Science vs. ‘Shroud Science.’ – Shroud of Turin

Joe Nickell

In what Time magazine called a “sort of resurrection,” the Shroud of Turin controversy has risen once again. It was sparked by the reputed burial cloth’s exhibition during April and May in Turin, Italy, the first public showing in two decades. It also marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the first photograph of the cloth’s image – that of a man who appears to have been crucified like Jesus in the Christian gospels (Van Biema 1998).

Miraculous “Photograph”

The 1898 photographer’s glass-plate negatives revealed a startlingly realistic positive image, with the prominences in highlight and the recesses in shadow. Therefore the image on the cloth, shroud advocates claimed, was “a perfect photographic negative.” They insisted no artist could have painted such an image before the concept of photography. (Actually the image is only a quasi-negative, the hair and beard being the opposite of the features and giving the effect, when a positive is made, that Jesus was a white-bearded old man. [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].)

With the photographs began the modern era of the shroud, prompting attempts to explain the image. Simple contact imprinting was soon ruled out due to the images lack of wraparound distortions, and a concept called “vaporography” was disproved when the postulated vapors were shown to produce only a blur. In time “the first Polaroid in Palestine” was ascribed by proponents to “flash photolysis,” a “theory” that the image was produced by a miraculous burst of radiant energy at the time of Jesus’ resurrection (Nickell 1988).

“Shroud Science”

With such notions came an unfortunate abuse of science. Whereas the scientific approach is to let the evidence lead to a solution, “shroud science” (or “sindonology”) begins with the desired answer and then works backward, dismissing or rationalizing whatever arguments or evidence may be incompatible with it. It was therefore difficult to imagine that it was scientists who were so readily invoking a miracle. Unfortunately, the forty-some-member Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which conducted the 1978 investigation of the shroud, was woefully unqualified for the task. Many members were operating out of their specific fields, and bad – certainly questionable – science was rampant. That situation continues in sindonology today.

The 1998 exposition was shrewdly timed to begin a week after Easter, and media coverage before and during the religious season was intense. In addition to a spate of new books, including Ian Wilson’s The Blood and the Shroud, there was a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles as well as TV news segments. Alas, shroud science was well served by shroud journalism, whereby reporters’ questions about authenticity were directed primarily to shroud proponents – rather like asking members of the Flat Earth Society about the curvature of the earth.

Perhaps the most used word during the shroud media blitz was “mystery.” But honest journalists don’t engage in mystery mongering. Instead, like all true investigators, they believe mysteries are meant to be carefully and fairly examined. In the case of the Shroud of Turin, the question of authenticity was long ago settled.

The Historical Record

To begin at the beginning, the Shroud of Turin contradicts the Gospel of John, which describes multiple cloths for Jesus’s burial, including a separate “napkin” over the face, as well as “an hundred pound weight” of spices – not a trace of which appears on the Turin cloth. And nowhere in the New Testament is there mention of a remarkable portrait of Jesus having been left on his burial garment. In addition, no examples of the Shroud’s particular herringbone twill weave date from the first century.

Although Jesus’s body would have been ritually washed, as mandated by the Jewish Mishnah, the “body” imaged on the shroud was not cleansed (as shown by the dried blood on the arms). Some sindonologists attempt to circumvent the problem by citing a passage from the Code of Jewish law, but the supposed exception dates from some fifteen centuries after Christ and poorly applies to one who was buffed “as the manner of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40).

Although there have been some forty Holy Shrouds – along with other “relics” of Jesus, including vials of his tears and countless pieces of the True Cross there is no record of the Turin cloth until the mid-1350s. At that time a French bishop, Henri de Poitiers, was suspicious of its utter lack of provenance, questioning why the early evangelists had failed to mention such a marvel or why it had remained hidden for thirteen centuries. The shroud’s owner, a soldier of fortune named Geoffroy de Charny, never explained how he, a man of modest means, had acquired the most holy relic in all of Christendom (Nickell 1988).

According to a later bishop’s report to Pope Clement VII, dated 1389, Henri discovered that the shroud originated as part of a phony faith-healing scheme. “Pretended miracles” were staged, said the report’s author, Bishop Pierre D’Arcis, “so that money might cunningly be wrung” from unsuspecting pilgrims. “Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination,” he stated, Bishop Henri “discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed.” (Emphasis added.)

That the shroud is indeed the work of a medieval artist would explain numerous image flaws. For example, the’ physique is unnaturally elongated (like figures in Gothic art!). Also, the hair hangs as for a standing rather than recumbent figure, and the imprint of a bloody foot is incompatible with the outstretched leg to which it belongs. Everywhere the “blood” flows are unrealistically neat. Instead of matting the hair, for instance, they run in rivulets on the outside of the locks. And even the dried blood has implausibly transferred. In addition, real blood soaks into doth and spreads in all directions, rather than leaving picturelike images. As the noted pathologist Dr. Michael Baden observes of the overall shroud image, “Human beings don’t produce this kind of pattern” (Baden 1980).

