Morbid History

Tobias Grey uncovers interesting work in France that brings the latest forensic technology to the aid of historical mysteries.

Sleuths come in all shapes and sizes. Dr Philippe Charlier is tall, fresh faced and fashionably plimsolled. He also has a well developed sense of humour, judging by the wallpaper on his computer screen. What looked to my uneducated eye like a black and white rain cloud turned out to be an enlarged imprint of a spermatozoid found on the tooth of a Roman travelling back from imperial Rome. ‘The ancient Romans were very keen on bulls’ testicles,’ deadpanned the French doctor.

Such attention to historical detail comes naturally to Charlier who at the relatively young age of twenty-eight is building up a reputation as one of the world’s leading pathographers. (Patho­graphy is the science of establishing a human biography through the study of disease and/or cause of death).

In February headlines were made when Charlier announced that he and a team of experts were pre­paring to carry out tests on remains which may or may not have belonged to Joan of Arc. The historical, archaeo­logical and medical tests began in mid-April and should be finished by the start of October.

The remains being tested include part of a ribcage (‘remarkably well preserved; imagine a rib that’s been left for rather a long time on the barbecue’), some parts of a vertebrae and fragments of material which Charlier believes to be clothing as opposed to human tissue. The relics were purportedly found at the stake of the Normandy town of Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned alive in 1431. Up until now the rib and other relics were housed at a museum in Chinon owned by the Archdiocese of Tours.

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