Channel 4’s dreary not-so-new evidence about the Turin Shroud

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

The Turin Shroud

The face on the Turin Shroud: a contemporary icon

Channel 4 last night (30 December 2009) showed a documentary claiming to present “new evidence” that the Turin Shroud is not a medieval fake. They wheeled out members of the 1970s STURP team, the 2005 paper published in Thermochimica Acta claiming that the radiocarbon dates were contaminated by cotton of sixteenth-century date and ended up presenting nothing that’s not already known.

It was in the documentary’s omissions that the greatest faults lay. The voice-over stated that the image is not painted, giving the impression that nobody could explain the colouring other than that it’s a “degradation of the cellulose” in the linen fibres. That’s not quite correct. What is seen on the shroud is a chemical darkening of a starch and polysaccharide coating on some of the fibres: it’s not the fibres themselves, but something applied to them after manufacture. In other words, pigment. And if that’s not paint, I really don’t know what is. One of the members of the STURP team, Walter McCrone, concluded during the study that the image was painted using red ochre and vermillion pigments. The programme didn’t mention him or his conclusions!

The documentary also stated that the blood stains seen on the shroud must be real blood, as they contain degradation products from haemoglobin. Even if this be accepted – and there is still the problem that these stains are red, not brown like real dried blood – it does not mean that the blood derives from a corpse wrapped in the shroud. Given that the image was introduced as a coating on the fibres, it is equally likely that the “blood” was introduced in the same way. Why couldn’t a medieval forger have painted on blood using, say, cow’s blood, which would have been readily available (even though McCrone thought it to be vermillion)?

The scientists at the radiocarbon laboratories noted contamination of the samples with cotton, while McCrone had already drawn attention to the mixture of cotton and linen. This means that they were able to deal with it. They recognised the cotton and removed it, dating the linen fibres, which is what they were asked to do. The preparation of samples for dating involves rigorous cleaning to remove potential contaminants, such as these stray cotton fibres. There is no reason to suspect that the three laboratories undertaking the dating did not do their basic cleaning, especially as they had spotted the contaminants.

The programme brought up the old claim that the image on the shroud somehow encodes three-dimensional data and, using the same computer program used to create a three-dimensional image of the face on the shroud, showed that it does not work with photographs. How dishonest! We’re not dealing with a photograph on the shroud but with a painted image. The comparison should have been with a painting. Talk about prejudged conclusions! Besides, if we’re dealing with an image produced by draping a cloth over a corpse, it ought to be far more three-dimensional than we see: where are the sides of the body that the cloth would have touched? The fact that they aren’t there is good evidence that the image is painted.

A first-century CE burial in Jerusalem containing scraps of a burial shroud

A first-century CE burial in Jerusalem containing scraps of a burial shroud

A further significant omission was the discovery of a genuinely first-century Jewish burial cloth in Jerusalem, announced in November 2009. It consists of a patchwork of cloths with a separate piece for the head, all made in a plain two-way weave, quite unlike the Turin Shroud. Going back to the Gospels – our only sources of information about the burial of Jesus – we find that they mention not a single cloth but “strips of linen” (Luke XXIV.12 and John XX.5, both using the Greek word ὀθόνια, meaning ‘small pieces or strips of linen’). Supporters of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud are careful not to quote these passages, which show that the evangelists did not think of the body of Jesus as ever having been wrapped in a single linen cloth.

Finally, there was no mention of the contemporary Bishop of Lirey’s enquiries into the origins of the shroud when it was fist exhibited c 1357. He identified the artist responsible for its creation and there the matter ought to have rested. The technique of tempera painting onto cloth is fourteenth century, the first record of the shroud is fourteenth century and the radiocarbon dates show that it was manufactured in the fourteenth century. There really isn’t any room for doubt!