GARCHES, France — The plastic vial with the red top is Henri IV. The one with the blue top is the never-crowned Louis XVII.
Diane de Poitiers, the favorite mistress of Henri II, sits in a squat translucent vial a few inches away. Then there is Charles III, one of the Carolingian kings, locked in two black wooden file cabinets.
Their remains are the passion — or perhaps obsession — of Philippe Charlier, France’s most famous forensic sleuth.
A 34-year-old medical doctor and anthropologist, he conducts autopsies on bodies brought to the Raymond Poincare University Hospital in the Paris suburb of Garches by morning and teaches at Paris Descartes University by afternoon. In between, he investigates the illnesses and deaths of the rich and powerful who made French history.
He refers to these subjects as his patients, and he prides himself on using the same rigorous methods as he would on current forensic cases. “Whether it’s Joan of Arc or a hand the police bring in from the Seine, it’s equally important,” he said.
But Charlier does not confine himself to his closet of a laboratory at the hospital here. He writes books, makes television documentaries and does radio broadcasts to popularize his findings, earning him the title of “Indiana Jones of the graveyards.”
This year alone he has published two books, one on secrets of the great crimes of history, another on sickness and death in primitive art.
His public persona has brought criticism from those who complain he is as interested in fame as in science.
He says his pursuit of fame is well intentioned: “I want to share everything I know with the greatest number of people. What I do is not dilettantism; it’s intellectual vulgarization.”
In May, he began work on dust fragments taken from the heart of Richard the Lionheart, which is kept in the antiquities museum of Rouen in northern France. Richard, the 12th-century British monarch, died at 42 of an infected crossbow wound suffered in a siege of a French castle.
Charlier is conducting chemical tests to determine what germ killed Richard and to learn more about 12th-century embalming, which was often carried out by barbers and cooks. (Richard was embalmed using mercury).
But Charlier was not allowed to conduct DNA testing — to discourage persistent requests by Britons who have long sought to establish blood ties to Richard.
Charlier became interested in historical remains as a child in Seine-et-Marne, near Paris, when he participated in an archaeological dig of a Merovingian cemetery dating from sometime between the fifth and eighth centuries. His love of archaeology also stemmed from Homer, which his mother read to him and his sister at bedtime.
Over the years, he has often grabbed headlines with his findings.
In 2007, he led a team of researchers who determined that bone fragments accepted by the Roman Catholic Church long ago as those of Joan of Arc, a virgin-warrior-martyr-saint, were forgeries — taken from a cat and an ancient Egyptian mummy.
Joan, who claimed divine guidance in leading the French army to victory over the British at Orleans and helping to restore Charles VII to the throne, was condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake by the British in Rouen in 1431.
In 1867, a jar was discovered in the attic of a Paris apothecary bearing the inscription, “Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans.” It was subsequently kept in a museum in Chinon, in western France.
Charlier’s team examined the jar’s contents: a human rib, bits of apparently carbonized wood, a fragment of linen and a cat femur. Carbon dating revealed that the “relics” came from another era: sometime between the sixth and third centuries BC.
Charlier’s dream is to gain access to the mass grave of the remains of France’s royals, which were taken from their marble tombs in the basement of the St.-Denis basilica and preserved in a single vault. It has remained sealed since 1817.
“I have petitioned the French state for help,” he said. “We could learn so much about them, how they lived, became ill, died. And their bones deserve to go home.”