The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology Part 1

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Last Updated By Bill's Bible Basics :
February 16, 2017

In addition to reading and studying all of the information which is available in this section of the Bill's Bible Basics website regarding the Shroud of Turin, and the Sudarium of Oviedo, please also consider reading my article entitled "Faith and the Shroud of Turin" in order to gain a full perspective regarding this issue.

By William Meacham - Archaeologist

CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY - Vol. 24 - N'' 3 - (June 1983)

Published by the University of Chicago Press

Copyright 1983 by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

OF ALL RELIGIOUS RELICS, the reputed burial cloth of Christ held since 1578 in Turin has generated the greatest controversy. Centuries before science cast the issue in a totally new perspective, disputes over the authenticity of the Shroud involved eminent prelates and provoked a minor ecclesiastical power struggle. From its first recorded exhibition in France in 1351, this cloth has been the object of mass veneration, on the one hand, and scorn from a number of learned clerics and freethinkers, on the other. Appearing as it did in an age of unparalleled relic-mongering and forgery and, if genuine, lacking documentation of its whereabouts for 1,300 years, the Shroud would certainly have long ago been consigned to the ranks of spurious relics (along with several other shrouds with similar claims) were it not for the extraordinary image it bears.

Sepia-yellow in color, the apparent frontal and dorsal imprints of a man's body may be discerned on this 4.3 X 1.1-m linen cloth. Stains of a slightly darker carmine or rust color, with the appearance of blood, are seen in areas consistent with the biblical account of the scourging and crucifixion of Christ. The image lacks the sharp outline and vivid color of a painting and is described as "melting away" as the viewer approaches the cloth. Yet the consensus of skeptical opinion up to the 1930s (with a few surviving remnants today) was that the image was indeed a medieval painting of Jesus which had through time taken on the appearance of a truly ancient relic.

Modern technology served as a catalyst to renewed controversy when the Shroud was first photographed, during a rare exhibition in 1898. Black-and-white photography had the fortuitous effect of considerably heightening the contrast of the image, thus bringing out details not readily discernible to the naked eye. Remarkably, its negative image was found to be an altogether more lifelike portrait of the body and, especially, of the face. From the rather grotesque and murky facial imprint visible on the cloth, reversal of light and dark revealed a harmonious and properly proportioned visage. This discovery of course created a sensation in the media, with claims of miraculous intervention and accusations of darkroom hoax.

Photography made another and far more important contribution in making available copies and enlargements of the Shroud image for detailed study by anatomists and art historians. By the time of its next exhibition in 1931, the Shroud had attracted a considerable following among scholars; it was inspected at that time by experts in various fields, and a vastly superior set of photographs was taken (see figs. 1 and 2). The scientific inquiry into this object, whether medieval fraud or "the holiest icon upon the holiest relic" (Stacpoole 1978), had begun, culminating by 1980 in what must be the most intensive and varied scrutiny by scientific means of any archaeological or art object in history.

In a statement which may not be as hyperbolic as it seems, Walsh (1963:8) observed: "The Shroud of Turin is either the most awesome and instructive relic of Jesus Christ in existence... or it is one of the most ingenious, most unbelievably clever, products of the human mind and hand on record. It is one or the other; there is no middle ground." However, as in almost every complex issue, there is indeed a middle ground (albeit rather weak) in this case, but it has not to my knowledge been investigated in other writings on the Shroud. Clearly, every remote possibility of forgery, hoax, accident, or combination thereof must be examined before a firm archaeological/historical judgement on this artifact can be proffered.

Of the three interrelated areas of interest in this relic - authenticity, mechanism of image formation, and religious significance - we shall be concerned here mainly with the first. While high technology and theology contend respectively with the other aspects of the relic, determination of its origin and place in history is an archaeological issue. The cloth is an unprovenanced artifact purporting to be associated with events in recorded history and encoded with considerable information about its past. Direct study and testing of the relic since 1900 have yielded a wealth of data, and in this paper I attempt to review and summarize the major empirical data and other relevant research. Further, and unlike the authors of the most recent broad reviews on Shroud studies (e.g. Wilson 1978, Sox 1981, Schwalbe and Rogers 1982), I address the question of authenticity in historical/archaeological terms.

