An artifact believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus. It contains a reverse (like a photographic negative) image of a bearded man's face. It has been the center of much controversy and debate, and has been subjected to a wide battery of scientific tests, which have done little to resolve the controversy, as the artifact is religious in nature. Carbon dating of the shroud has estimated its date of creation to be approximately 1200 AD, though there has recently been some noise about accumulation of bacterial coatings that would make carbon dating underestimate its age. I, personally, doubt they would throw off readings by 1200 years, which would make this an old, but decidedly not 2000 year old, hoax. My expertise on this subject comes from a show I saw on the discovery channel about an hour ago, so if anyone else has something to add, have at it!

What is it?

The Shroud of Turin is an approximately 14 ft. by 3.5 ft. piece of woven linen. It shows faint images of the front and back of a bearded man joined at the head, as though it had been folded from his feet, over his head, and back to his feet. There are also red blotches at the locations of Christ's stigmata: around the head, on the wrists and feet, and on the side of the body. It is believed by many to be the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, and those who believe in its origins consider it a profound religious artifact. There have been numerous studies claiming to both prove and debunk the possibility that it is spatially and temporally contemporary to the life of Jesus.

It first showed up at the St. Mary of Lirey church in Lirey, France, built by Geoffrey de Charny around 1350 AD. De Charny was already in possession of the Shroud when he wrote Pope Clement VI about his intention to build the church, but the first exposition of the Shroud wasn't until about 1355. That first exposition attracted many pilgrims, and also the attention of local Bishop Henri, who didn't believe in its origin and demanded the exposition shut down. It moved from possession by the de Charny to the Savoy family and was shown here and there around Europe. It was housed permanently in Turin in 1578, and turned over to the Catholic church in 1988.

During its travels through Europe the shroud suffered quite a bit of abuse. In 1532 a fire broke out in the chapel that held the shroud, and since it was locked up a blacksmith had to be called to rescue it. In the end the shroud was scorched badly and a single hole was burnt through it by a drop of molten silver. A Savoy courtier had earlier noted that the shroud had been tried by fire, laundered many times, and even boiled in oil, but it must have been a genuine artifact because "... it was not possible to efface or remove the imprint and image."

When was it made?

In 1988 the Vatican allowed fragments of the shroud to be C-14 radiocarbon dated by three laboratories: Oxford University, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Each laboratory used strict scientific rigor in their analysis, and they all came up with a date of around 1350 AD. This was basically in line with earlier radiocarbon dating that had placed the linen as being harvested in 1325, and microscopy by the same team that put the date at 1350. With almost perfect certainty, the linen was harvested, woven, and turned into art sometime during the fourteenth century.

Some have argued that the C-14 dating was contaminated by the 1532 fire. Their theory goes that the shroud was enriched with C-14 (and its much more common non-radioactive cousin C-12) because of the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere during the fire. Radiocarbon dating is done by measuring how much less C-14 is in the sample than in regular biomass, so enriched C-14 would've made the samples seem newer. Studies done in Russia and at the University of Arizona both suggest that any C-14 enrichment would've been short lived and small, and thus wouldn't have changed the calculated date.

Another theory to explain away the radiocarbon dating results is that the process may have been thrown off by all bacteria and fungi that have lived on the Shroud's fibers since it was made. Referred to as a "bioplastic coating," this residue has been building up since the linen was made, and thus has recent and ancient carbon content. Unfortunately for that theory C-14 decays at a logarithmic rate rather than at a linear (or flat!) one. Thus, by one graph I looked at, there would need to be almost twice as many modern carbon atoms as there are original ones to throw the date 1300 years into the future. Since the 20 pound shroud obviously doesn't have another 40 pounds of biomass hanging off of it, this theory is almost surely false.

Who is on it?

