The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology Part 2

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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


Direct examination of the Shroud by scientific means began in 1969-73 with the appointment of an 11-member Turin Commission (1976) to advise on the preservation of the relic and on specific testing which might be undertaken. Five of its members were scientists, and preliminary studies of samples of the cloth were conducted by them in 1973. A much more detailed examination of the Shroud was carried out by a group of American scientists in 1978-81 as the Shroud of Turin Research Project (Culliton 1978, Bortin 1980, Stevenson and Habermas 1981, Schwalbe and Rogers 1982).

Samples of pollen collected from the Shroud by commission member Frei (1978) yielded identifications of 49 species of plants, representative of specific phytogeographical regions. In addition to 16 species of plants found in northern Europe, Frei identified 13 species of halophyte and desert plants "very characteristic of or exclusive to the Negev and Dead Sea area." A further 20 plant types were assigned to the Anatolian steppes, particularly the region of southwestern Turkey-northern Syria, and the Istanbul area. Frei concluded that the Shroud must have been exposed to air in the past in Palestine, Turkey, and Europe. Suggestions that the Shroud pollen derives from long-distance wind-borne deposits or from dust from the Crusaders' boots do not merit serious discussion.

The cloth itself has been described (Raes 1976) as a three-to-one herringbone twill, a common weave in antiquity but generally used in silks of the first centuries A.D. rather than linen. The thread was hand-spun and hand-loomed; after ca. 1200, most European thread was spun on the wheel. Minute traces of cotton fibers were discovered, an indication that the Shroud was woven on a loom also used for weaving cotton. (The use of equipment for working both cotton and linen would have been permitted by the ancient Jewish ritual code whereas wool and linen would have been worked on different looms to avoid the prohibited "mixing of kinds.") The cotton was of the Asian Gossypum herbaceum, and some commentators have construed its presence as conclusive evidence of a Middle Eastern origin. While not common in Europe until much later, cotton was being woven in Spain as early as the 8th century and in Holland by the 12th.

The Turin Commission conducted a series of tests aimed at clarifying the nature of the image. Thread samples were removed from the "blood" and image areas for laboratory investigation. Conventional and electron microscopic examination revealed an absence of heterogeneous coloring material or pigment. The image and "blood" stains were reported to have penetrated only the top fibrils; there had been no capillary action, and no material was caught in the crevices between threads. Both paint and blood seemed to be ruled out, and magnification up to 50,000 times showed the image to consist of fine yellow-red granules seemingly forming part of the fibers themselves and defying identification. Finally, standard forensic tests for haematic residues of blood yielded negative results.

The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) formed around a nucleus of scientists studying the Shroud by means of computer enhancement and image analysis. Jackson et al. (1977) scanned the image with a microdensitometer to record lightness variations in the image intensity and found a correlation with probable cloth-to-body distance, assuming that the Shroud was draped loosely over the corpse. They concluded that the image contains three-dimensional information, and confirmation was obtained by the use of a VP-8 Image Analyzer to convert shades of image intensity into vertical relief. Unlike ordinary photographs or paintings, the Shroud image converted into an undistorted three-dimensional figure, a phenomenon which suggested that the image-forming process acted uniformly through space over the body, front and back, and did not depend on contact of cloth with body at every point. Computer analysis (Tamburelli 1981) of the body image also revealed that it was formed nondirectionally, whereas the scourge marks exhibited a radiation from two centers to the left and right of the body, the former being somewhat higher than the latter. Enlargements of the scourge marks revealed an extraordinary detail consisting of minute scratches.