Authentication of the Shroud differs from that of manuscripts, sculptures, and other materials only in the wide range of data from many disciplines - anatomy, scientific analyses, history, archaeology, art history, exegesis - which has a bearing on the issue. The fact that it is a religious relic associated with supernatural claims is of no consequence here; certainly there is no justification for employing different or stricter criteria than for any other important artifact, except perhaps in according greater consideration to the possibility of forgery. Considerations of the Shroud have frequently been marred by an intense desire to believe and an imprecise use of data among the overzealous and by an insistence on impossible standards of proof among the skeptics. Clearly, authenticity should be judged on criteria no more and no less stringent than those applied in the usual identification of ancient city sites, royal tombs, manuscripts, etc.


Scientific scrutiny of the Shroud image began in 1900 at the Sorbonne. Under the direction of Yves Delage, professor of comparative anatomy, a study was undertaken of the physiology and pathology of the apparent body imprint and of the possible manner of its formation. The image was found to be anatomically flawless down to minor details: the characteristic features of rigor mortis, wounds, and blood flows provided conclusive evidence to the anatomists that the image was formed by direct or indirect contact with a corpse, not painted onto the cloth or scorched thereon by a hot statue (two of the current theories). On this point all medical opinion since the time of Delage has been unanimous (notably Hynek 1936; Vignon 1939; Moedder 1949; Caselli 1950; La Cava 1953; Sava 1957; Judica-Cordiglia 1961; Barbet 1963 ; Bucklin 1970; Willis, in Wilson 1978; Cameron 1978; Zugibe, in Murphy 1981). This line of evidence is of great importance in the question of authenticity and is briefly reviewed below.

The body was that of an adult male, nude, with beard, mustache, and long hair falling to the shoulders and drawn at the back into a pigtail. Height is estimated at between 5 ft. 9 in. and 5 ft. 11 in. (175-180 cm), weight at 165-180 lb. (75-81 kg), and age at 30 to 45 years. Carleton Coon (quoted in Wilcox 1977:133) describes the man as "of a physical type found in modern times among Sephardic Jews and noble Arabs." Curto (quoted in Sox 1981:70, 131), however, describes the physiognomy as more Iranian than Semitic. The body is well proportioned and muscular, with no observable defects.

Death had occurred several hours before the deposition of the corpse, which was laid out on half of the Shroud, the other half then being drawn over the head to cover the body. It is clear that the cloth was in contact with the body for at least a few hours, but not more than two to three days, assuming that decomposition was progressing at the normal rate. Both frontal and dorsal images have the marks of many small drops of a postmortem serous fluid exuded from the pores. There is, however, no evidence of initial decomposition of the body, no issue of fluids from the orifices, and no decline of rigor mortis leading to flattening of the back and blurred or double imprints.

Rigor mortis is seen in the stiffness of the extremities, the retraction of the thumbs (discussed below), and the distention of the feet. It has frozen an attitude of death while hanging by the arms; the rib cage is abnormally expanded, the large pectoral muscles are in an attitude of extreme inspiration (enlarged and drawn up toward the collarbone and arms), the lower abdomen is distended, and the epigastric hollow is drawn in sharply. The protrusion of the femoral quadriceps and hip muscles is consistent with slow death by hanging, during which the victim must raise his body by exertion of the legs in order to exhale.

The evidence of death in a position of suspension by the arms coupled with the characteristic wounds and blood flows indicate that the individual had been crucified. The rigor mortis position of outstretched arms would have had to be broken in order to cross the hands at the pelvis for burial, and a probable result is seen in the slight dislocation of the right elbow and shoulder. The feet indicate something of their original positioning on the cross, the left being placed on the instep of the right with a single nail impaling both. Apparently there was some flexion of the left knee to achieve this position, leaving the left foot somewhat higher than the right. Two theories, each supported by experimental or wartime observations, contend as regards cause of death: asphyxiation due to muscular spasm, progressive rigidity, and inability to exhale (Barbet, Hynek, Bucklin) or circulatory failure from lowering of blood pressure and pooling of blood in the lower extremities (Moedder, Willis).

