Shroud of Turin: Could Quake Explain Face of Jesus?

Is the revered cloth a miracle or an elaborate hoax?

The authenticity of the Shroud of Turin has been in question for centuries and scientific investigations over the last few decades have only seemed to muddle the debate. Is the revered cloth a miracle or an elaborate hoax?

Now, a study claims neutron emissions from an ancient earthquake that rocked Jerusalem could have created the iconic image, as well as messed up the radiocarbon levels that later suggested the shroud was a medieval forgery. But other scientists say this newly proposed premise leaves some major questions unanswered.

The Shroud of Turin, which bears a faint image of a man's face and torso, is said to be the fabric that covered Jesus' body after his crucifixion in A.D. 33. Though the Catholic Church doesn't have an official position on the cloth, the relic is visited by tens of thousands of worshippers at the Turin Cathedral in Italy each year. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

Photos: The Shroud of Turin Through History

Carbon and quakes Radiocarbon dating tests conducted at three different labs in the 1980s indicated the cloth was less than 800 years old, produced in the Middle Ages, between approximately A.D. 1260 and 1390. The first records of the shroud begin to appear in medieval sources around the same time, which skeptics don't think is a coincidence. Those results were published in the journal Nature in 1989. But critics in favor of a much older date for the cloth have alleged that those researchers took a sample of fabric that was used to patch up the burial shroud in the medieval period, or that the fabric had been subjected to fires, contamination and other damaged that skewed the results.

The new theory hinges on neutrons released by a devastating earthquake that hit Old Jerusalem around the same time that Jesus is believed to have died. [Who Was Jesus, the Man?]

Photos: Ancient Tomb Holds Jesus Mystery

All living things have the same ratio of stable carbon to radioactive carbon-14, but after death, the radioactive carbon decays in a predictable pattern over time. That's why scientists can look at the carbon-14 concentration in organic archaeological materials like fabrics, bones and wood to estimate age. Carbon-14 is typically created when neutrons from cosmic rays collide with nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere (though it can be unleashed by manmade nuclear reactions, too).

The group of scientists, led by Alberto Carpinteri of the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, suspect high-frequency pressure waves generated in the Earth's crust during this earthquake could have produced significant neutron emissions. (They simulated this by crushing very brittle rock specimens under a press machine.)

These neutron emissions could have interacted directly with nitrogen atoms in the linen fibers, inducing chemical reactions that created the distinctive face image on the shroud, the scientists say. The reactions also could have led to "a wrong radiocarbon dating," which would explain the results of the 1989 experiments, Carpinteri said i

The Shroud of Turin is is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, revealing the face of Christ as it was impressed in a strip of linen. | Corbis Images

Giulio Fanti, a professor of mechanical engineering at Padua University, published a book last year "Il Mistero della Sindone," translated as "The Mystery of the Shroud," (Rizzoli, 2013), arguing that his own analysis proves the shroud dates to Jesus' lifetime. In an email, Fanti said he is not sure if a neutron emission is the only possible source responsible for creating the body image. (His own theories include a corona discharge.) However, he wrote that he is "confident" the 1980s radiocarbon dating "furnished wrong results probably due to a neutron emission."

Shaky science?

Even if it is theoretically possible for earthquake-generated neutrons to have caused this kind of reaction, the study doesn't address why this effect hasn't been seen elsewhere in the archaeological record, Gordon Cook, a professor of environmental geochemistry at the University of Glasgow, explained.

"It would have to be a really local effect not to be measurable elsewhere," Cook told Live Science. "People have been measuring materials of that age for decades now and nobody has ever encountered this."

Photos: What Did Jesus Look Like?

Christopher Ramsey, director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, had a similar issue with the findings.

"One question that would need to be addressed is why the material here is affected, but other archaeological and geological material in the ground is not," Ramsey wrote in an email. "There are huge numbers of radiocarbon dates from the region for much older archaeological material, which certainly don't show this type of intense in-situ radiocarbon production (and they would be much more sensitive to any such effects)."

Ramsey added that using radiocarbon dating to study objects from seismically active regions, such as regions like Japan, generally has not been problematic.

It seems unlikely that the new study, published in the journal Meccanica, will settle any of the long-standing disputes about how and when the cloth was made, which depend largely on faith.

"If you want to believe in the Shroud of Turin, you believe in it," Cook said.

Original article on Live Science.

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The Shroud of Turin is is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, revealing the face of Christ as it was impressed in a strip of linen.

Long History The Shroud of Turin is is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, revealing the face of Christ as it was impressed in a strip of linen. The first documented reference of the shroud dates to 1357, when the linen was displayed in a church in Lirey, France. Believers contend that the shroud is the "cloth with an image on it," reported by the early Christian historian Eusebius to have been given to the Christian King Abgar V of Edessa in 30 A.D.  According to this account, the cloth, known as the Mandylion of Edessa, was taken to Constantinople in 944. It  disappeared in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. 