The Shroud face is also highly detailed, and the relief figure constructed therefrom had an extraordinary clarity and lifelike appearance. Retraction of the hair and beard where a chin band might have been ties has been noted. Flat, button-like objects interpreted as coins appear on both eyes; the protuberances stand out prominently when processed by isodensity enhancement (Stevenson and Habermas 1981:fig.17). Independently of STURP, another researcher (Filas 1980), working with third-generation enlargements of the 1931 photographs, noted the presence of a design over the right eye, apparently containing the letters UCAI. Filter photographs and enhancements done by STURP also show UC and AI shapes, but somewhat askew (Weaver 1980:753). Whanger (quoted in a United Press International report, April 8, 1982) found exact agreement between the shape and motif of a coin of Roman Palestine and the image over the right eye, when superimposed in polarized light. There is, however, no general agreement on the inscription or on the identification of the protuberances as coins,

The "blood" areas were the subject of special attention from STURP, employing analytical methods of much greater sensitivity than those used by the Turin Commission. Even during cursory inspection, however, it was discovered that, contrary to the Commission's findings, the stains do penetrate to the reverse side of the cloth. Color photomicroscopy (Pellicori and Evans 1981:41) showed the stains to consist of red-orange amorphous encrustations caught in the fibrils and in the crevices. Unlike body image areas, the "blood" regions exhibit the capillary and meniscus characteristics of viscous liquids, viz., penetration, matting, and cementing of the fibers-a phenomenon consistent with blood, paint, or other staining agents. Ultraviolet fluorescence photographs (Gilbert and Gilbert 1980) revealed a pale aura around the stains at the wrist, side wound, and feet, with a fluorescence similar to that of serum, X-ray fluorescence measurements (Morris, Schwalbe, and London 1980) showed significant concentrations of iron only in the blood areas. Both transmission and reflection spectroscopy yielded an absorption pattern characteristic of hemoglobin, and chemical conversion of the suspected heme to a porphyrin was accomplished (Heller and Adler 1980). Blood constituents other than heme derivatives -protein, bilirubin, and albumin - were also identified chemically (Heller and Adler 1981:87-91). A total of 12 tests confirming the presence of whole blood on the Shroud are described by Heller and Adler (1981:92). Finally, fluorescent antigen-antibody reactions (Bollone, Jorio, and Massaro 1981) indicated that the blood is human blood.

The presence of traces of whole blood must be considered as firmly established, with the probability that the blood is human. It is possible, of course, that an artist or forger worked with blood to touch up a body image obtained by other means. Attempts to ascertain how the image came to be imprinted on the cloth have not yielded definitive results. An impressive array of optical and microscopic examinations was conducted, including most of those used in testing for blood constituents, infrared thermography and radiography, micro-Raman analysis, and examination by ion microprobe and electron scanning microscope (Jumper and Mottern 1980). There was general agreement among researchers on the nature of the image - degradation and/or dehydration of the cellulose in superficial fibers resulting in a faint reflection of light in the visible range (Pellicori 1980). Only the topmost fibrils of each thread are dehydrated, even in the darkest areas of the image, and no significant traces of pigments, dyes, stains, chemicals, or organic or inorganic substances were found in the image. It was thus determined that the image was not painted, printed, or otherwise artificially imposed on the cloth, nor was it the result of any known reaction of the cloth to spices, oils, or biochemicals produced by the body in life or death. STURP concluded that "there are no chemical or physical methods . . . and no combination of physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances which explain the image adequately" (Joan Janney, quoted in an Associated Press report, October 11, 1981). Two theories currently contend among STURP researchers: a "photolysis effect" (heat or radiation scorch) and a "latent image process" where by the cloth was sensitized by materials absorbed by direct contact with a corpse. Wags were quick to label these "the first Polaroid from Palestine" and "a Christ contact print."

Much publicity has been generated by the assertions of McCrone (1980), a former STURP consultant, that the image is a painting, judging from the microscopic identification of traces of iron oxide and a protein (i.e., possible pigment and binder) in image areas. The STURP analysis of the Shroud's surface yielded much particulate matter of possible artists' pigments such as alizarin, charcoal, and ultramarine, as well as iron, calcium, strontium (possibly from the soaking process for early linen), tiny bits of wire, insect remains, wax droplets, a thread of lady's panty hose, etc. (Wilson 1981). However, this matter was distributed randomly or inconsistently over the cloth and had no relationship to the image, which was found to be substanceless, according to the combined results of photomicroscopy, X-radiography, electron microscopy, chemical analyses, and mass spectrometry. McCrone's claims have been convincingly refuted in several STURP technical reports (Pellicori and Evans 1980:42; Pellicori 1980:1918; Heller and Adler 1981:91-94; Schwalbe and Rogers 1982:11-24). The results of previous work by the Italian commission also run totally counter to those claims (Filogamo and Zina 1976:35-37; Brandone and Borroni 1978:205-14; Frei 1982:5). Undaunted, McCrone (personal communication, 1982) continues to stake his reputation on the interpretation of the Shroud image as "an easel painting . . . as a very dilute water color in a tempera medium."

