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Video: Shroud of Turin

TODAY contributor
updated 3/21/2008 10:10:29 AM ET 2008-03-21T14:10:29

Twenty years after radiocarbon dating supposedly proved once and for all that the Shroud of Turin was a medieval hoax, scientists are revisiting their research to see if the tests were erroneous and the shroud really dates back to the time of Christ.

“The result of the first test done in 1988 was almost an embarrassment at some point,” Barrie Schwortz, the photographer who documented the original Shroud of Turin Project, told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in a Good Friday interview in New York. “Now that we’re 20 years later, the technology certainly has improved.”

The long strip of tightly woven linen that bears the ghostly image of a bearded man who had apparently been crucified has been venerated since the Middle Ages as the burial shroud of Jesus. And written references to the existence of such a cloth date back to the first century.

In 1978, the keepers of the shroud at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, allowed scientists to examine it closely. A small piece was snipped from a corner and divided into three samples that were sent to laboratories to be dated by radiocarbon analysis. In 1988, the labs reported that the cloth dated back to no earlier than 1290 A.D.

Since then, various groups dedicated to research on the relic have argued that the tests were done hastily and were flawed for a number of reasons. One argument holds that the fabric snipped for testing was taken from a patch added to the shroud by nuns who repaired it after it was damaged in a fire in 1532. Another holds that scientists did not consider whether the long-ago fire altered the chemical makeup of the carbon in the linen, which could have skewed the date. Finally, the segment tested may have been otherwise contaminated.

“The shroud has been handled so many times. It’s been displayed publicly. It has been hung from a balcony for public display, so the opportunity for contamination to settle on the cloth. Also, remember, it’s been burned in fires; the heating of the cloth could have contributed to the contamination,” Schwortz told Lauer. “There really are a spate of reasons why that might have occurred, and I think that’s why they’re concerned about it now.”

No new tests will be done on the shroud, which is rarely displayed publicly, Schwortz said. Rather, in a yearlong project being documented by the BBC, scientists at Oxford University, where the original tests were done, will revisit the data and the methodology of the original tests to determine if mistakes were made and if the shroud could actually date back to the time of Jesus.

Despite the fire damage to the shroud, it is remarkably well-preserved for an article so old, a fact that struck Schwortz the first time he saw it 30 years ago. But, he said, if the shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus — and he believes it is — then it would have been handled very carefully, especially in the early centuries of its existence.

“Assuming for a moment that it really was first century, it is a bloodstained cloth that is against Jewish tradition to even handle, so they would have kept it a secret,” he said. “It would have been well preserved, probably kept hidden most of the time, and perhaps that’s why the condition is as good as it was.”

Despite the legends and written reports of the existence of the shroud, the documented provenance of the relic begins in 1357 in Lirey, France, when it was presented to a church by the widow of Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight. It was pronounced a fraud in 1389 by Bishop Pierre D’Arcis, who claimed to have talked to the man who painted it. The Catholic Church continues to hold that the shroud is not authentic, but the faithful are allowed to venerate it as a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The iconic strip of linen passed through a variety of hands and a number of European cities over the next 200 years and in 1532 was damaged in a fire. It arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin in 1578 and has remained there ever since.

Mystery of history
Skeptics have attempted to reproduce the image by various means. Advanced analysis showed that the image had three-dimensional qualities, which many feel has eliminated the idea that it is a clever painting. The forgery theory most often cited comes from a 2005 experiment by a French magazine, which said it reproduced the image by laying a wet strip of linen on a bas-relief and daubing at it with a red, ferric oxide pigment mixed with gelatin. The image produced was three-dimensional and permanently fixed in the fabric.

But other questions remain. One scientist who examined evidence collected during the 1978 examination reported that he found grains of pollen on the shroud that could only have come from the Middle East. A DNA test was conducted in 1995 on a sample of the pigment.

“That was not an authorized test, but it was done from an actual sample of the shroud’s blood,” Schwortz told Lauer. “They determined that it was very degraded, but they were able to determine that it was male and human. Whether or not newer types of DNA analysis could tell us more really would depend on the Turin authorities giving permission for this type of testing to be done.”

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