Jesus of Nazareth, that one was easy. A quite common Medieval representation of Jesus, with his arms crossed as they were described in the bible. The portrait is between five feet ten inches and six feet tall, not known for sure because the linen has shrunk and stretched in different places. The arms and fingers are abnormally long and thin, the left arm is longer than the right, and the head is elongated and about 5% larger than would be proportionate to the body. Some shroud believers argue that this body shape is the result of Marfan Syndrome, which coincidentally is thought to be responsible for Abraham Lincoln's odd stature. In fact, the image conforms to Medieval artistic standards -- long fingers and an elongated head were simply the accepted style for representing the human body at the time.

How was it made?

For a long while it was assumed that the image was painted, but because there weren't any visible brush strokes and the image didn't go very deep into the linen this was widely challenged. It was also proposed that the image came from draping the shroud over an actual person or body and doing a rubbing, or even by a process where pigment is made to evaporate off a person and be absorbed by the surrounding cloth. Since the image isn't proportioned right to have been made by a three dimensional body, this theory is also hard to believe.

As it turns out, the image was made by rubbing, but from a bas-relief pressed metal plate rather than an actual person. The artist probably used an already-existing pressed or hammered brass bas-relief of Jesus, and lightly dabbed on tempera paint to make the image. This method accounts for the faux-three-dimensional proportioning of the image, as well as its shallow depth. Since Medieval and Renaissance works of art featuring the Shroud show its image quite clearly, the tempera must have been very visible in the past. Due to the constant laundering and boiling the pigment eventually wore off, leaving only the ghostly negative image (likely due to chemical changes done to the linen by the tempera binder) present today.

Chemical analyses have picked up traces of iron oxide (red ochre) and mercuric sulfide (vermilion) in the image and blood areas of the Shroud, from pigments used in the tempera. Blood areas were also dabbed on, probably while the linen was still stretched over the bas-relief used for the rest of the image. We know that the blood areas are not actually blood because they fail forensic tests for blood, except for a very basic test that only looks for iron oxide and protein, both supplied by the tempera. Also, blood turns brown-black when it dries, not the very red vermilion found on the shroud.

One of the most unlikely theories, but worth mentioning because it is so bizarre, is that the shroud was made by a very primitive form of photography. I found a whole web page dedicated to the subject, including the chemical components needed for exposure and design of the building that would need to act as a camera obscura for the technique to work. Notably, the process would have required a developer made mostly of urine and a window-sized convex lens of ground quartz.

Where was it made?

Since de Charny was in possession of the shroud in 1350, most believe that he brought it back from Constantinople some time during the Crusades. Adding to this theory is the presence of pollen on the Shroud that is only found in that area, though it has been suggested that the pollen is a hoax perpetrated by a die-hard Shroud believer. It should also be noted that the face on the Shroud is much like the Byzantine portraits of Jesus that are extant today, further pointing to origination in the area that is now Turkey.

Yet another theory about the shroud is that it is still not the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, but rather a cloth associated with the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay. This is argued by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in their book The Second Messiah, where they draw upon suppressed Masonic traditions that surround the arrest and torture of de Molay.

The theory goes that when King Philip IV decided to strike on the Templars on October 13, 1307, the Inquisition stormed into the Paris Preceptory and caught Jacques de Molay and the Preceptor of Normandy, Geoffrey de Charnay right there and then. William Imbert (also known as Guillame de Paris), the Chief Inquisitor of France was personally charged by the King with the task of extracting a confession from de Molay by any means he considered necessary.

After hearing about the bizarre ceremonies of the Templars that involved the concept of a "living resurrection" (which arguably forms the basis for the ceremony used to raise Master Masons today), that was an insult to the 'true' resurrection of Jesus Christ, Imbert decided to make de Molay endure the same kind of torture that Jesus endured at the crucifixion, as his way of dispensing poetic justice. It probably took place in the central chapel of the Preceptory, where the Templars conducted their "obscene" ceremonies, where the skull, thigh bones, and shroud used in the resurrection ceremony were kept.

Jacques de Molay was then stripped naked, as with all victims of the Inquisition, tied to the doorway, and flogged with a multi-tailed whip that probably also was tipped with fragments of bone. They also probably nailed him to the door, probably with his right arm higher than his left one, as indicated by the blood flows on the shroud. His feet were also nailed to the floor, pinned with a single nail. He was fixed somewhat asymmetrically, causing his right shoulder to dislocate.

