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March 19, 2008 > TechKnow Talk: The Shroud of Turin: Holy or Hoax?

TechKnow Talk: The Shroud of Turin: Holy or Hoax?

The shroud of Turin is a woven linen cloth about 14 feet long and 3.5 feet wide. Its most striking feature is the faint image of a long-haired, bearded man with hands folded across his groin. A somewhat fainter image of the man's back is also visible on the same side, aligned in such a manner as to suggest the man was wrapped head to toe. The images are a light yellow in color and do not penetrate the cloth-they lie on the surface only.

The "man on the cloth" appears to have suffered wounds consistent with beating and crucifixion. There is a large wound in the wrist (only one is visible) and in each foot, as well as several smaller wounds on the forehead, legs, and abdomen. There are also what appear to be bloodstains associated with these injuries and rivulets of blood along the arms.

Some Christians believe the shroud of Turin was the cloth in which Jesus was wrapped for burial. Further, they believe the images were created by a divine, supernatural burst of energy associated with his resurrection. Let's examine the scientific evidence that has been gathered so far.

The existence of Jesus of Nazareth as an historical figure who was crucified about 30 A.D. is well-documented and accepted by the vast majority of historians. The debate over the authenticity of the shroud as the burial cloth of Jesus has centered around whether it is in fact 2000 years old or of more recent origin.

There seems little doubt that the shroud existed in 1349, when it was brought to France by a knight named Geoffrey de Charny. By 1460 the shroud had passed to the ruling family of Italy, the Savoys. It was nearly destroyed by fire in 1532, but survived with relatively minor scorching and several small holes created by a drop of melting silver from the box in which it was folded. Repairs were made to the shroud in 1534, including patching the holes, stitching on a backing cloth, and re-weaving some areas.

In 1694 the Savoys built a chapel in Turin to house the shroud. There it has remained for more than 300 years, except for brief intervals during which it was displayed, examined, or moved to safety during wartime. In 1983, the shroud was willed to the Catholic Church by the last of the royal Savoys, Umberto II, with the stipulation that it remain in Turin.

But where was the shroud prior to 1349? There are sketchy historical accounts of the shroud or something similar to it, in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) as early as the 10th century. There are also vague rumors that the shroud was part of the fabled treasure of the Knights Templar. In 1314, Geoffrey de Charny was burned at the stake in Paris alongside the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, but historians differ as to whether he was related to the knight by the same name who later possessed the shroud.

In short, there is no convincing evidence the shroud existed prior to 1349 and such evidence as does exist still leaves a 900 year gap. On the other hand, historical documentation of the Dark Ages is lacking.

In 1898, the first photographs of the shroud were taken. The image was very striking in the photographic negative - much clearer than in the positive prints. This phenomenon has never been adequately explained. As a result of this oddity, negative images are often used as a means to study shroud details.

In 1978, a team of scientists was allowed to thoroughly examine the shroud, expose photographic and X-ray images, and remove tiny samples of surface material, including some of the blood. Results were not conclusive, and in fact some of the researchers themselves failed to agree. Subsequent DNA testing on the blood determined it to be from a human male and of type AB. But there is no way to date such a sample.

By the way, the Catholic Church, now the custodian of the shroud, takes no official stance as to its authenticity, and has been amenable to a certain amount of scientific examination. In 1988, they allowed another scientific team to trim off a tiny sample for Carbon-14 dating. The results of the three independent laboratories that dated the material differed considerably, from about 1240-1400 A.D.

Despite the disturbing variability of the results, this would seem to correspond nicely to the first reliable historical records of the shroud, indicating that it is more than 1200 years too recent to have held the body of Jesus. However, in 2005 a paper was published presenting strong evidence that the area sampled in 1988 had been rewoven, and was not part of the original cloth.

To further complicate matters, an extensive, month-long restoration of the shroud was undertaken in 2002 by textile experts enlisted by the Vatican, without the knowledge of the scientific community. Some scientists fear the extensive handling, flattening, steaming, scrapping, re-backing, and exposure to ultraviolet light may have irrevocably destroyed important evidence.

Among those who feel the shroud is a fake or a hoax, many potential techniques have been suggested for the formation of the image, including selective exposure to sunlight or some other light source, human decomposition gases reacting with carbohydrates coating the flax fibers, a clever painting, and direct impression from a sculpture. None of these techniques has been used to satisfactorily reproduce the image, though some have produced somewhat similar results.

Some believe the image is that of Jacques de Molay, the previously mentioned Grand Master of the Knights Templar, who was horribly tortured and nailed to boards in 1307, seven years prior to his execution by fire. He may have been wrapped in a shroud and left for dead, though he ultimately recovered. Others suspect it is the creation of Leonardo Da Vinci, pointing to the similarity of features on the shroud image to a famous self-portrait by Da Vinci. This seems far-fetched, as the shroud's existence is documented more than 100 years prior to Da Vinci's birth in 1452.

The shroud is woven in a three-to-one herringbone pattern. Some textile experts assert this pattern was indeed known in the first century, though of a rather fine style to be typically used as a burial shroud. While this leaves open the possibility of a first-century origin, it does nothing to confirm it.

The height of the man who was wrapped in the shroud has been estimated as 72-74 inches, or at least six feet tall. Some claim this would have been abnormally tall for a Jew in the first century, though recent archeological evidence suggests, while considerably taller than average, a six-foot man would not have been rare in that place and time.

So where does this leave us? The most important fact, the age of the shroud, is still a matter of scientific debate. Scientists have been equally unsuccessful in determining how the images were formed. A tremendous amount of forensic evidence, including pollen samples, blood analysis, spectroscopy, and other chemical analyses have yielded inconclusive or unconvincing results.

Some Christians argue that this failure of science is itself evidence of the shroud's authenticity. It would be nearly impossible to prove that the shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus, but an accurate dating would either lend credence to this belief or convincingly disprove it. Someday the Vatican will again allow Carbon-14 dating of the shroud, hopefully from samples selected more carefully and taken from more than one location.

Despite the efforts of dozens of scientists over several decades, the shroud retains most of its mysteries, as well as the ability to inspire awe and fascination. Whether its age is ultimately determined to be 2000 years or a mere 700 years, it will remain an object of wonder, speculation, and investigation.

The shroud has been publicly displayed dozens of times since 1355, including four times in the 20th century. The most recent exhibition was in 2000 in Turin. The next public showing is scheduled for 2025. In the meantime, there is a tremendous amount of imagery and information on the Internet. A good source of unbiased information is www.shroud.com.

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