The Hollywood Holy Grail
New film takes Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories and shaky evidence to new heights
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Joseph Brean, National Post
When Ben Hammott discovered the apparent tomb of a Knight Templar at the bottom of a hole in a cave in the countryside of southern France, he thought he had discovered the final resting place of Mary Magdalene, and so he did what any amateur treasure hunter in this age of the Da Vinci Code would have done.
He returned with a Hollywood director, lowered a pole into the tomb with "some sticky stuff on the end," removed the shroud from the body, plucked some hair from the corpse's head, and sent it off for DNA analysis at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
The verdict? According to Steve Fratpietro, technical manager of the university's world-class Paleo DNA Laboratory, it is inconclusive. Even the corpse's gender is uncertain, although it was traced to a genetic grouping that originated in the northern Middle East and spread into Europe.
But shaky evidence has never been much of an obstacle to grand conspiracy theories, and this one, as described in the forthcoming documentary film Bloodline, is the grandest.
The theory, which got its most prominent airing in Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, is roughly that Jesus may have survived his crucifixion and left the Holy Land with his pregnant "wife," Mary Magdalene, and landed near Marseille in the south of France, where their descendants intermarried with the Merovingian dynasty of French royalty in the fifth century. This secret, so the story goes, is potentially so devastating to the Catholic Church that a shadowy organization, the Priory of Sion, was established to protect this most holy of bloodlines.
As Bloodline producer Rene Barnett said in an interview yesterday, the film's research and Mr. Hammott's discoveries "clearly call into question the historical Jesus and the story that we've been taught all these 2,000 years."
As such, the film is an extension of the vast body of research into Berenger Sauniere, a nineteenth-century rural French priest who appears to have come into a vast quantity of money for no obvious reason, and then stashed something important in the countryside of Languedoc, near Rennes-le-Chateau. The overarching implication in the scholarship-- which draws on the history of the Crusades, Joan of Arc, King Arthur, the Fisher King, the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the arcane symbols of pagan sun worship and just about every other major theme in the conspiratorial view of European history -- is that he had found the Holy Grail, the cup that caught Jesus' blood, and evidence of his marriage to Mary Magdalene.
There are, of course, grounds for doubt. "Ben Hammott," for example, is an anagram for "The Tombman," the former online moniker of a British man who appears in the film but refuses to divulge his real name. And his story of discovering a Templar tomb by dropping his camera into a hole stretches the bounds of both serendipity, and credulity.
"I think almost all the pillars in the film are fraudulent," said Andrew Gough, a contributor to The Dan Brown Companion who runs a British web-forum on esoteric mysteries and knows Mr. Hammott personally.
"He claims to have dropped a camcorder into a crevice in a mountain. Dropped it. And when he retrieved it, it had been filming and filmed a tomb. I mean, I may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night, you know? He has no credentials. He's a lovely guy, great sense of humour, really nice guy," Mr. Gough said.
He also said he doubts Mr. Hammott's claim that he never entered the tomb, because his photos seem to show that objects have moved.
"The story is different every time he tells it," Mr. Gough said.
Like all great stories, this one gets even better. After he found the tomb in 1999, Mr. Hammott returned over the years to the village of Rennes-le-Chateau to study the symbols that Sauniere built into his parish church, which has become a major past-time for amateur treasure hunters since the publication of The Da Vinci Code. Similarly, there are popular Da Vinci Code walking tours in Paris and London.
"He started finding these buried bottles in the countryside," said Ms. Barnett. "Inside the bottles were further clues that led to other bottles."
In one were papers apparently written by Sauniere, saying Jesus' resurrection was a trick pulled off by Mary Magdalene, who removed the body from the tomb and took it to Europe, where it was discovered by the Knights Templar and re-hidden three times. "Parts of the body are safe," it said. The note in the final bottle directed the finder to a site in another cave near the village, where Sauniere had buried a box with "the cup of Jesus and Mary Magdalene."
Sure enough, Mr. Hammott and the Bloodline team found a buried chest containing a pottery cup, a perfume jar, a thin bottle of blown glass and 30 coins dating from 100 BC through the 13th century.
The Internet hype is that Mr. Hammott has solved Sauniere's riddles -- that the Holy Grail has been found and is now held at a secure location by Hollywood producers -- but Mr. Gough said Mr. Hammott's behaviour after finding the bottles suggests a stronger interest in publicity than discovery.
"If you or I discovered a bottle that we thought contained great secret parchments and messages and codes, wouldn't you open it? But no, they bring it back to London and take it to a symposium in Glastonbury, and open it in public, and everyone says, 'Oh, that's red felt-tip pen. I didn't know they had soluble ink at the turn of the last century.' It looked totally implausible. Then, all of a sudden, there's three or four more bottles. And there's spelling errors. The priest [Sauniere] spells his [own] name wrong. It goes from bad to worse ... It's like an Easter egg hunt," Mr. Gough said.
He called that particular parchment a "stupid forgery," and said the artifacts in the buried chest -- publicly authenticated by the British Museum and an Israeli academic -- can be easily purchased on eBay.
At the time of the hair retrieval, the discovery of the Templar tomb had not yet reported the find to French authorities. Ms. Barnett said a report has now been filed, and the team is planning on a "full-scale excavation."
She said Mr. Hammott thinks the corpse might be Mary Magdalene herself, even though Templars were invariably men.
Lakehead is signed on to do any further tests, and have requested either a molar or a long bone to be sure of a good DNA sample. But, as with the Templar's hair, they would prefer not to know all the gritty details.
"We just take the genetic information and plug it into a computer program," said Mr. Fratpietro, the technical manager. "That's pretty much it."