This horrible torture would probably have eventually broken even a strong man like Jacques de Molay, a 63-year old veteran of the worst wars in Palestine, and he would have confessed to his heresy. It would have resulted in horrible metabolic acidosis that would have cramped his muscles. This would have been further aggravated by the fact that he could not exhale efficiently, causing respiratory acidosis. It would have increased his body temperature to high levels and caused his blood pressure to drop dramatically, and filled his body with lactic acid, causing his muscles to freeze into a hard cramp. These conditions would have eventually killed the Grand Master if Imbert had allowed it to continue, but killing de Molay would have been unproductive. The confession he had extracted would be very useful if repeated in public at the court of the Inquisition. So they had him taken down.

The shroud that the Templars used in their resurrection ceremonies was taken and draped over de Molay after he was taken down, as a final gesture of poetic justice from Imbert. The men of the Inquisition then brought him back to the soft bed where he had been forcibly removed from earlier in the day. His morbid fluids, high in lactic acid, would have flowed all over his steaming body.

William Imbert was under strict orders not to kill the Grand Master, but he obviously had no intention of nursing the confessed heretic back to something approximating good health. Jacques de Molay had no family in the immediate area, but his right hand man, the Preceptor of Normandy Geoffrey de Charnay who was captured and tortured at the same time, had a brother in Paris, who was ordered to care for both men. Seven years later the two men would be fated to both roast over a slow fire for recanting their confessions.

The de Charnay family tended Jacques de Molay as best they could, but his scars never healed, as two years later he removed his shirt to show papal representatives how terrible his torture had been. The shroud that de Molay was wrapped in must have been stiff with blood and sweat, but as a useful piece of cloth, it would have been washed and put away by the family.

Years later, the family would have noted the image on the shroud. Which is actually the image of Jacques de Molay! I swear I am not making this up.

The Shroud's provenance is neatly explained by this theory. The family that exhibited the Shroud for the first time in the 1357 was precisely Geoffrey de Charney's family. It also fits neatly into the timeframe given by the radiocarbon dating, and ties in with the fact that the Shroud's likeness indeed resembles extant portraits of the last Templar Grand Master.

One of the theories for the creation of the image on the Shroud was advanced by Dr. Alan Mills of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester, and ties into this theory of the Shroud. The theory is fully described in Dr. Mills' paper: "Image Formation of the Shroud of Turin", in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1995, 20(4), pp. 319-326. Dr. Mills noted that the Shroud image is remarkably similar to the faint yellow-brown markings of very old botanical specimens that have been kept dry and pressed in paper. These "plant pictures" share many characteristics with the Shroud image, including revealing a remarkable amount of detail in negative photographic images. The process that creates these markings, known as Volkringer patterns, is not fully understood, but it is believed that a lactic acid reaction is involved in the process.

Dr. Mills also recalled a phenomenon that had caused trouble for early makers of photographic plates, known as the Russel Effect. Spurious images on early photographic plates could have been produced by the proximity of materials like newsprint, resinous woods, aluminum, and vegetable oils. This image creation process is linked to the release of free radicals from those substances.

The theory advanced by Dr. Mills is that the crucified man in the Shroud would have experienced tremendous physical trauma that would have resulted in an increased buildup of lactic acid in his system. This lactic acid being excreted by the victim's body would have reacted with ordinary molecular oxygen in the air, producing free radical singlet oxygen. These single oxygen atoms would have traveled to the linen shroud covering the victim, releasing their excess energy into the fibers of the cloth and turning back into ordinary molecular oxygen in the process.

The singlet oxygen atoms would eventually cause a yellowing of the cloth, but this discoloration would not occur instantaneously. The initial energy release starts what is essentially a chain reaction that is like extremely slow scorching of the cloth. Over several years, if the cloth were kept in a dark place with plenty of oxygen, the darkening of the image would continue until all of the affected linen fibers were spent.

