The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology Part 4

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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


by K. O. L. Burridge

Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6H 1P9. 1 xi 82

Meacham is to be congratulated on a provocative essay.

I am not conversant with the techniques used to test the Shroud, so I cannot evaluate them. Only the ignorant and perverse are unaware that 90% of relics are frauds. Relics are "venerated," bought, and sold because, being concrete, and in a suspension of both belief and disbelief, they serve as memory points concentrating attention on particular events. Church authorities and the custodians of the Shroud are fed to the teeth with the hoo-ha. They have it by a chain of accidents, and they exhibit it from time to time, ceremoniously, because, like all relics (including the Piltdown skull), it concentrates the mind on particular events. If it is genuine, so much the better; if not, who's bothered?

Scientists share with most of the lay population a proper scepticism in the face of the unlikely. They will also take a leap beyond the evidence if need be. We have King Tut's mummified body - but on whose say-so? If there were no body, would it still be King Tut's tomb? One footprint and Crusoe surmised (correctly) that someone else was around. Several footprints across the hardened mud and we surmise a little Lucy found somewhere around. Many footprints and sightings (unreliable these), but Sasquatch or Bigfoot is more in the imagination than actually there, so it seems. Why no scientific search? A real basis for the imagination in relation to UFOs seems to be in place. But why did it take so long to take the sightings seriously? Angels may be, but spacecraft from another planet? Is the idiom, the language, really so much a hindrance? It would seem so. Bereft of technology and a professionalised scepticism, on which so much hangs, scientists are on the whole much like anyone else: reputation and status at stake in orthodoxy.

In the present case, technology has failed to prove the negative. Yet an affirmative is not the only other possibility. Faith in a negative is as good as faith in an affirmative. If Jesus Christ was not a historical figure, then of course the Shroud, if it is a shroud, cannot be his. If Christ actually lived, then it would seem that the Shroud might have been his. So many of our supposed certainties are actually possibilities or probabilities that now and again we need, as a basis for our faith in the rest, something that is without doubt either precisely what it appears or seems to be - authentic - or a fraud. Also essential, of course, providing material for thought and faith, is the ambiguous. As Meacham has demonstrated so well, the Shroud is just that.


by John R. Cole

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa 50614, U.S.A. 13 xii 82

This is more religious apologetic than analysis. Meacham claims to discuss his topic from a strictly scientific viewpoint, however, and I will adopt the conceit here, raising technical objections to a patently religious argument. Tacked-on references to skeptical views do not disguise a credulous bias and hope.

Contrary to Meacham, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, in part because they are liable to extraordinary incentives for fraud, wishful thinking, and unconscious bias, and attempts to prove the Shroud of Turin "authentic" have to be attempts to prove it "supernatural" and thus supposedly beyond scientific proof. The cloth could date to the 1st century but the image need not; both could date to the 1st century without originating in Palestine; they could be from 1st-century Palestine but not from the grave of Jesus; and evidence for any of the above could be faked.

The image is not "perfect." The body is taller than a typical 1st-century Palestinian. The right hand has much longer fingers than the left (Angier 1982). Supposed wounds are too clear to be true; real bleeding would not appear as discrete streams, for example. Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for the City of New York and one of the world's most distinguished pathologists, has said that the image is patently fraudulent (Rhein 1980, cited in Mueller 1982:26). Yet Meacham says the medical verdict is "unanimous" in support of the Shroud.

Walter McCrone, probably the best-known forensic microbiologist in the world, identified vermilion and hematite pigments in the "bloodstains" on the cloth - pigments which would seem to prove the image fraudulent (McCrone 1982, Mueller 1982). Meacham dismisses McCrone. STURP also dismissed him when he came to conclusions contrary to their hopes ("I was completely ignored" [Angier 1982:60]). Contrary to Meacham, STURP publications do not prove McCrone's arguments wrong.

Claims of impressions of coins on the eyes are baseless, yet Meacham lists these as partial proof of his thesis. The alleged coin-images are artifacts of observers' hopes and beyond the limits of photo enlargement and the coarseness of the Shroud weave.

