In 1988 the Shroud of Turin entered into a period of its history as dark and gloomy as an approaching hurricane. This would be a storm of bad press and negative opinion. The Shroud was a fake as determined by three carbon dating labs. The party was over. Seven years earlier, in 1981, hopes were high as the Shroud of Turin Research Project announced their results after five days with the cloth and three years analyzing the data. Their results electrified the world with possibility. The Shroud was not the work of an artist and the blood was genuine. Could the Shroud be authentic? Is that even possible?
Not according to the carbon dating labs. Science had spoken and science is never wrong. I dedicate this article to the memory of the late Paul Harvey, the great radio newscaster who became famous with his phrase, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
In 1985, twenty-two scientists gathered together at a hotel in Norway to discuss the protocol of how carbon dating of the Shroud would be conducted. Perhaps a little ambitious, but it was agreed that seven different labs would be included, four would use the older technology of proportional counter and three would use the newer nuclear accelerator technology. The tests would be blind whereby the labs involved would not know which sample was a control or from the Shroud. Lastly, and most importantly, they would cut at least three different locations on the Shroud to balance any skew from potential contamination. This is what was supposed to happen.
Now for the rest of the story. Luigi Gonella was the scientific advisor chosen by the Catholic Church to oversee the whole affair. It was his decision to limit the number of labs to three from the original seven. That alone was not earth shattering, seven was probably overkill anyway. But the real mistake was far more than a simple error; it was a colossal blunder and one that would forever leave the Shroud marred with uncertainty. As the leaders of the three labs representing Oxford, Zurich and Tucson gathered around the revered cloth to determine where to cut for their dating samples, Luigi’s scientist hat fell to the floor revealing another hat full of Catholic piety. Instead of cutting three different locations on the cloth, Luigi decided on only one location, one that was adjacent to an area cut in 1973 for textile analysis by Gilbert Raes. Why there? It would look pretty. The most significant carbon dating event of the twentieth century was determined by aesthetics instead of sound methodology.
In Luigi’s defense, there are indications that he was pressured to ignore the sampling protocol by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome and the Centro Internazionale di Sindonologia in Turin. This may be so, but he will always bear the blame for this blunder.
What happened? Instead of three samples, only one was cut. And where was it cut? From the most handled part of the cloth, the very corner that was grabbed and held hundreds of times over the centuries as the Shroud was brought out and held horizontally by Church officials for thousands to see. It was even brought out numerous times to bless royal weddings as it was owned by the royal Savoy family for over 400 years.
So not only was the carbon test limited to just one sample, it was also taken from the very location any archaeologist would have avoided like the swine flu. Is there a problem with the sample? X-ray radiography of the sample area shows a higher density of threads for some reason. Another clue came from chemist Dr. Alan Adler in 1996. He noticed that the spectrographic data from that corner did not match up with the rest of the cloth suggesting a different chemical composition. In 2003 chemist Ray Rogers obtained thread samples from the same corner cut for carbon dating and compared them with threads taken from the main body of the cloth. Rogers confirmed through chemistry the suspicions raised by the other tests. His work was published in a peer reviewed scientific journal in 2005. The corner was not homogenous. It was different; in fact it was radically different.
The presence of starch, cotton and madder root dye all suggested some kind of repair. What? The corner was repaired? When? How? It doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t Luigi and others have noticed the difference? Not if it was done by the skilled French weavers who specialized in “invisible mending.” In the late middle ages, weavers in France had formed a craft guild and were noted for restoring tapestries, curtains and fine clothing to their original condition. Were they employed to repair the Shroud? There is no written account to document this occurrence but the smoking gun is plainly evident. Cotton was used to affect a repair of the frayed corner because it easily absorbs dye. The dye was used to blend in the new cotton threads with the heavily yellowed threads of the Shroud, and lastly starch was used to stiffen the cotton threads as they were meticulously woven into the corner. What else could account for these anomalous substances to be found in that precise corner?
Luigi’s colossal blunder leaves us nowhere. With the legitimacy of the carbon dating sample clearly in question, it has to be dismissed as being inconclusive. If the Shroud was any other non-descript artifact from some obscure archaeological site, it would simply be dated again. Not so with the Shroud, twenty-one years have passed since the first carbon dating tests and still no discussion of repeating the tests.
It looks like the historians must take center stage now to answer one of the central questions around the Shroud. Is it medieval? If not, how old is it?
This article cannot tackle the Shroud’s entire history. However, it would be instructive to see if the history of the cloth pre-dates the alleged carbon date range of 1260 to 1390. The labs determined with a “95% confidence” that the oldest date would be 1260 with the youngest at 1390. At least we know that it wasn’t the work of Leonardo da Vinci who was born a little late-1452-unless of course he invented time travel.
One of the historical challenges has been to bridge all the gaps with clear documentation. Historians lament over the severe lack of documents with regard to almost any person or event dating back more than a couple hundred years. Gaps are filled by inference and context. With the Shroud, one such gap exists between 1204 and 1356. We have a clear historical trail from its arrival in Lirey, France when it was first exhibited until today.