The shroud exhibits many features that point specifically to artistry. For example, while St. Augustine lamented in the early fifth century that nothing whatsoever was known of Jesus’ appearance, the shroud image portrays the traditional, evolved artistic likeness. Also, by the eleventh century, artists were representing Jesus’ burial with a doublelength linen cloth and the hands crossed over the groin (unlike Jewish burial practice in which they were typically folded on the chest). And from the thirteenth century we find ceremonial or symbolic shrouds bearing full-length embroidered images of Christ’s body in this crossed-hands pose.

Scientific Analyses

The question of artistry versus authenticity is especially addressed by scientific examination of the “blood.” In 1973, as part of a special commission of scientists and scholars, internationally known forensic serologists subjected the bloodstains to a battery of scientific tests, all of which proved negative: the substance lacked the properties of blood. These tests included chemical analyses, thin-layer chromatography, and neutron activation analysis, as well as attempts to identify blood group and species. In fact, the scientists discovered reddish granules that would not even dissolve in reagents that dissolve blood. Subsequently the distinguished microanalyst Walter McCrone identified the blood as red ocher and vermilion tempera paint, which explained why it was bright red after at least seven centuries.

McCrone (who was, he says, “drummed out” of STURP for his efforts) also discovered that on the image – but not on the background – were significant amounts of the red ocher pigment. He first thought this was applied as a dry powder but later concluded it was a component of dilute paint applied in the medieval grisaille (monochromatic) technique. (McCrone believes the artist worked freehand; another possibility is shown in [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].) (McCrone 1996)

In 1988 the shroud cloth was finally carbon dated. Using accelerator mass spectrometry, laboratories at Zurich, Oxford, and the University of Arizona obtained dates in very close agreement (Damon, et al. 1989). These were given added credibility by correct radiocarbon dates from a variety of control swatches, including a piece from Cleopatra’s mummy cloth. The resulting age span was circa A.D. 1260-1390, or about the time Bishop Henri de Poitiers found the artist who admitted it was his creation.


Recently shroud scientists have claimed that microbial contamination may have altered the radiocarbon date; however, for there to be an error of thirteen centuries there would have to be twice as much contamination by weight as the shroud cloth itself! (Pickett 1996)

Another recent claim concerns reported evidence of human DNA in a shroud “blood” sample. Actually, the scientist cited, Victor Tryon of the University of Texas, insists that “Everyone who has ever touched the shroud or cried over the shroud has left a potential DNA signal there.” Tryon resigned from the new shroud project due to what he disparaged as “zealotry in science.” (Van Biema 1998, p. 61)

By such rationalizations and questionable evidence sindonologists promote their agenda. They offer one explanation for the contrary gospel evidence (maybe certain passages require clarification), another for the lack of historical record (maybe the cloth was hidden away), still another for the artist’s admission (maybe the reporting bishop misstated the case), yet another for the paint pigments (maybe an artist who copied the shroud ritualistically pressed it to the image), and so on. This should be called the “maybe” defense. It is all too characteristic of sindonology, which has failed to produce any scientifically viable hypothesis for the image formation.

Corroborative Evidence

The scientific approach, in contrast, is to allow the preponderance of prima facie evidence to lead to a conclusion: the shroud is the handiwork of a medieval artisan. The various pieces of the puzzle effectively interlock and corroborate each other. For example, the artist’s admission is supported by the lack of prior record, as well as by the revealingly red and picturelike “blood” that, in turn, has been identified as tempera paint. And the radiocarbon date is consistent with the time the artist was discovered.

Given this powerful, convincing evidence, it is unfortunate that we must now once again recall the words of Canon Ulysse Chevalier, the Catholic historian who brought to light the documentary evidence of the shroud’s medieval origin. As he lamented, “The history of the shroud constitutes a protracted violation of the two virtues so often commended by our holy books: justice and truth.”


Baden, Michael. 1980. Quoted in Reginald W. Rhein, Jr., The Shroud of Turin: Medical examiners disagree. Medical World News, Dec. 22, p. 50.

Damon, P. E., et al. 1989. Radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin. Nature 337: 611-615.

McCrone, Walter. 1996. Judgement Day for the Turin ‘Shroud.’ Chicago: Microscope Publications.

Nickell, Joe. 1988. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, 2nd updated ed. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. Except as otherwise noted, information for this article is taken from this text.

Pickett, Thomas J. 1996. Can contamination save the Shroud of Turin? Skeptical Briefs, June, p.3.

Van Biema, David. 1998. “Science and the Shroud.” Time, April 20, pp. 53-61.

Joe Nickell is author of Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, originally published in 1983, soon to be reissued by Prometheus Books.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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