of Joan of Arc — Forensic Magazine
Relics aren’t Joan of Arc’s, researchers in France say — The Mercury News
Scientists say supposed Joan of Arc relics came from a mummy — The Boston Globe
Not likely? Researchers say? Scientists say? And my favorite “scientists say supposed relics”–way to go on the double reverse weasel, Boston Globe editorial staff. To be fair, lots of news outlets just went ahead and said they were fakes in the headline. But the four I link above aren’t the only coy headlines out there. So, why are so many journalists afraid to call a fake a fake? Is there a huge Joan-of-Arc-relic-loving demographic out there in that must be appeased?
*Joan wasn’t canonized until 1920. Beatification is the next-to-last stage of the sainthood track.
**The DNA testing didn’t work. The embalming process that the bones went through–and that Joan of Arc’s bones wouldn’t have gone through–made the DNA unrecoverable.
***This possibly makes my wife’s chocolate chip cookies into a goth delicacy. Flavored just like human remains that have decomposed naturally! The Chips Ahoy people probably are considering this as a slogan as we speak.