What happened in 1204? This year marks the lowest point of Christian history when crusaders from Venice and France invaded Constantinople, the center of Eastern Christianity. It was considered the richest city on earth and was proud of its collection of relics including the crown of thorns and “most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped.” This was how it was represented in a letter written to Pope Innocent III in 1205 protesting the invasion. We know from other references that this linen contained an image-much like the Shroud. The city was looted and burned. Almost every relic now claimed by some cathedral in France, Spain or Italy can trace its roots to Constantinople. Where did the Shroud go? A document reveals that it was taken to Athens and was seen there in 1207. Four documents now attest to this. Who had it? It had become the possession of a prominent crusader, Othon de la Roche of Burgundy. He was man of wealth and position and was instrumental in the successful sacking of Constantinople. In return for his service, he was awarded Athens as a fiefdom and became the Duke of Athens and was awarded several relics as payment including the Shroud. However his political reign was short lived due to a run-in with the Pope and in 1230 he returned to his castle at Ray-sur-Saône in Burgundy. Kept in one of the towers to this day is a collection of items taken from Constantinople. One of the most important items is a wooden chest with the inscription, “13th century coffer in which was preserved in Ray Castle the Shroud of Christ brought by Othon de Ray from Constantinople-1206.” There is some confusion as to whether the inscription refers to Othon or his son who is known as Othon de Ray. It hardly matters. The point is we know the whereabouts of the Shroud in 1230; it was in Burgundy, France.
Now we must move forward 120 years to 1350. This is when Jean de Vergy, the great great granddaughter of Othon de la Roche was to marry a prominent French knight, Geoffrey de Charney. Jean was living in Besancon, France-about a hundred miles from Burgundy. She is recorded to have the Shroud and is kept in Besancon Castle outside the city. Records indicate it was exhibited occasionally at Saint Stevens Cathedral during Easter. The same year as their marriage, the cathedral burned. In 1353, Jean de Vergy and Geoffrey de Charney move to Lirey where Geoffrey builds a church but passes away in 1356. That same year, Jean de Vergy holds the first public exhibition of the Shroud in Geoffrey’s honor. A pilgrim’s medal is cast showing the Shroud’s unique double image with the crest of both families represented. Historians have pieced together through inference and context that Jean de Vergy was the rightful owner of the Shroud as a direct descendant of Othon de la Roche and presented the relic as part of her dowry to Geoffrey when they married.
The years between 1230 when we know it was in Burgundy and 1350 when Jean de Vergy is known to possess it, is when it may have been held by the Knights Templar for safe keeping. A recent document unearthed in the Vatican archives by historian Barbara Frale reveals the testimony in 1287 of a young recruit to the order who is brought into a secret sanctuary where he is shown a long linen cloth bearing the bearded image of a man and is required to kiss the feet three times. It is more than curious that another Geoffrey de Charney was burned at the stake in 1314 along with Jacque de Molay. They were the two leaders of the Knights Templar who were charged with heresy, that they worshipped a mysterious image. Is it a coincidence that another Geoffrey de Charney, a direct descendant of the executed Templar would marry the rightful heir of the Shroud, Jean de Vergy thirty-six years later? Wow! Writers pay attention. Looking for a story fraught with intrigue, secrets, scandal and betrayal? You just found it.
What does all this mean? Look at the dates…1205, 1207, 1230 all clearly predating the earliest carbon date of 1260. We have clear possession of the cloth by Othon and his descendants. The most important aspect to this history is this-if we can link the Shroud of Turin to what disappeared during the Fourth Crusade; we suddenly have a documented trail dating back to the sixth century! The history of the cloth that was described as “most sacred of all” began in 525 and disappeared in 1204.
Is there any other way to bridge the gap between 1204 and 1356? There is-and it is the most significant one of all. About thirty years ago an important picture was discovered within the pages of the Hungarian Pray Manuscript. This was the first book ever written and bound in the Hungarian language. Inside is a picture showing two distinct scenes. Scene one shows Jesus laid out on his burial cloth showing only four fingers and no thumbs-same as the Shroud. Scene two shows the cloth wrapped around Jesus with a face image crudely showing that the cloth contains an image. Here is the clincher; the picture also shows an “L” shaped pattern of burn holes exactly as we see them on the Shroud. Lastly, the picture clearly portrays the distinctive herringbone pattern weave of the Shroud. It couldn’t be any clearer. This picture dating from 1192 is depicting the Shroud that was kept in Constantinople and is the same cloth that resides in Turin today. There can now be no mistake as to what disappeared in 1204 and later given to Othon de la Roche.
Is the Shroud medieval? Not a chance. As long as we keep pretending the carbon date is somehow accurate despite the bad sample, we will continue to look for the alleged medieval artist who created it. If you are looking for the artist, start looking in the sixth century. However, don’t look too hard because there is evidence that takes it to the third century too. Does it go all the way back to first century? Only if you believe in legends-but every legend has a kernel of truth. Now you know the rest of the story. I think Paul Harvey is smiling.