RELIGION

Lifting the veil

Science reveals a mysterious medieval hoax

ANNE STEACY October 24 1988
RELIGION

Lifting the veil

Science reveals a mysterious medieval hoax

ANNE STEACY October 24 1988

Lifting the veil

RELIGION

Science reveals a mysterious medieval hoax

It is a delicate length of linen that is scorched, stained and frayed around the edges. Yet the yellowed cloth, which bears the faint image of a bearded man

who appears to be bleeding from wounds in his side and wrists, has been revered by Christians for more than six centuries. Millions of pilgrims have prayed to the Shroud of Turin—named for the Italian city where the relic lies locked in a silver casket—in the belief that it is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. Some skeptics doubted the authenticity of the shroud. Indeed, as early as 1389, French Bishop Pierre d’Arcis publicly denounced the shroud as a fraud. But until last spring, the Vatican refused to allow technicians to submit the cloth to scientific testing that would reveal its age. Now, three laboratories have examined fragments of the shroud. And last week, Anastasio Cardinal Ballestrero, Archbishop of Turin, officially announced their verdict. The Shroud of Turin,

he declared, is almost certainly a medieval fake. Ballestrero, the official keeper of the shroud, which lies deep within a crypt in the

Scientists are still at a loss to explain how the Christ-like image was imposed

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, told a news conference that tests showed, with 95-percent certainty, that the cloth dated from either the 13th or 14th century—not from the time of Christ, nearly 2,000 years ago. Vatican officials said they were satisfied that the

analysis was accurate, but maintained that the scientists had not solved the mystery of the shroud. Said Luigi Gonella, a scientific adviser to Ballestrero: “Essentially, we have an incomprehensible, extraordinary object. We now know its age, but not its origin.”

To arrive at their conclusions about the shroud, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Britain’s Oxford University and the University of Arizona in Tucson used a procedure called accelerated mass spectrometry to measure the amount of carbon 14—a radioactive form of carbon found in all living things—in the cloth. When living organisms—such as fibres from the flax plant that are used to make linen— die, the carbon 14 that they naturally contain decays at a constant rate. By measuring the amount of carbon 14 remaining in the shroud, the scientists were able to calculate the approximate year when the flax was cut to make the linen. Working independently, the three laboratories ruled that the fibre samples they tested dated from between 1260 and 1390.

Their findings appeared to support the widely held theory that a French knight, Geoffrey de Charny, created the shroud

in an effort to draw pilgrims—and their offerings—to a privately built church that he opened at Lirey, in western France, around 1350. About a century later, the shroud

came into the possession of the Italian

royal House of Savoy, whose family seat

was in Turin. When King Umberto of Italy

died in 1983, he bequeathed the relic to the papacy.

If the shroud is indeed a fraud perpetrated by de Charny, scientists are still at a loss to explain how the startling Christ-like image was imposed on the cloth. There was—and still is—a widespread belief among the faithful that Christ’s physical characteristics were burned onto the cloth in a flash of light when he was resurrected following his crucifixion. The shroud, measuring 3V2 feet by 14V2 feet, is imprinted with extraordinarily precise physical details. A team of American scientists who carried out testing in 1978 observed that images on the shroud were consistent with such complexities as gravity’s effect on blood flow from wounds in the hands, feet and side.

The earlier studies also concluded that the shroud’s image appeared to be that of a fivefoot, 10V2-inch, 175-lb. male between the ages of 30 and 35. According to the Bible, Christ was 33 when he died. Although they appear only on the surface of the shroud, the features—which can be seen most clearly in photographic negatives—seem to be threedimensional. That, paired with the fact that no brush strokes or pigments are visible on the surface of the shroud, appeared to rule out the creation of the image by a painter. The earlier testing also indicated that the marks on the cloth were genuine bloodstains.

Still, many scientists maintained that only carbon 14 testing could settle the question of the shroud’s authenticity. Until this year,

Vatican officials said that they were unwilling to permit carbon dating because existing techniques would have required scientists to cut large pieces from the shroud. Vatican officials changed their minds last April as a

result of the development of accelerated mass spectrometry, a procedure that made it possible to carry out the tests with only a few pieces of thread.

To that end, a piece of cloth about the size of a man’s finger was cut from the shroud and a portion was sent to each of the three laboratories. Each laboratory also received, for comparison purposes, pieces of other fabrics that had been dated to the first, 11th and 14th centuries. The British, Swiss and American experts reduced each swatch to a powder of carbons and compressed the powders into pellets, which were then separated into atoms by 2,000-volt electric charges. The teams then isolated the particles of carbon 14 and counted them electronically.

Despite the new evidence that the shroud was a fraud, Ballestrero said that it will remain an object of veneration to the church, if only as a powerfully evocative piece of religious art. At the same time, other scientists said that the controversy over the shroud had not been finally settled. They argued that because the pieces of the shroud submitted to carbon 14 testing were all cut from the same part of the shroud—which could have been contaminated by substances in the Middle Ages—they may not have accurately reflected the relic’s age. The passion and speculation that have centred on the shroud will not easily be quelled by the harsh light of science.

ANNE STEACY

with correspondents’ reports