More promising far future research was the identification by micro-analyst Giovanni Riggi of a substance chemically resembling natron, a powder used in ancient Egypt to dehydrate the corpse prior to embalming. An accelerated dehydration process producing a form of Volckringer (1942) print similar to those left by plants pressed in paper is a possibility now under investigation. While further research may shed new light on the origins of the image, the possibility must be recognized that the precise mechanism of image formation may never be known. Scientific testing of the Shroud has not, however, reached a dead end; autoradiography of the entire cloth, thread-by-thread microscopic search, a complete vacuuming of the cloth for pollen and other particles, and of course C14 dating have been suggested.

Proposals for radiocarbon dating of samples from the Shroud are still under consideration by the Catholic church, although approval has been given in principle. The result eventually obtained will undoubtedly have an enormous and, I would submit, unwarranted impact on the general view of the Shroud's authenticity. A C14 age of 2,000 years would not appreciably tilt the scales toward genuineness, as only the cloth, not the image, would be so dated. A more recent date of whatever magnitude would also fail to settle the matter in view of the many possibilities of exchange and contamination over the centuries (variations in ambient atmosphere, boiling in oil and water, exposure to smoke and fire, contact with other organic materials) and the still unknown conditions of image formation, which affected the very cellulose of the linen. The antiquity of the Shroud can, however, be established from archaeological data now available, employing criteria commonly accepted for the dating of manuscripts, ceramics, and stone and metal artifacts not subjected to radiometric measurements.

The fact that the exact manner of image formation is not and may never be known does not pose a serious obstacle to establishing the Shroud's authenticity. The absence of a satisfactory explanation of the image formation does not, as Mueller (1982:27) argues rather curiously, rule out natural processes and leave only human artifice or the supernatural. Rather, the information obtained from medical studies and direct scientific testing establishes the framework for the issue: the Shroud was used to enshroud a corpse, and the image is the result of some form of interaction between body and cloth and does not derive from the use of paint, powder, acid, or other materials which could have been used to create an image on cloth. Whatever process gave rise to the image, the necessary conditions may have prevailed accidentally during a forger's attempted use of a corpse to stain the cloth at in an actual burial. It is virtually unimaginable that a forger of any period would have known of a secret "dry" method (as proposed by Nickell 1979) to produce such an image, a method apparently used only once and evasive of the most sophisticated modern means of detection. The evidence certainly points very strongly toward a natural though extremely unusual process, possibly aided by substances placed with the body and linen at the time of contact.


There is evidence that the body once folded in the Shroud was the victim of a Roman crucifixion. Though used as a method of execution by the Persians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and other societies of antiquity, crucifixion in the Roman world was distinctive in a number of ways. Flogging invariably preceded execution and was usually carried out as the condemned proceeded to the crucifixion site; the victim was made to carry his own crossbar and was tied or nailed thereto and then hoisted onto a cross; or a T-shaped frame. Evidence in the Shroud image attests to each of these traits, except that the Shroud man was stationary with arms above the head or outstretched during the flogging. Further, both the whip marks and the side wound appear to have been inflicted with Roman implements. Unlike the depictions of medieval artists, the dumbbell shape of the scourge wounds and their occurrence in groups of two or three match exactly the plumbatae (pellets) affixed to each end of the multithonged Roman flagrum (whip), a specimen of which was excavated at Herculaneum. The side wound is an ellipse corresponding exactly to excavated examples of the leaf-shaped point of the lancea (lance) likely to have been used by the militia: it does not match the typical points of the hasta (spear), hasta veliaris (short spear), or pilum (javelin) used by the infantry. The lance thrust to the side of Christ was, according to Origen of the 4th century, administered, following the Roman military custom, sub alas (below the armpits), where the wound of the Shroud image is located.