Meacham attempts to prove a religious claim scientifically. He fails to do so. High-tech shroudology, like "scientific creationism," ultimately fails to resolve an intrinsically religious question via science. A massive investigation could be mounted with the goal of proving the Shroud fraudulent, but who would finance it? And what difference would it make? Only confirmation of the Shroud is newsworthy, yet only disproof is scientifically possible. Religion and science can be in conflict, but they need not be so on the practical level. Meacham violates the "sleeping-dog" rule - stirring up an issue which redounds to the detriment of his religious viewpoint when examined in detail. A religious person should ask, Why denigrate religion by subjecting it to materialistic tests? A scientist should ask, Why should a religious claim be granted the boon of hopeful suspension of disbelief rather than skepticism?

How did the Shroud wrap a body without any distortion of the impression by folds and wrinkles?

Why did a vivid 14th-century image fade radically over the next five or six centuries when it had supposedly remained bright and clear until its 14th-century "discovery"?

The details of crucifixion recorded on the Shroud are said to echo biblical evidence. Actually, they echo only the Book of John - which is generally regarded as nonhistorical (cf. Bornkamm 1974, Schafersman 1982a). Any fraud worth its salt would try to fill biblical prescriptions.

Normal tests of archaeological evidence do not apply to claims for the Shroud. A religious claim requires more evidence for possible proof than a nonemotional one. A tool found at Ben Franklin's old address may be identified as his according to normal standards, but a Shroud claim has to be judged according to exceptional standards; the Franklin claim has little import, while the latter has tremendous claim to significance, right or wrong.

Computer analyses of the image on the Shroud are said to indicate three-dimensionality, but this is debatable and in any case irrelevant, a reification of unclear phenomena and interpretations.

Nickell (1978, 1979, 1981) has shown that a shroud-image can be duplicated as a rubbing, although not that this one was. Other experiments demonstrate that negative images can be produced by impressing a cloth on a body anointed with spices and oils, and vermilion pigments or blood could add to the effect.

Extraordinary claims demand an extraordinary skepticism and rigorous analysis which Meacham fails to provide.


by Richard J. Dent

Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, College Park, Md. 20742, U.S.A. 6 xii 82

We live, in the 1980s, in an era that sees mythology and science often clash. Both forms of religion stand on devotion to some principle which, in one way or another, negates the principles of the other. Yet now scientific scrutiny is called upon to authenticate a relic from the opposite camp. I shall not, in this commentary, join in the debate by offering a point-by-point criticism of the author's documentation of what he sees as a firm archeological judgement for the Shroud's authenticity. I have no trouble in recognizing a man on a crusade, and the reader and, no doubt, other commentators are capable of interpreting and ultimately judging the so-called evidence, or lack thereof, for themselves. It is my belief, however, that this paper does represent an important epistemological issue in anthropological archeology - although I doubt it is the one intended by the author. Simply put, the arguments for the Shroud's authenticity illustrate that this relic is an authentic artifact not of the event in question, but of ourselves and our society.

For the last 20 years, anthropological archeologists have recognized that not all artifacts are the same. Binford (1962) reminds us that artifacts, as material elements of culture, fall into one or more of three categories - technomic, sociotechnic, and/or ideotechnic. Ideotechnic artifacts are artifacts that are material representations of society conceptualizing itself. They contrast with the more familiar artifact categories that include objects employed in subsistence activities (technomic artifacts) or in social integration (sociotechnic artifacts). Following Althusser (1971), ideology and, by extension, ideotechnic artifacts are products of the imaginary relation of individuals in society to the real relations in which they live. Ideology is a mask. To begin to understand and to pierce this mask, and thus understand the significance of Meacham's paper, we must first recognize the Shroud and this particular documentation as an artifact of ourselves. Once we have done this, the paper has a lesson of value for anthropological archeology.

