The Science of the Turin Shroud

Welcome to Digging Up Ancient Aliens. This is the podcast where we examine strange claims about alternative history and ancient aliens in popular media. Do their claims hold water to an archeologist, or are there better explanations out there? 

We are now on episode 60, and I am Fredrik, your guide into the world of pseudo-archaeology. We are going to continue the investigation on the Turin Shroud, and this is the second part of it. In this case, I’d actually recommend you go back and listen to the first part before listening to this one. Last time, we looked at the history of the Shroud of Turin, and today, we will look at the scientific side of the fabric. 

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In this episode:

Archaeology of Jewish Burial Tradition

Can a crucified person be buried?

Is the Turin Shroud of the correct weave pattern?

Numismatic evidence

C14 dating the Shroud of Turin

Pollen on the Shroud

How was the Turin Shroud made?

Sources, resources and further reading suggestions

In the previous episode , we looked at the history of the shroud. From its sudden appearance in France to its early hoax accusation, its near destruction, and how it ended up in Turin. We also looked at the other shrouds of Jesus around Europe. While a good case can be made based solely on the history of the Shroud of Turin, is there any scientific evidence that the shroud is authentic? According to people like John de Salvo, there is.

"The shroud has been studied by some of the top scientists and researchers in the world. And with all the scientific knowledge and equipment, we still do not know how the image of the shroud was produced"—John de Salvo.

Usually, if you encounter stories about the cloth in the media, it's due to some proclaimed new scientific evidence. So, let's pretend that de Charny got the fabric in the Holy Land and smuggled it back to France. What is the scientific evidence, and does it hold up? Before we get into all of this, we will ask a pretty relevant question that we maybe even should have started with before talking about the history of the Turin Shroud. Would we expect to find a burial linen like this in a first-century Jewish burial? Remember, Jesus was Jewish and, due to this, would have been buried according to the customs. Because by Ian Hodder , we will cram some archaeology into this episode.

Archaeology of Jewish Burial Tradition

What would a typical Second Temple burial look like? To be as precise as possible, we will hone in on the period from 100 BCE to about 100 CE. As usual, the answer will, of course, depend on whether you are rich or poor. Parts of our evidence of the burial practices come from historical sources like rabbinical records and Josephus's writings. However, we also have archaeological records from Jerusalem and more from Jerico's salvage excavations. 

Archaeologists have excavated Koch tombs in the necropolis of Jerico . Koch tombs are a type of burial complex with narrow shafts. According to Hachlili and Killebrew, within Jerico, we often find a central room with a lowered floor and narrow loculi tombs on each of the three walls opposite the entrance. These were family tombs and were used by several generations. This type was also widespread within the Semitic world, and we find them in places with Jewish colonies. While these tombs are not known to have been decorated or painted, Hachlili and Killebrew have found evidence of at least one example of a complex decorated with paintings of wines. This tomb dates to the first century CE.

For a primary burial, we see that the deceased were carried inside the tomb in their coffin. When placed in the coffin, the caretaker seems to have put much effort into straightening the person's limbs. They all lay on their backs with their hands to the side of the body, and often, the head is to the side. The coffins were made of wood and held together by wooden plugs; metal seems to have been used chiefly for decorations. Inside, we have examples of the deceased being placed upon a sort of stick-filled leather mattress. The question is why, and a possible explanation could be that the person died at home on the mattress, and instead of burning it due to becoming unclean, it was placed with the body.

I hear you; you want to know if we have examples of imprints of woven material. Bar-Adon mentions, for example, a bulrush impression in a tomb in En el-Ghuweir by the Dead Sea. Reading the Talmud, we get hints of reed mats used in burials for the poor. However, John 11:44 and Kilaim 9,4 indicate that a cloth was used; the material is not specified. It could, as accounts like Bar-Adon, Hachlili, and Killebrew suggest, be the case that they used prayer shawls with the fringes cut or even woven shrouds. 

Can a crucified person be buried?

Would a crucified person have been allowed to be buried according to Jewish custom? That's a great question and a really important one for our investigation. The first thing we might have to settle is that Jesus would not have been executed by the Jews but by the Romans. While he, in part, was convicted by the council of Sanhedrin , it was ultimately the Romans and Pontious Pilate who convicted Jesus of crimes against the state. This is something to have in mind when proceeding.

In the Bible, it's said that Joseph of Arimathea took care of Jesus' body and arranged for its burial. As Bart Ehrman points out, this narrative has a couple of issues. In the earliest account of this story, Mark, we learn that Joseph of Arimathea is a respected council member. This is the same council of Sanhedrin that all previously agreed to find evidence that would result in the death of Jesus. Mark is unmistakable in that all council members agreed to this plan. Isn't it a bit strange that Joseph of Arimathea would suddenly have this change of heart? It could be explained by later Gospel traditions that would try to find some heroes among the villains. Mark seems to build on an even earlier account that we can see remains of in Acts 13:28-29 . This verse says that the whole council took him down from the tree or cross and arranged for Jesus' funeral. But Mark then changed this to be a named council man who, in the later gospels, would turn into an up till then anonymous follower. If we look at other accounts like the Corinthians, Paul seems unaware of the name of the person who buried Jesus. 