The wrist-nailing of the Shroud image is highly significant, as it contradicts the entire tradition in Christian art from the first crucifixion and crucifixion scenes of the early 6th century (hardly 200 years after crucifixion was abolished) down to the 17th century, of placing the nails in the palms (McNair 1978:35). The few portrayals thereafter (Van Dyck, Rubens) of nailing in the wrist have been considered influenced by the Shroud or chronological markers for dating it. Similarly, the impaling of both feet with a single nail occurs in art only in the 11th century and after. Again, the Shroud is construed by some as the origin of the trend, by others as influenced by it. The style of nailing of wrist and feet was confirmed as Roman by a recent archaeological discovery. The first human remains with evidence of crucifixion were unearthed by bulldozers at Giv'at ha-Mivtar, near Jerusalem, in 1968. Among the stone ossuaries of 35 persons deceased ca. A.D. 50-70, one marked with the name Johanan held the remains of a young adult male whose heel bones were riveted by a single nail with traces of wood adhering to it (Tzaferis 1970). At the wrist end of the forearm, a scratch mark as if from a nail was identified on the radial bone; parts of the scratch had been worn smooth from "friction, grating and grinding between the radial bone and the nail towards the end of the crucifixion" (Haas 1970:58), a grim confirmation of the seesaw motion deduced by Barbet to have characterized the final agonies of the Shroud man.

In several important respects, however, the Shroud evidence varies from the usual crucifixion and burial practices of 1st-century Palestine. Prior to crucifixion, a wide range of tortures might be inflicted: gouging of the eyes, mutilations, burning of the hair, etc. (Hengel 1977). The choice of torments apparently depended on the inclinations of the execution party and was bounded only by a concern to avoid the premature death of the condemned. The "crown of thorns" devised for Christ and the mocking and beatings appear to derive from the judicially sanctioned subjection of the condemned to the caprice of his guards. The Shroud man, like Christ, was flogged in a stationary position rather than on the way to the execution ground. In deference to strong Jewish feeling against leaving a corpse exposed after sunset, the Roman administration in Palestine allowed the breaking of the legs (crurifragium) to hasten death. John's Gospel (19:32) specifically records that the thieves crucified with Christ had their legs broken in order that the bodies could be taken down before nightfall. The right tibia, left tibia, and fibula of the Johanan remains were also broken, but the legs of the Shroud man were not. There is no historical mention of any other method of hastening death or coup de grace, and indeed crucifixion elsewhere in the empire was mandated to be a slow and agonizing death, usually lasting 24-36 hours. The lance thrust to the side of Christ thus appears as a capricious and unique act by one of the guards.

Again out of consideration for local custom, the Romans allowed the bodies of crucified Jews to be buried in a common pit instead of being left on the cross or thrown on a heap for scavenging animals as was the general practice. Certainly the use of a sheet of fine linen cloth such as the Shroud would indicate a degree of wealth, respect, family ties, or ranking not normally pertaining to common criminals. In general burial practice, the body would have been washed and anointed with oils, and the linen would not have been removed from the body. In other respects, the Shroud does accord with burial customs known or surmised of 1st-century Jews. The account by Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish scholar at Cordova, parallels what can be constructed from the 4th-century Palestinian Talmud, 2d-century Mishna, and biblical accounts: "After the eyes and mouth are closed, the body is washed; it is then anointed with perfumes and rolled up in a sheet of white linen, in which aromatic spices are placed." The possible presence of a chin band and coins over the eyes has been noted; the failure to wash the body may be explained by the Sabbath prohibition or by the existence of early injunctions, similar to those later incorporated in the medieval codes of Rabbinical law, against washing of the body or cutting of the hair, beard, and fingernails of victims of capital punishment or violent death (Lavoie et al. 1981). Finally, the burial posture of the Shroud figure is seen in a number of skeletons excavated at the ca. 200 B.C.-A.D. 70 cemetery of the Essene sect at Qumran (Wilson 1955:60), which were laid flat, facing upwards, elbows bent and hands crossed over the chest or pelvis. Sox (1981:134), however, sees the position as a reflection of medieval modesty.