First Showing This image, incised on copper, dating back to 1578, represents a public showing of the Holy Shroud in Turin in 1578. First recorded as being in the possession of Geoffrey de Charny, a French soldier who died at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, the shroud changed hands until it was acquired in 1453 by the royal Italian House of Savoy. It was then relocated to Chambery, France, where it was damaged by a fire in 1532. In 1578 it was moved to Turin in northern Italy, where it was frequently paraded through the streets.

First Photo In 1898, a lawyer named Secondo Pia took the first known photograph of the shroud, shown here.

The Face Secondo Pia's negative of the first image of the Shroud of Turin reveals what many see as the outline of the face and body of a crucified man. Scientific interest in the 14-foot-long linen cloth followed.

First Television Appearance In 1973, the shroud was shown for the first time on television, with an introduction by Pope Paul VI. Also in 1973, the shroud was secretly examined by a commission of experts, who took cloth and surface dust samples. The results of the investigation, published three years later, pointed to the presence of pollen from plants unique to Israel and Turkey. This suggested the linen had been exposed to the air in these countries.

First Examinations In 1978, the shroud underwent a five-day examination. The linen was submitted to photographic floodlighting, low-power X-rays and narrow-band ultraviolet light. Dozens of pieces of sticky tape were pressed onto its surface and removed. A side edge was unstitched and an apparatus inserted between the shroud and its backing cloth to examine the underside. The bottom edge was also unstitched and examined.

More Scrutiny Barrie Schwortz, the photographer for the 1978 investigations, told Discovery News, "We used X-rays, ultra-violet and spectral imaging and photographed every inch of it in the most minute detail, but we still couldn't come up with the answer to the single question we had come to ask: 'How was the image formed?'" 

"The Shroud of Turin is Medieval" In 1988, a sample of the shroud was removed for radiocarbon testing. Three laboratories carried out the tests. In 1989, the results, published in the journal Nature, held that the radiocarbon tests show "the linen of the Shroud of Turin is medieval." One of the researchers, Edward Hall, told journalists, "Someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it."

The Fire In 1997, a fire broke out in Turin's Guarini Chapel, which housed the shroud. Fireman Mario Trematore used a sledgehammer to break open the shroud’s case, and it was taken temporarily to Cardinal Saldarini's residence. The linen was completely unaffected by the fire.

The Shroud, Enhanced A computer-enhanced image of the face on the Shroud. In 2002, textile experts, headed by Mechtild Fleury-Lemberg of Switzerland, performed a dramatic and radical restoration of the shroud with the full permission of the Vatican. They removed 30 patches sewn into the cloth by nuns in 1534 to repair burn holes. They removed the backing cloth that was sewn onto the back of the shroud in 1534 and photographed the hidden back side of the cloth.

New Face? Photos of the back side of the shroud allowed new investigations. Indeed, in 2004, Giulio Fanti and Roberto Maggiolo of the University of Padua in Italy, reported finding a faint second face on the backside of the linen. They published their findings in the Journal of Optics A: Pure and Applied Optics.

Thread Thread extracted from the shroud by G. Riggi di Numana. The thread was taken from an area near where the 1988 radiocarbon test was performed. In 2005, researchers M. Sue Benford and Joseph Marino suggested that the shroud had been expertly rewoven in the precise location from which the carbon-14 sample was taken. In a peer-reviewed paper, chemist Raymond Rogers supported the finding, saying, "As unlikely as it seems, the sample used to test the age of the Shroud of Turin in 1988 was taken from a rewoven area of the shroud...The radiocarbon date was thus not valid for determining the true age of the shroud."

Reconstructing the Body A computer reconstruction of the body's outline is shown at left. To the right is a 3-D reconstruction. Various computer simulations have tried to reconstruct  the body impressed on the shroud, but nobody has been able to explain how the image was formed.

Now in High-Tech In 2008 the shroud was photographed and filmed for the first time in high definition, producing a huge 12.8 billion-pixel image. Technicians from HAL9000, a company specializing in art photography, stitched together 1,600 shots, each the size of a credit card, to create a huge photo which is almost 1,300 times stronger than a picture taken with a 10 million pixel camera. "It is like looking at the shroud through a microscope," Mauro Gavinelli, technical supervisor at HALL9000, told Discovery News. "You can see the threads, the fibers that make these threads, the damage that the shroud has suffered over the years."

The Church and the Shroud Pope John Paul II prays before the Shroud of Turin, in Turin's cathedral Sunday, May 24, 1998. The shroud has been on display only five times in the past century. It is one of the most venerated objects in the Roman Catholic Church. When it last went on display in 2000, more than three million people saw it. Many more are expected to see it when it next goes on show in 2025. The Catholic Church has remained agnostic on the authenticity of the shroud, and has made no official pronouncements. When John Paul II visited the relic in 1998, he says, "As it is not a matter of faith, the Church has no specific competence to pronounce itself on these questions. It entrusts the task of research to scientists, to arrive at appropriate answers for questions related to this cloth."