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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The Shroud of Turin: “A Preface as good as an Epilog”

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Fragment I

The Shroud of Turin (or Turin Shroud) is an ancient linen cloth bearing the image of a man who appears to have been physically traumatized in a manner consistent with crucifixion. It is presently kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. Some believe it is the cloth that covered Jesus of Nazareth when he was placed in his tomb and that his image was somehow recorded on its fibers at or near the time of his proclaimed resurrection. Skeptics contend the shroud is a medieval hoax or forgery – or even a devotional work of artistic verisimilitude. It is the subject of intense debate among some scientists, believers, historians and writers regarding where, when and how the shroud and its images were created.

Arguments and evidence cited for the shroud’s being something other than a medieval forgery include textile and material analysis pointing to a 1st-century origin; the unusual properties of the image itself which some claim could not have been produced by any image forming technique known before the 19th century; objective indications that the 1988 radiocarbon dating was invalid due to improper testing technique; and repeated peer-reviewed analyses of the image mode which contradict McCrone’s assertions. Also, pollen from many places the shroud was said to have gone through are found, such as pollen from plants that exist only in certain areas near Jerusalem.

Both skeptics and proponents tend to have entrenched positions on the cause of formation of the shroud image, which has made dialogue very difficult. This may prevent the issue from ever being fully settled to the satisfaction of all sides.

It was Nature, the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, that in 1989, reported that carbon 14 dating ‘proved’ the shroud was a hoax. Rogers found no fault with the article in Nature. Nor did he find fault with the quality of the carbon 14 dating. He defended it.

What Rogers found was that the carbon 14 sample was taken from a mended area of the cloth that contained significant amounts of newer material. This was not the fault of the radiocarbon laboratories. But it did show that the dating was invalid.  Immediately after the publication of Rogers’ paper, Nature published a commentary by scientist-journalist Philip Ball. ”Attempts to date the Turin Shroud are a great game,” he wrote, “but don’t imagine that they will convince anyone . . . The scientific study of the Turin shroud is like a microcosm of the scientific search for God: it does more to inflame any debate than settle it.”  Later in his commentary Ball added, “And yet, the shroud is a remarkable artifact, one of the few religious relics to have a justifiably mythical status. It is simply not known how the ghostly image of a serene, bearded man was made.” Ball, who understood the chemistry of the shroud’s images, rejected a notion popularized by many news accounts that Leonardo da Vinci created the image using primitive photography. He called the idea flaky. He also debunked the sometimes reported speculation that the image was “burned into the cloth by some kind of release of nuclear energy” from Jesus’ body. This he said was wild.  Almost all serious shroud researchers agree with Ball on these points. When flaky and wild ideas appear in newspaper articles or on television, as they often do, scientists cringe. Rogers referred to those who held such views as being part of the “lunatic fringe” of shroud research. But Rogers was just as critical of those who, without the benefit of solid science, declared the shroud a fake. They, too, were part of the lunatic fringe.

The idea that the shroud had been mended in the area from which the carbon 14 samples had been taken had been floating around for some time. But no one paid much attention. In 1998, Turin’s scientific adviser, Piero Savarino, suggested, “extraneous substances found on the samples and the presence of extraneous thread (left over from ‘invisible mending’ routinely carried on in the past on parts of the cloth in poor repair)” might have accounted for an error in the carbon 14 dating. Longtime shroud researchers Sue Benford and Joe Marino independently developed the same idea and explored it with several textile experts and Ronald Hatfield of the radiocarbon dating firm Beta Analytic. The art of invisible reweaving, Benford and Marino discovered, was commonly used in the Middle Ages to repair tapestries. Why not the shroud, they thought? The believed they saw evidence of it. But the skeptically minded Rogers did not agree. He had already debunked every other argument so far offered to explain why the carbon 14 dating might be wrong. According to Ball, “Rogers thought that he would be able to ‘disprove [the] theory in five minutes’.” Instead he found clear evidence of discreet mending. He also showed, with chemistry, that the shroud was at least thirteen hundred years old. And he proved, beyond any doubt, that the sample used in 1988 was chemically unlike the rest of the shroud. The samples were invalid. The 1988 tests were thus meaningless. In words that seem strange in a scientific journal that once had bragging rights to claim that the shroud was not authentic, Ball wrote: “And of course ‘authenticity’ is not really a scientific issue at all here: even if there were compelling evidence that the shroud was made in first-century Palestine, that would not even come close to establishing that the cloth bears the imprint of Christ.

One might think the Papal custodians of the Shroud of Turin would be pleased. The head of the skeptical argument, the carbon 14 dating, had been severed. The shroud might be 2000 years old, after all.  But like Hydra, the Greek mythological beast, controversy grew a weird new head. The 1988 carbon 14 dating was off the table. And Ball, who was familiar with the evidence, had confirmed what all shroud researchers had been saying for years: the images were not painted. Moreover, a 2003 article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Melanoidins by Rogers and Anna Arnoldi, a chemistry professor at the University of Milan, demonstrated that the images were in fact a chemical caramel-like darkening of an otherwise clear starch and polysaccharide coating on some of the shroud’s fibers. They suggested a natural phenomenon might be the cause. If this could be proven, the images could be explained in non-miraculous, scientific terms.

The Papal Custodians of the Shroud in Turin were not pleased. They had been responsible for selecting the sample from a corner of the cloth. They had ignored scientific protocols to which they had previously agreed. These protocols called for multiple samples from multiple locations. And in 2002, during a restoration of the shroud, they had examined the area from which the samples were cut and had not found any visual evidence of mending. But then no one else had noticed it, either. It took microscopy to see spliced threads where newer fibers were dyed to match age-yellowed fibers. It took microchemical analysis to find alizarin dye from madder root, alum and plant gum. This was the dyestuff used in medieval times.  Researchers and thousands of people who follow shroud research were dismayed when, within days of Rogers’ paper, Turin’s Monsignor Giuseppe Ghiberti told an Italian newspaper, “I am astonished that an expert like Rogers could fall into so many inaccuracies in his article. I can only hope, indeed, also think that the C14 dating is rectifiable (the method, in fact, has its own uncertainties), but not on the basis of the ‘darn’ theory.”

The restoration, itself, was very controversial. Turin officials had done the work in secret. They had scraped the shroud, vacuumed it, wet it with fine mist, and stretched it with weights to remove wrinkles. Forensic material, best studied in situ, such as pollen and dirt, was removed and placed in bottles. Researchers wondered how much blood was scraped away. And they wondered how much the fragile images were damaged or loosened by the stretching and scraping since they are part of a fragile coating that is very thin and easily removed. Many, if not most shroud researchers felt the restoration was scientifically and preservation-wise reckless. The newer evidence in scientific journals was drawing attention to how Turin was caring for the cloth and how they were treating scientific evidence. This new controversy between researchers and the Papal custodian of the shroud would erupt at a conference in September, 2005.


Written by Theophyle

April 5, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Easter-2010

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