The placing of coins or shards over the eyes of the corpse was known among medieval Jews and believed to be an ancient tradition (Bender 1895:101-3) to prevent the eyes from opening before glimpsing the next world; in the pagan tradition, coins were placed on the body as payment to Charon for crossing the River Styx. Recent excavations (Hachlili 1979:34) at Jewish tombs of the 1st century A.D. near Jericho have yielded the first evidence of this practice; two coins (A.D. 41-44) were found inside a skull, undoubtedly having fallen through the eye sockets. On the Shroud, the pattern over the right eye exactly matches the size and shape of some of the cruder coins (leptons) of the procuratorial series in Judea, especially those of Gratus (A.D. 15-26) and Pilate (26-36). The UCAI "inscription" was suggested to be a misspelling of the Greek TIBERIOU KAICAROC ("Tiberius Caesar," A.D. 14-37); in 1981 an unpublished coin bearing the letters IOUCAI was discovered in a collection (F. Filas, news release, September 1, 1981). Although the letter-like shapes on the Shroud are not clear enough to be distinguished with certainty from vagaries of the image and the weave, their location in the correct position on the coin shape when seen in relief would seem to give the inscription a small measure of credibility. One cannot, however, go very far with this evidence, for even if the imprint could be confirmed as a Pilate coin, such coins were circulating for at least several decades after minting and were probably obtainable for a considerable time thereafter, the coins of Pilate having gained a certain notoriety in Judea for their use of pagan symbols (Kanael 1963).

Coon's description, noted above, of the Shroud face as Semitic in appearance is supported by Stewart (cited in Stevenson and Habermas 1081:35), who points out other features of the image which suggest a Middle Eastern origin. The beard, hair parted in the middle and falling to the shoulders, and pigtail indicate that the man was not Greek or Roman. The unbound pigtail has been described as "perhaps the most strikingly Jewish feature" of the Shroud (Wilson 1978:54) and has been shown to have been a very common hairstyle for Jewish men in antiquity. The estimated height of the Shroud man at around 175-180 cm corresponds with the average height (178 cm) of adult male skeletons excavated in the 1st-century cemetery near Jerusalem (Haas 1970) and with the ideal male height of 4 ells (176 cm) according to an interpretation of the Talmud (Kraus 1910-11).

Some of the earliest representations of Christ from the 2d to 4th centuries portray him as youthful, clean-shaven, and Greco-Roman; others depict a bearded, Semitic face much more akin to that of the Shroud. Beginning in the 6th century, the face of Christ in Byzantine art became highly conventionalized, with a certain resemblance to the Shroud figure. Vignon (1939) noted 20 peculiarities in the Shroud face (e.g., a transverse streak across the forehead, a V shape at the bridge of the nose, a fork in the beard, etc.) that are common in Byzantine iconography. He suggested that the Shroud might have been the source of this artistic tradition. Whanger and Whanger (n.d.), using a system of polarized light to superimpose images, found 46 points of congruence between details of the Shroud face and the face of Christ in a 6th-century Mt. Sinai mosaic and 63 points of agreement between the Shroud face and the face of Christ on a 7th-century Byzantine coin. In other respects, however, the Shroud image differs markedly from Byzantine art of the early centuries in revealing a dead Christ, covered with wounds and blood, nude, lacking any indication of majesty or divinity. The crucifixes and crucifixion scenes of the 5th to 8th centuries invariably show a nonsuffering, glorified Christ, eyes open, clad in a tunic, with no bleeding or signs of physical agony. Again, the evidence indicates very strongly that the Shroud image does not derive from the art of this or any era, but may be the source of certain features.

In summary, the evidence from anthropology, archaeology, and art history corroborates in a compelling manner that of medical and scientific analyses. It should now be considered well-established that the Shroud is indeed an archaeological document of crucifixion - a conclusion reached by STURP and most serious students of the Shroud since the 1930s. Attempts to interpret it as a painting (McCrone), a wood-block print (Curto 1976), a bas-relief rubbing (Nickell 1979), a scorch from a hot statue (Papini 1982), or a colored "clay press" (Gabrielli 1976) are untenable, derive from consideration of only a small portion of the evidence, ignore the vast array of data to the contrary, and need not be discussed further. The confirmation by archaeology of numerous details found in the image and of hypotheses deduced therefrom - nailing of the wrist, single nailing of both feet together, seesaw motion on the cross, coins on the eyes, burial posture, and Middle Eastern origin, even the UCAI "misspelling" - give the Shroud an undeniable ring of authenticity as an archaeological object.