Of greatest interest and importance are the wounds. As with the general anatomy of the image, the wounds, blood flows, and the stains themselves appear to forensic pathologists flawless and unfakeable. "Each of the different wounds acted in a characteristic fashion. Each bled in a manner which corresponded to the nature of the injury. The blood followed gravity in every instance" (Bucklin 1961:5). The bloodstains are perfect, bordered pictures of blood clots, with a concentration of red corpuscles around the edge of the clot and a tiny area of serum inside. Also discernible are a number of facial wounds, listed by Willis (cited in Wilson 1978:23) as swelling of both eyebrows, torn right eyelid, large swelling below right eye, swollen nose, bruise on right cheek, swelling in left cheek and left side of chin.

The body is peppered with marks of a severe flogging estimated at between 60 and 120 lashes of a whip with two or three studs at the thong end. Each contusion is about 3.7 cm long, and these are found on both sides of the body from the shoulders to the calves, with only the arms spared. Superimposed on the marks of flogging on the right shoulder and left scapular region are two broad excoriated areas, generally considered to have resulted from friction or pressure from a flat surface, as from carrying the crossbar or writhing on the cross. There are also contusions on both knees and cuts on the left kneecap, as from repeated falls.

The wounds of the crucifixion itself are seen in the blood flows from the wrists and feet. One of the most interesting features of the Shroud is that the nail wounds are in the wrists, not in the palm as traditionally depicted in art. Experimenting with cadavers and amputated arms, Barbet (1953:102-20) demonstrated that nailing at the point indicated on the Shroud image, the so-called space of Destot between the bones of the wrist, allowed the body weight to be supported, where-as the palm would tear away from the nail under a fraction of the body weight. Sava (1957:440) holds that the wristbones and tendons would be severely damaged by nailing and that the Shroud figure was nailed through the wrist end of the forearm, but most medical opinion concurs in siting the nailing at the wrist. Barbet also observed that the median nerve was invariably injured by the nail, causing the thumb to retract into the palm. Neither thumb is visible on the Shroud, their position in the palm presumably being retained by rigor mortis.

The blood flow from the wrists trails down the forearms at two angles, roughly 55'' and 65'' from the axis of the arm, thus allowing the crucifixion position of the arms to be reconstructed. It is generally agreed that the separate flows from the left wrist and the interrupted streams along the length of the arm are due to slightly different positions assumed by the body on the cross. This seesaw motion is interpreted as necessary simply in order to breathe or as an attempt to relieve the pain in the wrists (the median nerve is also sensory and pain from injuries to it excruciating). A postmortem blood flow with separation of serum is seen around the left wrist and more copiously at the feet, presumably from the removal of the nails.

The pathology described thus far may well have characterized any number of crucifixion victims, since beating, scourging, carrying the crossbar, and nailing were common traits of a Roman execution. The lacerations about the upper bead and the wound in the side are unusual and thus crucial in the identification of the Shroud figure. The exact nature of these wounds, especially whether they were inflicted on a living body and whether they could have been faked, is highly significant. Around the upper scalp and extending to its vertex are at least 30 blood flows from spike punctures. These wounds exhibit the same realism as those of the hand and feet: the bleeding is highly characteristic of scalp wounds with the retraction of torn vessels, the blood meets obstructions as it flows and pools on the forehead and hair, and there appears to be swelling around the points of laceration (though Bucklin [personal communication, 1982] doubts that swelling can be discerned). Several clots have the distinctive characteristics of either venous or arterial blood, as seen in the density, uniformity, or modality of coagulation (Rodante 1982). One writer (Freeland, cited in Sox 1981) questions the highly visible nature of the wounds and clots, as if the Shroud man had been bald or the stains painted over the body image.

Between the fifth and sixth ribs on the right side is an oval puncture about 4.4 X 1.1 cm. Blood has flowed down from this wound and also onto the lower back, indicating a second outflow when the body was moved to a horizontal position. All authorities agree that this wound was inflicted after death, judging from the small quantity of blood issued, the separation of clot and serum, the lack of swelling, and the deeper color and more viscous consistency of the blood. Stains of a body fluid are intermingled with the blood, and numerous theories have been offered as to its origin: pericardial fluid (Judica, Barbet), fluid from the pleural sac (Moedder), or serous fluid from settled blood in the pleural cavity (Saval, Bucklin).