In short, the overall goal of Meacham in this paper, as seen through his eyes and the eyes of much of society, is to suppress or lessen the conflict that arises when an event is mythologically real but materialistically and empirically unreal. If one can suppress the conflict of believing in the crucifixion yet not having any direct evidence to substantiate it, the mythology is more believable. And if one can achieve this goal with the opposition's methodology (scientific method), so much the better. In reading this paper, it should be evident that Meacham is trying to remove a contradiction for us - to substantiate what he sees as a real event and attach it to a believed-in event. We must at least give him high marks for an attempt at documenting one of the great ideotechnic artifacts of our time. However, following Handsman (1980) and Leone (1982), we should not lose sight of what Meacham is up to: he is creating an ideotechnic artifact, albeit a grand one, nothing more.


by John P. Jackson

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Shroud of Turin Research Project, 14415 E. Club Villa Drive, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80908, U.S.A. 13 xii 82

I am always interested in reading papers written by persons who have not been part of the Shroud of Turin Research Project, the group of scientists who examined the Shroud in 1978. Deciding exactly what the Shroud is is by no means a trivial task and involves input from many scientific and scholarly disciplines. It is necessary to collect these inputs, as Meacham has done, in order to address the question of authenticity. While I share the author's apparent conclusion that the Shroud is probably the burial cloth of Jesus, I do think some critical comments are in order. My general impression after reading this paper is that scientific research on the Shroud is sufficiently complete that the authenticity question can reasonably be settled in favor of the Shroud as the true burial cloth of Jesus. If others have also received that impression from this article, then it is important to point out that, although the case for the Shroud's authenticity is rather good, in my opinion, the authentication question is still open and I therefore would not want to discourage further research on the Shroud. In particular, two major holes exist in the authentication issue. First, 13 centuries of relative silence concerning the Shroud of Jesus (with image) need explanation. While various theories, some discussed by Meacham, have been proposed, there is no unanimity among scholars. Carbon-dating the Shroud, which should be done, can tell us if it has a 2,000-year history but cannot tell us what that history is. Second, science has not been able to determine the mechanism of image formation. Unless we can identify the image-formation process, we cannot be sure, in a scientifically rigorous sense, that the image was made directly from a human body under a draping cloth, even though evidence is mounting that this was the case. Without this critical determination, it seems to me that the authentication question will be open to dispute. Therefore, rather than argue authenticity on the basis of incomplete studies, we should point out where research is incomplete and encourage further studies where appropriate.

The authentication of the Turin Shroud is a scientific issue apart from any religious interest. Ultimately, the authenticity question must rest upon what has been written about Jesus in the Bible, for that is essentially our only source of information concerning him. This is valid only as long as it is understood to what extent the Bible represents true history, realizing that it is first and foremost a theological understanding of the Jesus of history. Science is a well-defined pattern of human thought, and, especially in the case of the Shroud, where bias can so easily enter in, adherence to sound reasoning and analysis is essential. In essence, science is the process of discarding hypotheses when there are observational data with which they are inconsistent. All too often, however, investigators unknowingly do just the opposite; they start with an observation (i.e., iron oxide on the Shroud) and "deduce" the hypothesis (i.e., the image is due to an iron-oxide pigment) and call this science. I have become sensitive to such abuses of the scientific method. The careful scientist will rather start with various hypotheses to explain some observation (e.g., the image is an iron-oxide pigment or iron oxide is due to translocated aged blood fragments, etc.) and look for independent observations (e.g., body image not the color of iron oxide, density of iron oxide not sufficient to account for body image, etc.) that will discriminate between hypotheses. Thus, the scientific method whittles away unacceptable hypotheses, leaving in the end, ideally, the correct explanation for the Shroud image. Meacham's paper is a reasonably good anthology of scientific, historical, and scholarly data, but I think it suffers in places from a lack of scientific rigor in the sense noted above (e.g., the "whip marks and the side wound [observation] appear to have been inflicted with Roman implements [hypothesis]" or "the lack of decomposition staining of the cloth [observation] indicates that . . . the Shroud was removed from the corpse after 24 to 72 hours [hypothesis]"). However, with these caveats, I think Meacham's paper presents an interesting, overview of how various data interrelate to illuminate issues pertaining to authenticity. Further, in view of the various data already collected concerning the Shroud, one cannot but be impressed at the resistance of the hypothesis that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus to scientific rejection. On that point, I believe Meacham and I are in agreement.