The pollen, the Semitic appearance of the figure, and other anthropological evidence combine to indicate an origin of the Shroud in Palestine or possibly Asia Minor; the pathological data coupled with the evidence of Roman implements and style allow it to be assigned with confidence to the period of Roman crucifixion, thus from the Roman conquest of Turkey and Palestine in 133-66 B.C. to Constantine's banning of this form of execution ca. A.D. 315. The "obvious" representation of Christ in the image further narrows the dating of the Shroud to A.D. 30-315. On this final point of identity we arrive at the "crux" of the issue, for there were thousands of crucifixions during this period in Palestine and Asia Minor.


The identification of the Shroud figure may be approached by testing the uniqueness of the set of traits it shares with the historical description of the death of Christ. That is, the question may be posed whether these shared details can be established to a reasonable degree as historically specific, in the same manner that, for example, the singular characteristics of the tomb of Tutankhamen or the Shang-dynasty kings mentioned in oracle texts allow a definite identification. Such an archaeological/historical identification may be initiated by endeavoring to generate alternative hypotheses, derived from the known historical context, which might account for the configuration of features characterizing the Shroud. Calculations of cumulative probabilities (e.g., Donovan 1980; Stevenson and Habermas 1981:124-29) based on mere historical guesswork (legs not broken: 1 chance in 3; lance thrust to side: 1 in 27; etc.) are of no scientific validity whatever.

In order to be as definitive as possible, we shall examine a wide range of scenarios - some little more credible in ancient history than the notion that Hitler is alive in Brazil is in the present. And yet, any conceivable scenario which could be successfully superimposed on the Shroud's particular pattern of data would have to be taken seriously. In considering the Shroud as a possible forgery, an unwarranted emphasis on intentionality creeps into the discussion. Between deliberate hoax and true relic are various shades of accident, mistaken identity, excessive reverence for an inspirational "visual aid," and/or exaggerated claims. The ultimately important question is, of course, not how this image on cloth came to be taken as Christ's, but how it acquired such an extraordinary accuracy in the details of Christ's historically known life and anthropologically known times.


The interpretation of the Shroud as a painting by an unknown medieval artist emerged from its suspicious history as highly likely and has persisted with unusual stubbornness down to the present. Its prominence as the main forgery theory is such that virtually all commentators expend great effort in disproving it, believing the authenticity of the relic to be established thereby. The notion has indeed been disproved so thoroughly and absolutely that it should be permanently buried. I shall simply list yet again the numerous items of evidence, many of which would be sufficient singly to establish that the image is not a medieval painting, rubbing, scorch, or other work of art: anatomical detail, realism of the wounds, presence of blood, absence of pigment or binder, reversal of light and dark, diffuseness of the image at close range, three-dimensional information, absence of outline or shading, lack of directionality in the colored areas, lack of change in color from light to dark tones, color not affected by heat or water, detail and twin radiation of scourge marks, nailing of wrists, single nailing of both feet together, characteristic wounds of the Roman flagrum and lancea, Oriental cap rather than Western circlet crown, accuracy in Semitic appearance and Jewish burial posture, pollen from Turkey and Palestine, difficulty in reconciling the Shroud with biblical accounts, nudity of the figure. Each of these features could be explained by invoking extraordinary circumstance, e.g., absence of pigment due to the use of a thin solution and frequent washings of the relic, real blood used by the artist, pathological exactitude from the artist's genius, scourge marks and wrist nailing from intuition, a cloth of Middle Eastern origin, etc. Clearly, however, the cumulative effect is to place the painting hypothesis somewhat lower in credibility than notions of the Marlowe authorship of Shakespeare's plays or an Egyptian influence on the Mayas.

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