So convincing was the realism of these wounds and their association with the biblical accounts that Delage, an agnostic, declared them "a bundle of imposing probabilities" and concluded that the Shroud figure was indeed Christ. His assistant, Vignon (1937), declared the Shroud's identification to be "as sure as a photograph or set of fingerprints." Ironically, the most vehement opposition was to come from two of Europe's most learned clerics.


While medical studies of the body image were providing strong evidence for genuineness, inquiries into the Shroud's history showed its case to be extremely weak. In 1900, the distinguished scholar Canon Ulisse Chevalier published a series of historical documents shedding light on the early years of the Shroud in France and casting seemingly insurmountable doubts on its authenticity. An English Jesuit, Herbert Thurston, condemned the relic in a persuasive and powerful style "that muted and almost stifled the controversy in the English-speaking world" (Walsh 1963:69).

With rivals at Besanon, Cadouin, Champiegne, and elsewhere, this purported "Shroud of Christ" appeared in 1353 in Lirey, France, under mysterious circumstances and with no documentation whatever. It immediately began to draw large numbers of pilgrims to a modest wooden church founded by the Shroud's owner and tended by six clergy but in financial difficulties. Its exhibition was condemned by the resident bishop, Henri de Poitiers. His successor, Pierre d'Arcis, compiled a memorandum in 1389 urging the pope to prohibit further exhibitions of the relic because its fraudulent nature had been discovered by de Poitiers and an unnamed artist had confessed to painting the image. To d'Arcis, the absence of historical reference was equally damning; he considered it "quite unlikely that the Holy Evangelists would have omitted to record an imprint on Christ's burial linens, or that the fact should have remained hidden until the present time" (quoted in Thurston 1903). In all the recorded veneration of countless relics down to the 13th century, there had been no mention of Christ's shroud's bearing an imprint of his body. This silence of history together with the suspicious circumstances of the Shroud's appearance and the confession of the artist seemed sufficient to settle the matter. Thurston concluded confidently, "The case is here so strong that. . . . the probability of an error in the verdict of history must be accounted, it seems to me, as almost infinitesimal." However, this historical argumentum ex silencio must be considered as an open verdict, as we shall see.

In 1203, a French soldier with the Crusaders camped in Constantinople (who were responsible for the sack of the city the following year) noted that a church there exhibited every Friday the cloth in which Christ was buried, and "his figure could be plainly seen there" (de Clari 1936:112). It is likely that this cloth and the Turin Shroud are the same, especially in view of the pollen evidence (discussed below) and the fact that these are the only known "Shrouds of Christ" with a body imprint. It now seems virtually certain that the Turin Shroud was among the spoils of the Crusades, along with many other relics looted from churches and monasteries in the East and brought back to Europe. Another shroud, now at Cadouin, was found by the Crusaders at Antioch in 1098, brought back to France, and venerated down to the present. (Unfortunately for its cult, the Cadouin Shroud was discovered to have ornamental bands in Kufic carrying 11th-century Moslem prayers [Francez 1935:7).) Wilson (1978:200-215) argues that the Turin Shroud was held and secretly worshipped by the Knights Templars between 1204 and 1314, passing later into history in the possession of a knight with the same name as the earlier Templar master of Normandy (Geoffrey de Charny). Others (e.g., Rinaldi 1972:18) identify the Turin Shroud with the "Burial Sheet of the Redeemer" brought to Besanon from Constantinople, according to unsubstantiated tradition, by a Crusader captain in 1207.

The enigma of the Shroud's history prior to the Crusades will probably never be resolved, but certain points of departure for hypothesis can be established. Pollen samples taken from it reveal that it has been in Turkey and Palestine, and the medical evidence seems to place it in the era of crucifixion. These data strongly suggest that the Shroud is a relic from the early church period. Whether forgery, accident, or genuine, however, the cloth has escaped the gaze of history through a long period in which a relic purporting to be Christ's burial linen and actually bearing his image would have attracted enormous attention and pilgrimage. Whereas other important relics acquired by the Byzantine capital were received with much fanfare and ample recording, there is no mention of when or from what quarter this shroud was obtained. It first appears in the lists of relics held at Constantinople in 1093 as "the linens found in the tomb after the resurrection."

