New questions about the shroud, part one

New questions about the shroud, part one April 26, 2000

Once a week, Barrie Schwortz digs into the computer data that describe who is using his Web site dedicated to news, photographs and scientific papers about the Shroud of Turin.

The report doesn’t give names, but does show where people work. Scrolling through the “” addresses yields scores of hits from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale and numerous other campuses. Some codes in the “” listings are tougher to decipher. Nevertheless, a trained eye can spot the Los Alamos National Labs, the Lawrence Livermore National Labs, the National Science Foundation and other research centers.

And out in cyberspace, there are clusters of NASA folks who are still curious about that 14-foot herringbone sheet at the Cathedral of Turin. This, despite the 1988 carbon-14 work that indicated it was woven between 1260 and 1390.

“Carbon dating is like the Holy Grail of science for a lot of people,” said Schwortz, the official photographer for the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project. “But if the carbon dating had really proven, definitively, that the shroud was fake, nobody would be hitting my site except religious fanatics. The fact is, there are fascinating unanswered questions that keep pulling hard-core scientists back to that piece of cloth.”

Meanwhile, many Christians sincerely believe this is the burial cloth of Jesus, and cite historic and scientific reasons for doing so, as well as the testimonies of faith and church tradition. The shroud will be displayed between Aug. 12 and Oct. 22, the fifth public exhibition since 1898.

The problem is that each shroud study seems to raise new questions, while providing few rock-solid answers. In 1898, Secondo Pia discovered the image is a photographic negative and, in 1976, Colorado researchers proved that it contains three-dimensional data. The image contains scores of technical details about crucifixion that had been lost for centuries, only to be discovered by modern archaeologists and pathologists. All but a few researchers have concluded that its ghostly image of a whipped and crucified man consists of lightly scorched fibers, not pigments.

The 1978 project yielded a treasure drove of data and research materials, including the 2,700 photographs that form the backbone of the Schwortz internet site ( and his upcoming book with British historian Ian Wilson, “The Turin Shroud: The Illustrated Evidence.” But research money all but vanished after the carbon-14 test results and waves of headlines proclaiming “The Shroud is a Fake.”

Meanwhile, critics kept suggesting ways that the shroud could have been created. Other teams of researchers tested each theory, and found them lacking. As a researcher at Los Alamos once told me: “We’ve tested every method we can think of and none of them work. … It seems like we have proven that the shroud doesn’t exist. The only problem is that it does.”

By 1995, Schwortz said he was sickened to realize that the only place Americans could read about the Shroud of Turin was in supermarket checkout lines. Tabloid headlines screamed that Leonardo da Vinci had invented photography to produce the image, or aliens did it, or that scientists were poised to use DNA from blood samples to clone Jesus.

But behind the scenes, research was proceeding — work that is chronicled in a growing number of Web sites. There has been new work in Israel focusing on plant pollens that could help scientists trace the shroud’s history, on characteristics of the cloth samples that may have skewed the carbon-dating process and on fascinating similarities between the shroud and the Sudarium Christi (Face Cloth of Christ) in the Cathedral of Oviedo, Spain.

The upcoming exhibit may inspire renewed media coverage and, thus, public interest, said Schwortz.

“At this point,” he said, “I think that there is more evidence indicating that the cloth is authentic than there is that it’s a fake. I say that, and I’m a Jew, so it’s hard for people to accuse me of Christian bias. But there are so many questions to be answered and some that may never be answered. That’s what this is all about — big, big questions.”

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