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updated 12/17/2006 8:40:14 PM ET 2006-12-18T01:40:14

A rib bone and a piece of cloth supposedly recovered after Joan of Arc was burned at the stake are probably not hers, according to experts trying to unravel one of the mysteries surrounding the 15th century French heroine.

Eighteen experts began a series of tests six months ago on the fragments reportedly recovered from the pyre where the 19-year-old was burned for heresy.

Although the tests have not been completed, findings so far indicate there is "relatively little chance" that the remnants are hers, Philippe Charlier, the head of the team, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

The fragment of linen from the 15th century "wasn't burned. It was dyed," Charlier said. And a blackened substance around the 6-inch rib bone was not "carbonized remains" but vegetable and mineral debris, "something that rather resembles embalming substance," he said.

Joan of Arc was burned to death on May 30, 1431 in the Normandy town of Rouen following a trial. Legend has it that her ashes were scattered in the Seine River.

The rib bone and piece of cloth were supposedly recovered from the pyre by an unidentified person and conserved by an apothecary until 1867, before being turned over to the archdiocese of Tours. They are now stored at a museum in Chinon, about 150 miles southwest of Paris.

In 1909, scientists declared it "highly probable" that the remains were those of Joan of Arc. Given developments in genetic technology in recent years, researchers decided to test the remains again to try to determine if they were definitely hers.

But the probability that the remains are those of Joan of Arc are "enormously lessening," Charlier said. "We're instead moving toward the hypotheses of a fake relic or of a relic that was transformed."

"It could be that these are human remains of the 15th century subjected to a sort of embalming or protection as happened when relics were manipulated," he said. "But we know, in any event, that Joan of Arc was not embalmed."

A cat femur found among the remains just confuses the matter.

For some, it lends weight to the notion of a hoax or a fake relic. However, other historians say cats or other animals representing the devil could have been thrown into pyres in medieval times, Charlier said. In any case, the blackened substance around the cat femur, like the rib bone, was also found to be vegetable and mineral debris, he said.

Charlier stressed that results from other tests were still pending, including carbon-14 dating and genetic tests to determine the sex of the individual.

Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and witchcraft and burned at the stake after leading the French to several victories over the English during the Hundred Years War, notably in Orleans, south of Paris.

The illiterate farm girl from Lorraine, in eastern France, disguised herself as a man in her war campaigns and said she heard voices from a trio of saints telling her to deliver France from the English. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and made a saint in 1920.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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