Of the many relics which "came to light" during the first great cult of relics in the 4th century, there is no mention of a shroud. However, history is not totally silent on the possible preservation of Christ's burial cloth. In a pilgrim's account dated ca. 570 there occurs a reference to "the cloth which was over the head of Jesus" kept in a cave convent on the Jordan River. In 670, another pilgrim described having seen the 8-ft.-long shroud of Christ exhibited in a church in Jerusalem (cited in Green 1969). Earlier references to the preservation of the burial linens are more legendary. A passage in the apocryphal 2d-century "Gospel of the Hebrews" relating that Jesus gave his shroud to the servant of the priest and a statement by St. Nino of the 4th century that the burial linen was held first by Pilate's wife and then by Luke the evangelist, "who put it in a place known only to himself."

It is of course impossible to establish whether any of these early references actually describe the Turin Shroud, and we may conclude only that it was possibly lost or kept in relative obscurity during the early centuries, eventually being taken to Constantinople. If genuine, the most difficult time for which to construct a plausible scenario is the earliest period. How might such an important relic of Christ's burial have been preserved by persons and in circumstances unknown to the early church at large? And, whether genuine or forged, what is to account for the 700 to 1,000 years during which the image on the cloth is not mentioned?

The actual shroud of Christ may well have been kept in obscurity by 1st-century Christians, perhaps for political reasons and/or out of aversion to an "unclean" object of the dead. By A.D. 66 the Judaeo-Christians had migrated east of the Jordan, and thereafter little is known of them apart from their increasing isolation from the early church and their heretical tendencies. If the Shroud had been taken from Jerusalem by this group, its obscurity in the early centuries would be understandable. Justin Martyr, writing in mid-2d century, observed that Christians who still kept the practices of orthodox Judaism were a rarity regarded with much suspicion.

Other factors which may have played a role in the Shroud's early history and absence of documentation are (1) a very gradual emergence of a visible image on the cloth, (2) folding or wrapping of the cloth so that none or only a portion of the image was visible, and (3) storage, oblivion, and re-discovery of the relic. In times of prosperity as in turmoil and persecution, valued relics were customarily placed in various parts of church structures, homes, and catacombs; it often happened that these objects were forgotten, only coming to light in later construction or warfare. The looting of Edessa (Urfa, Turkey) by 12th-century Turkish Moslems, for example, yielded "many treasures hidden in secret places, foundations, roofs from the earliest times of the fathers and elders. . . . of which the citizens knew nothing" (Segal 1970:253). Similarly, it was not uncommon for manuscripts, works of art, and relics kept in monasteries gradually to drift out of the collective memory; the most notable example is the Codex Sinaiticus, which reposed in a Sinai monastery for over 1,000 years, its importance totally unknown to its keepers.

Wilson (1978:109-93) has offered an elaborate and ingenious identification of the Shroud, folded four times to show only the face, with the Mandylion, a cloth said to have received the miraculous imprint of Christ's face and to have been taken to Edessa in ca. A.D. 40 by the disciple Thaddeus. This semilegendary account of the "Image of Edessa" describes it as having been hidden in a wall during a persecution in A.D. 57 and forgotten until its discovery during a siege of the city ca. 525. The history of the Mandylion is well documented thereafter; it was held at Edessa until 944 and then at Constantinople until its disappearance in 1204. There are, however, numerous problems with a Shroud/Mandylion link (Cameron 1980), notably the difference in size, separate mention on relic lists, and the silence on its eventual "revelation" as a burial cloth.

The tradition of the miraculous imprint of Christ's face developed first in the Byzantine empire. Gibbon (1776-78: chap. 49) records that "before the end of the sixth century, these images made without hands were propagated in the camps and cities of the Eastern empire." In the 7th and 8th centuries in the West arises a similar tradition, that of Veronica, who wiped the brow of Christ with her veil and found a facial imprint remaining. It is quite possible that these traditions have an ultimate basis in the Shroud and its figure, transformed into an image of the living Christ to accord with early Byzantine iconographic conventions. On the other hand, the flourishing of these traditions represents a most likely impetus and context for a forged burial cloth with body imprint.

