The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology Part 7
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


Apart from McCrone, the skeptics have moved on to a more refined position not dependent on the identification of any pigment in the cloth, i.e., that the cellulose degradation was produced by a paint or coloring material formerly present. It should be noted that the earlier vaporgraphic theory could be resurrected with the same logic: that a reaction of bodily vapors occurred with a sensitizing material on the superficial fibers of the linen only or was provoked by sunlight, all evidence of the initial reaction now having "evaporated, been washed away, or otherwise disappeared." Because the Shroud is unique, every hypothesis of image formation must involve a set of unique conditions, and none can be rejected on this basis alone. Body imprints are invariably distorted, as Mueller remarks, just as paintings and rubbings invariably contain pigment layers (and distortion in three-dimensional projection). The new hypothesis of a "post-pigment image" has a certain built-in immunity, like postulation of an ancient occupation in regions where artifacts would not have survived. Clearly, to be testable and viable, the hypothesis must derive from or at least not conflict with the known elements of 14th-century art.

This it manifestly fails to do. In addition to the four unprecedented features described above, there is no rubbing from the entire medieval period that is even remotely comparable to the Shroud, nor is there any negative painting. Nickell's wet-mold-dry-daub technique was not known in medieval times, according to art historian Husband (cited in Sox 1981:88), and even that technique fails to reproduce the contour precision and three-dimensional effect, the lack of saturation points, and the resolution of the Shroud image. The bas-relief used would have been far more accurate than any example of 14th-century wood carving or sculpture known; even later carvings by 15th-16th-century masters of bas-relief do not have the fine detail of wounds and postures which would translate into the undistorted three-dimensional projections of Tamburelli, confirmed as accurate anatomically by the forensic pathologist Zugibe (1982:169-76). Similarly, even the blood flows painted in the greatest 14th-century works of art are not at all comparable to those on the Shroud.

There are many more flaws in the "powerful case" for medieval artifice, and I must beg the reader's forbearance for what must begin to seem like the whipping of a very dead horse. There is no medieval depiction of scourge marks of such realism (radiation and fine detail) or correspondence to the Roman scourge. The nude figure of Christ is extremely rare, unheard of in an object for public veneration, and Shroud copyists generally saw fit to correct it. The wrist-nailing is unique, according to art historian McNair (1978:35): "I have studied hundreds of paintings, sculptures and carvings of Christ's crucifixion and deposition, from the 13th to the 16th centuries, and not one of them shows a nail wound anywhere but in the palm of the hand." Depiction of a non-circlet crown of thorns severing the head is extremely rare. The Shroud is unlike any 14th-century or earlier artist's conception of the deposition and wrapping in linen. The portrayal of the face is extremely close to the Byzantine style, as Whanger has shown. It is clear, therefore, that clever artistry simply cannot be stretched to cover such a wide range of extraordinary circumstance, Innovation, even at genius level, is bounded by the cultural context and cannot diverge therefrom to the extent that the Shroud contradicts the 14th-century milieu. From this massive conflict between the Shroud and medieval art 1 believe there can be only one conclusion - that the Shroud image belongs to the 1st millennium, with the corollary that it is the imprint of a body. There conclusions should now be considered well-documented archaeological judgements, approaching the level of certainty if normal standards are applied, especially since they agree exactly with the evidence from medical studies.

I have not invented this historical knowledge (dating and assessment) or failed to present it, as Schafersman and Pellicori maintain. The identification and dating of artifacts by their cultural affinities is part and parcel of archaeology. A web of intricate, interlocking, field-tested evidence is usually taken as proof, though not exactly comparable to proof in the natural sciences, as Maloney and Otterbein point out. With the medical, pollen, blood, pigment, and art historical evidence all pointing away from medieval forgery and collectively indicating the Shroud's origin in the ancient Middle East, the issue of Stage 1 authentication should have been settled after the archaeological confirmation of three cultural traits first hypothesized from Shroud studies - the Roman wrist-nailing and the 1st-century Jewish placing of coins over the eyes and supine, hands-over-pelvis burial posture. The skeptics, however, posit such miraculous qualities in the "clever artist" that, by the same criteria, no artifact, manuscript, or work of art could ever be dated or authenticated. And contrary to Alcock, science and history do proceed by decisions of validity and authenticity.

The possibility that the Shroud is ancient but not the burial cloth of Christ is only mentioned by Cole, who merely states a series of propositions without substantiation. It is difficult to build a case on this possibility, but it is not the hopeless case of medieval artistry. I do not believe it a "ritual" to examine all the Stage 2 alternatives, but there is of course a very compelling argument for the representation of Christ in the Shroud figure, virtually ruling out accident. The only real, though highly unlikely, alternatives to the full authenticity of the Shroud are therefore the early-forgery and imitation scenarios. The skeptics would do well to redirect their energies into these possibilities, if they are quite determined to remain skeptics.

Establishing the authenticity of the Shroud does not, of course, hinge on convincing every investigator, still less on resolving all difficulties and unknowns.. Rather, authentication results from a process in which a minimum set of unique conditions and imposing probabilities has been established. Among these prerequisites is not, contrary to Jackson, a satisfactory explanation of the Shroud's early history and the image formation. Being confronted with genuinely ancient objects of unknown provenance is a common experience for the museum curator, and ancient technology cannot always be reconstructed by the archaeologist. The "lost" 1,300 years and the image origin may always remain unexplained - indeed, this prospect is beginning to appear likely - but data sufficient for authentication have been obtained from other aspects of the Shroud. The dating, geographical origin, and association with Christ are indicated not by an isolated feature or datum, but by a web of intricate, corroborating detail as specific as that used in the authentication of a manuscript or painting and certainly as reliable as many other archaeological/historical identifications which are generally accepted. This consistent mesh of detail, with layer upon layer of data from various disciplines, is more than circumstantial, but it is less than irrefutable. Perhaps the reason Pellicori and STURP support only Stage 1 is that they are not accustomed to the methodologies involved, a problem often encountered when, to paraphrase Pellicori, nonarchaeologists attempt to make archaeological judgements. The proper scrutiny of the evidence requires more of a legal than a laboratory method, and qualification by elimination rather than quantification is the determining factor.

As noted in the conclusion to my article, there can be no irrefutable proof of the past, since it cannot be repeated, and conspiracies on a massive scale, forgery of documents, bungling of excavations, etc., are always possible. In each of the examples of historical "fact" which I have compared with the Shroud - Tutankhamen's tomb, the dating of the Parthenon, Shakespeare's authorship, Hitler's death, the Lascaux paititings, the Shang dynasty - there is an element of the circumstantial, and nothing irrefutable, but careful investigation of the pattern of interlocking data, unique features, and the extraordinary circumstance required by alternative explanations leaves no reasonable doubt, and no substantial reason to doubt, unless one has a particular axe to grind. So it is with the Shroud.

The epistemological element in the question of authenticity of the Shroud is of equal fascination with the relic itself. Cole's espousal of extraordinary standards for emotional issues is a splendid example of the manner in which our preconceptions filter empirical data, especially in the degree of proof we require. And, as Burridge points out, so many of our supposed certainties, even in the natural sciences, are actually possibilities or probabilities that we need to be continuously reminded of the frailty and lack of absolute certainty inherent in our knowledge. But in an epistemological framework no stricter than that normally operative for judgements of history and science, the image on the Shroud of Turin can, I submit, be confidently ascribed to the body of Christ.

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References Cited

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