by Walter C. McCrone

McCrone Research Institute, 2508 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60616, U.S.A. 8 xii 82

I appreciate Meacham's attempt to provide a balanced approach to the discussion of the Turin "Shroud." He succeeds well in all areas except one - inclusion of the only direct physical data on the image particles from the "Shroud." Of this work he states: "attempts to interpret it ["Shroud"] as a painting (McCrone) . . . are untenable . . . and need not be discussed further." He bases this conclusion on the "vast array of data to the contrary." Nowhere does he present or discuss my work: what I did, how I did it, or why he considers my conclusions invalid. He does not even reference one of my detailed papers (McCrone 1981). I feel like Hughes Mearns's "little man who wasn't there": "He wasn't there again today/Oh! How I wish he'd go away." I will not try to explain why my work is ignored, but I will say the painting hypothesis is not untenable. It is based on sound microscopical examination carefully done by an experienced microscopist who has studied many dozens of paintings over many years by the same procedures. Whatever reputation I may have rests confidently on the conclusion that the "Shroud" is entirely an artist's work.

Others who have looked at the fibers from the sticky tapes do not see the paint pigment obviously present there. They prefer to believe the image is blood, yet my work shows no blood - only red inorganic pigments, iron earths and vermilion. I can accept that I am outnumbered, but I refuse to believe I am outgunned. No one has spent anything like the time and effort I have put into study of these 32 tapes with their thousands of "Shroud" linen fibers and millions of pigment particles. No one in STURP has this specialized background in small-particle identification, trace analysis, or the study of paintings by microanalytical methods. Substantially all of the image on the "Shroud" fibers consists of common and well-known pigments and a stain on the fibers due to ageing of the paint medium. I do not see any other significant colored material on any of the "Shroud" image fibers. If one removed "my" paint layer from these fibers there would be no visible image remaining on the "Shroud."

I would very much like to see my work evaluated and repeated by one of my peers in this highly specialized field.

I have made no great effort to defend my position in the past because I seem to run into minds already made up and because I have confidence that the eventual carbon-dating will clear the record and show the "Shroud" to be of medieval origin. I note that Meacham now says a carbon date may well be inaccurate because the "Shroud" is so contaminated. I find the "Shroud" linen fibers to be well over 90%, intact and pure. The impurities present can readily be removed before dating, hence this argument has no validity. More difficult to refute is the argument I hear occasionally that the resurrection so modified the linen that any carbon date is bound to be meaningless.


by Paul C. Maloney

Ancient Near Eastern Researches, Box 334, Quackertown, Pa. 18951, U.S.A. 7 xii 82

More than a year has passed since STURP released its preliminary findings. In essence, the image on the Shroud remains an unresolved question. Already there have been attempts to evaluate STURP's work. Some highly antagonistic presentations have tried to show that it lacked scientific objectivity (see Mueller 1982; McCrone 1982, and especially Schafersman 1982a:55-56). Meacham's irrepressible optimism is sure to pique those who are as strongly convinced the Shroud is a fake. He states: "applying standards of proof no more stringent than those employed in other archaeological/historical identifications, one is led . . . to an almost inescapable conclusion about the Shroud of Turin: it is the very piece of linen described in the biblical accounts as being used to enfold the body of Christ. "

For two reasons, both antagonists and protagonists are premature in their conclusions. First, while STURP seems to have made a good case for the Shroud cloth's having wrapped a dead body, we still have no undisputed evidence that the Shroud is older than 1357. If we conclude, with STURP, that the cloth does not appear to have been faked, we might simply suppose that it wrapped a crucified victim in the 14th century. However, crucifixion had been outlawed 1,000 years before. Clearly, the cloth must first be subjected to C14 tests before there can be any advance in understanding the historical background of the Shroud and bridging the gap between the 1st and the 14th century. This is one of those "standards of proof" mandatory for any interpretation of this cloth.