In sum, although the Shroud's history prior to 1353 is a matter of much rich conjecture and little firm evidence, there are numerous possible avenues by which the Shroud could have come down to us from the Jerusalem of A.D. 30. Genuine or forged, the absence of references to it in the 1st millennium is equally enigmatic. It must be admitted, however, that even if the Shroud's history could be extended back to the early Byzantine era, the case for its authenticity would not be significantly improved.


The fact that the Shroud is not easily harmonized with the Gospel accounts has been taken as evidence both for and against authenticity. A number of biblical scholars (discussed in Bulst 1957 and O'Rahilley 1941) have rejected the Shroud because of a perceived conflict on two points: the washing of the body and the type of linen cloths used in wrapping it. Robinson (1978:69), on the other hand, suggests that "no forger starting, as he inevitably would, from the Gospel narratives, and especially that of the fourth, would have created the Shroud we have." The Shroud could of course be genuine and not necessarily agree in every detail with the biblical account: it could also have been forged by persons who were close to the early burial traditions and therefore based their work on a better understanding of the Johannine Gospel account than is possible today.

The wounds seen in the Shroud image correspond perfectly with those of Christ recorded in the Gospel accounts: beating with fists and blow to the face with a club, flogging, "crown of thorns," nailing in hands (Aramaic yad, including wrists and base of forearm) and feet, lance thrust to the side (the right side, according to tradition) after death, issue of "blood and water" from the side wound, legs unbroken, McNair (1978:23) contends that such an exact concordance could hardly be coincidental: "it seems to me otiose, if not ridiculous, to spend time arguing . . . about the identity of the man represented in the Turin Shroud. Whether genuine or fake, the representation is obviously Jesus Christ."

The apparent bloodstains on the Shroud conflict with the long-established tradition in biblical exegesis that Christ's body was washed before burial, which was carried out "following the Jewish burial custom" (John 19:40). The phrase, however, refers directly to the deposition of the body in a linen cloth together with spices. All of the Gospels convey the information that Christ's burial was hasty and incomplete because of the approaching Sabbath. In the earlier accounts of Mark and Luke, the women are said to be returning on Sunday morning to anoint the body with ointments prepared over the Sabbath, when washing a body for burial was effectively forbidden by the ritual proscription of moving or lifting a corpse.

Greater difficulties are encountered in John's descriptions of the burial linens. The synoptic Gospels record that the body was wrapped or folded in a fine linen sindon or sheet. Although the traditional idea is that this sheet was wound around the body, there is no difficulty in reconciling it with the Shroud. John (20:5-8) describes the body as "bound" with othonia, a word of uncertain meaning generally taken as "cloth" or "cloths." In the empty tomb he relates seeing "the othonia lying there, but the napkin (soudarion) which had been over the head not lying with the othonia but folded [or rolled up] in a place by itself." To elucidate this passage, almost as many theories as there are possibilities have been put forward. One which would exclude the Shroud is that the linen sheet was cut up into bands to wrap around the corpse, but most exegetes reject this notion. The fact that Luke describes the body as wrapped in a sindon and then relates that the othonia were seen in the empty tomb is taken by some as an equation of the two, by others as a distinction. Most commentators identify the Shroud with the sindon and offer one of the following interpretations: (1) The othonia is the Shroud, the soudarion is a chin band tied around the head to hold up the lower jaw, and the hands and feet were bound with linen strips. In the account of Lazarus, a soudarion is mentioned "around his face," and his hands and feet are bound with keiriai (twisted rushes). Three-dimensional projections of the Shroud face have indicated a retraction of beard and hair where a chin band would have been tied. The Greek soudarion is clearly a kerchief or napkin. (2) The soudarion is the Shroud, and the othonia are bands used to tie up the body. In the vernacular Aramaic, soudara included larger cloths, and the phrases "over his head" and "rolled up in a place by itself" suggest an item more substantial than a mere kerchief.

Clearly, the Shroud as a "fifth gospel" is difficult to harmonize with the others. Although it can be worked into the biblical accounts of the burial linen, no evidence for its authenticity can be gleaned therefrom. On the other hand, the exact correspondence of the wounds of Christ with those of the Shroud man is of supreme importance; if genuine, the Shroud would provide a most extraordinary archaeological reflection of the crucifixion accounts rendered by the evangelists. But upon this ultimate question, the verdict of history and exegesis must be recorded as open.

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