The Turin Shroud: Past, Present and Future, International Scientific Symposium

The Turin Shroud: Past, Present and Future, International Scientific Symposium

Anthony Cappello

The Turin Shroud: Past, Present and Future, International Scientific Symposium, 2000, 536pp, A$59.95. Available from AD Books.

Last year scientists gathered in Turin for an International Scientific Symposium on the Turin Shroud. Papers were presented on "The Body Image of the Shroud", "How was the Image formed?", "The Blood marks on the Turin Shroud", "The History of the Turin Shroud", "Origins and Age of the Shroud" and "Are the radiocarbon results [of 1988] conclusive evidence of its medieval date?"

These papers were subsequently published in Europe and have recently become available in an English translation.

When in 1988 the British Museum carried out its radiocarbon test on a small piece of cloth from the Shroud of Turin, many suspected the debate on its authenticity would be finally settled. Yet, despite the test's conclusion that the Shroud's date lay between 1260 and 1390, the debate has shown no signs of subsiding, as was apparent during the scientific gathering in Turin.

Carbon dating

Here, the main area of debate was the 1988 carbon dating result itself.

Among those supporting the result, Vittorio Pesce Delfino, of the University of Bari, argued that all he needed was five minutes to convince the gathering of the accuracy of the results from the laboratories of Zurich, Oxford and Tucson. Arguments regarding dirt on the cloth and the effects of a 16th-century fire, argued Delfino, were ludicrous because the process of testing necessarily involves cleaning any specimen being dated.

Joseph Virlet, a scientist from Paris, argued that counter-arguments to the carbon dating results on the Shroud also needed scientific analysis, e.g., Dr Garza-Valdes' hypothesis of a "bioplatic coating" on the Shroud which could have altered the carbon-dating results. Virlet argued that until such hypotheses were tested, the results of the 1988 carbon dating could not be "circumvented and evaded."

Other scientists questioned the 1998 results.

John P. Jackson, of the Turin Shroud Centre of Colorado, described the radiocarbon datings of 1988 as "inconsistent with various archaeological/historical studies of the Shroud that indicate it has a history prior to the 14th century."

William Meacham from the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, described the 1988 Carbon dating tests as "a fiasco", since the laboratories had put themselves in charge of the whole operation. Other archaeological bodies and museums normally took charge of the whole process themselves. In addition, only one sample had been taken and this was split into four pieces.

Drawing upon his experience as an archaeologist, Meacham pointed out to the symposium that of the more than 100 samples he had submitted for carbon dating over the years, 78 proved to be credible, 26 were rejected as unreliable and 11 were problematic. Why, then, should the results of tests on the Shroud be considered infallible? He suggested a fresh set of carbon dating tests be conducted with proper procedures followed and open to scrutiny.

Alan Adler, of Western Connecticut State University, while questioning the radiocarbon dating, argued that more urgent action was needed to preserve the Shroud, which is already showing signs of deteriorating.

Among the more interesting reports during the symposium were claims of discoveries of foreign objects on the shroud, detected by enhanced computer imagery, e.g., first-century coins on the eyelids of the image on the Shroud.

Nello Balossino of the University of Turin said that by using hi-tech computer imagery he had detected the inscription "Tibepioy Caicapoc" on the coins, an inscription that refers to the reign of Tiberius and dates the coins at 29AD. They were, he said, "circulated in Jewish markets and given in small change."

Pierluigi Ballone, also from the University of Turin, supported Balossino's findings, but raised another question: how could it be, in a Jewish religious environment, that "the disciples of a practising Jewish Master would have placed coins with pagan symbols on his corpse."

Other relevant factors were also discussed, such as the earliest known evidence of the shroud - the 1192 Pray Manuscript, which features a drawing of the Shroud. Pietro Vercelli, a linen scientist, concluded from his analysis of the sample that it was woven as a "staircase design" which corresponded with the design found in the Pray Manuscript. This suggested it was copied from the Shroud, raising doubts about the 14th-century dates.


Regarding areas of correspondence between the the Shroud and the Gospel accounts, Professor Giuseppe Ghiberti of the Catholic University of Milan concluded there were "exceptional coincidences". However, he acknowledged the inconsistency of expression between the "shroud" used in the synoptic gospels and the plural word "cloths" used in the Gospel of John.

In short, the symposium reached no clear-cut conclusion as to the authenticity of the Shroud, but there was unanimous agreement that more tests should be carried out and more done to preserve its condition.

Alberto Giovannini, of the University of Turin, expressed what was perhaps a fairly consensus view of the participants: "To me the holy Shroud can be understood indeed only at the faith level. Following Galileo, I think that faith tells us how to reach the heavens and not how the heavens are made."

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