Meacham dismisses C14 dating by appealing to contamination problems, but sophisticated techniques clean a sample before testing to remove most contaminants. Margins of error are supplied with each date given, providing a measure of accuracy. Meacham mentions some sources of contamination. Of boiling in oil STURP could find no evidence. "Variations in ambient atmosphere" are not a contaminant, but rather have to do with the original intake of C14 from the current reservoir, an amount which can be deduced by data from tree-ring dating. And while it is true that C14 would date only the cloth and not the image, it seems logical to assume that, whether the image is of natural or artistic origin, the date of the cloth and the creation of the image should not be too far removed from each other - certainly not 1,300 years. And if the cloth should prove to be of 1st-century origin, then the argument that it was the burial shroud of Jesus would be more compelling.

Secondly, since STURP has not completely published the details of its techniques, instrumentation, laboratory experimentation, and scientific findings, lack of information remains a problem. For example, while Meacham is well versed in Heller and Adler's work analyzing the bloodstains on the Shroud, he states: "It is possible . . . that an artist or forger worked with blood to touch up a body image obtained by other means." He makes no mention of the very intriguing suggestion that the bloodstains might have been there before the image was. The full critical details of this observation have not yet been published (see, provisionally Schwalbe and Rogers [1982:40]). If it should prove correct, it would bode ill for the artist hypothesis.

Two other points must be addressed relating to Meacham's subtitle, "An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology." First, even should one accept STURP's basic conclusion that the cloth enwrapped a corpse, the wealth of details encoded there is often capable of divergent interpretations. Zugibe believes the elongated fingers of the Man of the Shroud to be evidence of Marfan's syndrome (1981 : 188-92). John Jackson, of STURP, believes the elongation is an expected distortion created by cloth-to-body drape (personal communication). Second, we must distinguish between "proof" as the term is often loosely employed in the human sciences and "proof" in the exact sciences. History and archaeology are not capable of "proof" in the strictest sense. Sabloff (1918:5) has put it succinctly: "the archaeological record cannot be converted directly into historical facts." Those in the exact sciences use the term "proof" in a rigorous and precise manner. On this issue one of the STURP scientists said at a conference: in New London in 1981, "We do not have a chemical into which we can dip an eyedropper, put a bit on the Shroud and by observing the color change prove that the man there was Jesus Christ." The most we can expect is a reconstruction that makes the best use of all the facts. It is difficult to do more than this, since the Shroud still holds crucial but obtainable secrets.


by Marvin M. Mueller

Physics Division, MS-E554, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M. 87545, U.S.A. 21 xi 82

Meacham's article is a thorough and impassioned presentation of the case for authenticity but should not be considered a work of balanced scholarship. The reader would never glean from it that general and powerful arguments have recently been advanced in support of a human-artifice origin for the Shroud image. These arguments have not been refuted by the pro-authenticity scientists of the STURP.

Within the space constraints, there is no possibility of a point-for-point rebuttal of Meacham's lengthy review here. For details, the interested reader may consult my critical appraisal of the Shroud investigation in the Spring 1982 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, a publication of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (P.O. Box 229, CPS, Buffalo, N.Y. 14215). This is, to my knowledge, the first reasonably thorough critique of the Shroud investigation published by an outside research scientist.

Meacham as authenticity advocate is formidable; Meacham as investigative reporter tends toward gullibility and onesidedness. He often misunderstands skeptical arguments, damns them with faint mention, or - most often - just ignores them. As is evident to readers of the many books and magazine articles on the Shroud that have appeared over the past two decades, Shroud investigators have usually been characterized by their pro-authenticity enthusiasm and markedly religious interpretations. About this there can be little disagreement. Meacham fails to take observer bias and evident will-to-believe into account in his judgements - even in notoriously subjective inferences from diffuse and dubiously resolved image details. The well-known Rorschach effect is not confined to inkblots.