This led Dr. Mills to speculate about the creation of the Shroud, saying: "It's quite possible that the Saracens crucified a Crusader prisoner exactly according to the Gospel accounts as a cruel mockery of his faith." Knight and Lomas picked up on this theory and saw how well it tied into their theories about the connection between the Knights Templar, forgotten and suppressed rituals of Freemasonry, and the creation of the Shroud of Turin. They showed that all of the conditions necessary for Dr. Mills' theory of the Shroud's creation were all present in the circumstances of Jacques de Molay's torture at the hands of the Holy Inquisition, as they had gathered from historical facts about those events, and from suppressed rites of Freemasonry that recalled those events. To wit:

  • Obviously there needs to be a large shroud woven of fine linen. The Templars would have used such a shroud in their ceremonies and one would certainly have been present in the Paris Preceptory.
  • The shroud would have had to have been draped over the recently deceased (but unwashed!) body of a tortured man in a sealed, thermally stable place. This makes it unlikely that an actual dead man was deliberately wrapped in such a burial shroud, as corpses are usually washed before they are buried... The speculation is that this is exactly what William Imbert did as a final ironic touch after torturing Jacques de Molay nearly to death.
  • The shroud should have been removed after 30 hours, which is probably what would have happened in the de Molay-Imbert torture theory.
  • Finally, the shroud would have to have been kept in a dry, dark place for many years, which is probably what Geoffrey de Charnay's family would have done with it after they received into their care the tortured Grand Master

This is among the more interesting of the many theories about the creation of the Shroud, and gives many intriguing explanations for many of its peculiar features.

According to enth's write-up, the carbon in the "bio-plastic coating" would have to contain twice as much carbon as the shroud itself to change the shroud's carbon dating date by 1300 years. However, according to my calculations, this is almost right: it coating would have to be about 1.83 times the mass of the shroud itself (or, more specifically, for every pound of carbon in the shroud, there would have to be 1.83 pounds of carbon in the coating). (NOTE: This is a lot more than the 0.14, or 14%, estimate that I originally gave; my original calculations were wrong).

Here is my calculation: carbon-14 has a half life of 5730 years. Assume that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere is constant from century to century (which isn't exactly true), and that 1 pound of carbon has 1 unit of carbon-14 in it. The shroud was dated in 1988 to have an origin of 1350 A.D., a 638 year difference; given this amount of time to decay, there would be 0.9257 units of C-14 per pound of carbon in the shroud.

If the shroud had been the burial shroud of Jesus, who died around 30 A.D., there would have been 1958 years for the C-14 to decay, and there would be only 0.7899 units of C-14 per pound of carbon. So, we need to add enough pounds of fresh carbon that the units per pound of C-14 rises to 0.9257. As we add fresh carbon to the shroud to increase the amount of C-14, we also increase the total amount of carbon, and the units per pound measurement is the total amount of C-14 divided by the total amount of carbon. Since there's 1 unit of C-14 per pound of fresh carbon, we calculate how many pounds of fresh carbon we'd have to add to a single pound of shroud carbon to get the ratio right.

0.7899 + X            <----- Total units of C-14
---------- = 0.9257   <----- Desired ration
   1 + X              <----- Total pounds of carbon

Solving for X, we get 1.83, so there'd have to be 1.83 pounds of carbon in the coating for every pound of carbon in the shroud. In other words, the shroud would have to be completely covered in slime and dust, which would be rather obvious to the scientists.

Another theory I've seen is that the flax the linen was made from fixes carbon-14 carbon-dioxide into chemicals more readily than the normal kind of carbon. I find it extremely unlikely that there's any kind of plant that fixes more carbon-14 than any other kind of plant, and if flax, a fairly important plant, did this, I'm sure that the scientists who do carbon dating would be aware of this and adjust for it.

A final theory that could be proposed, though I'm not sure if it has been. There's some theories that the corpse of Christ released radiation of the radioactive type while in the shroud, which caused the image. If this did indeed happen, it could have created a large amount of C-14 in the shroud, thus throwing the carbon dating date some 1300 years into the future.

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