Meacham states:

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 searched thereon by a hot statue (two of the current theories). On this point all medical opinion since the time of Delage has been unanimous.

In my article (Mueller 1982), which Meacham cites, it is made clear that this is not true. For example, a leading forensic pathologist (Michael Baden, deputy chief medical examiner of New York for Suffolk County) says (as quoted by Angier 1982:60): "From my knowledge of dead bodies, and the wrapping of dead bodies, this kind of transfer never occurs. And blood never oozes in nice neat rivulets, it gets clotted in the hair. The anatomic accuracy is more what Michelangelo would have done in a painting than what actually happens to a body." He also disputes the inferences concerning rigor mortis and wound pathology, which have long been a mainstay of the long line of "all medical opinion" cited by Meacham.

Meacham further fails to mention the two pivotal theses of my article (which have not been refuted by the STURP):

1.The celebrated "three-dimensional effect" begs the question as to whether the Shroud ever contained a full relief (statue or body). All that it shows is that there is a local consistency in tonal (intensity) gradations of the image. Hence, there is no evidence that the image was formed by some kind of projection across cloth-to-body distances.

2.All of the extensive chemical and microscopic evidence is consistent with a hypothesis (based in part on the Shroudlike rubbings from bas-relief sculptures done by Joe Nickell) that the image on the Shroud was put there by an artist using an imprinting method with a powder or semisolid medium which has subsequently reacted, evaporated, been washed away, or otherwise disappeared, leaving behind the degraded and colored cellulose fibrils which now form the image.

More specific hypotheses of image formation have recently been developed. These are largely based on experiments carried out by forensic analyst John Fischer using iron compounds extensively employed by medieval artists. With such rubbing media, Nickell has produced good Shroud image simulations which automatically reproduce the main microscopic as well as macroscopic features (Mueller 1982, Nickell 1983). (Contrary to Meacham's assertion, rubbing from bas-reliefs was a well-known technique by the 12th century.) These facts alone, not to mention many others, make a mockery of Meacham's claim that "although the image-forming process is not known, the image itself is an important document of Christ's crucifixion and has appropriately been termed 'the fifth gospel' . . . the present evidence allows a firm archaeological judgement for authenticity."

The one argument from my article that he does mention he apparently fails to understand. He states: "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." Curious or not, my argument has the logical force of geometry behind it, for there is no way that an image of the quality and beauty of the Shroud image could have been produced by contact of the cloth with a full relief (body or statue) - projection distortion in mapping a full relief onto a plane alone guarantees that, as has been made manifest in several experiments. To cite an extreme example: A sheepskin laid out flat does not much resemble a sheep. Only human intervention (leaving aside the supernatural) can produce a quality image of a full relief. Other compelling arguments, discussed in my article, can also be brought to bear against the much-publicized contact-transfer hypothesis. In fact, STURP members, having publicly disavowed human artistry, concede that they currently have no scientifically viable hypothesis of image formation.

Generally, Meacham's views of the consensus of the STURP are rather dated. For example, he makes much of the pollen evidence of Max Frei as well as evidence for a burial chin band. Few, if any, of the STURP members give any credence to either, nowadays. Also, he does not seem to have understood the implications of the good summary report of the scientific results from the 1978 investigations written by Schwalbe and Rogers (1982). Contrary to all STURP press releases, these leading STURP scientists guardedly conclude that human artistry cannot really be ruled out at this time. The STURP of 1981-83 is less monolithic and much less certain in its pronouncements than was the more-publicized STURP of 1977-79.

Further examples of Meacham's failure to present a balanced view of the present status of the Shroud investigation are probably unnecessary here. The interested reader is directed to a recent book by Nickell (1983), written in close collaboration with John Fischer and myself. Of the many books written on the Shroud, this is the first to be done in collaboration with non-STURP scientists. Besides giving a detailed critique of the Shroud investigation, it presents a powerful case for clever artistry.

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