But for the sake of argument, let's assume Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy follower. Would Pilate have allowed Joseph to take Jesus' body for burial? The sources agree that the answer would have been no. Some apologists claim that Jesus had to be taken down due to the impending Sabbath, but the Romans would not care for this tradition. The whole point of crucifixion was to humiliate and set an example. Remember, Jesus was not convicted for breaking Jewish law but for creating a disorder in the Roman empire. He was sentenced as an enemy of the state. In the Annals of Tacitus, we can read in Book 6 and Chapter 29 that it was preferred to die by one hand than by execution. As Tacitus puts it, "the fact that a man legally condemned forfeited his estate and was debarred from burial." While a criminal dying by suicide instead had his will and funerary respected. This notion is supported by other authors and texts, such as the criminals sitting on the cross as food for the scavengers. At a later point, the remains would be collected and put in a communal pit at the execution place. The whole point of the crucifixion was to make a very vocal, humiliating, and violent point. People should look at it and think twice about becoming rabble-rousing insurgents.

So would Pontus Pilate, with this in mind, allow Jesus a proper burial? Our accounts of him historically portray him as a rather stern ruler. He had people beaten up and killed for protesting and seemed to have cared little about Jewish customs or superstitions. So that he suddenly would honor the burial practices for someone from a noninfluential family and an enemy of the state, nonetheless, is strange. Some proponents of this narrative will point to history, claiming that it did happen that the Romans would allow crucified people to be taken down and buried. They might also point toward a secondary burial found in Jerusalem. A secondary burial in this context is that the bones were found in an ossuary. Within this ossuary or box of bones, archaeologists found evidence of a crucified person. We know this since the nail is still stuck in the heel bone. It most likely hit a knot in the wood, making it hard for the person taking this individual down to remove the nail. Instead, the nail was sawed off and remained lodged in the calcaneus.

While to some extent true, the statement does not really represent what is known about the practice. We can, for example, look at the writing of Philo, a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria. In his work "Against Flaccus" he writes that:

"Rulers who conduct their government as they should and do not pretend to honour but do really honour their benefactors make a practice of not punishing any condemned person until those notable celebrations in honour of the birthdays of the illustrious Augustan house are over. I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them the ordinary rites. For it was meet that the dead also should have the advantage of some kind treatment upon the birthday of the emperor and also that the sanctity of the festival should be maintained."

As we see in the quote, it was expected during some particular festivities that executions and punishments were postponed for the duration. As Philo says, this was during the emperor's birthday in particular. So, the practice was only used in a minimal capacity and did not really fit with the execution of Jesus. So, taken to its extreme, John Crossan, Jesus would have been left on the cross for the scavengers and animals.

So, from what we have gathered so far, a rock tomb would not be out of the question for a rich person. A buried person would likely have been swept in some sort of cloth. The issue is that many things would talk against Jesus being allowed down. Also, as Jodi Magness put it, nothing stopped Joseph of Arimathea from removing Jesus after the Sabbath to another tomb without Joseph's family members in it. Remember, these rock-hewn tombs would have been family tombs used for generations.

But let's again say that Jesus was allowed down and swept with a cloth. Is this cloth of the correct period? There are a few ways to find this out, and the first would be to look at the weaving of the fabric.

Is the Turin Shroud of the correct weave pattern?

Unfortunately, Jerusalem's climate is not great for preserving fabrics. This is due to the high humidity in the area, which means that we don't have a large selection of preserved textiles. Luckily, a few have been preserved to our day that we can use and compare to the Shroud of Turin. Something worth noting is that the largest fragment we have preserved is about 16 by 12 centimeters. Compare this to the 4.4-meter-long shroud preserved in full. 

So, what do we know about fabrics we have found from the second temple period? First of all, many of these fabrics seem to be unbleached linen. Then, we often have something that is overlooked in this discussion: the spinning method. I had no idea that there are two dominant methods within the spinning of yarn and thread, the Z twist and the S twist. The twist refers to the direction the fibers go and will affect what the thread and yarn will be most beneficial for. 

If you hold up a thread or a string of yarn and the fibers seem to spiral upward in the same direction as the central part of an S, then we have an S twist. Basically, the fibers angle upward, leaning left to right. But if the fibers appear to spiral in the direction of the diagonal part of a Z, we have the Z twist. Meaning the fibers angle upward from right to left instead. In Israel and Palestina, during the second temple period, all linen fabrics found are spun with an S twist. A few wool textiles have been found with a Z twist, but these seem to have been imported from either Rome or Greece, who, during this era, spun their fabrics with the Z twist. The Z twist would not become standard in Israel and Palestine until after the Middle Ages. 

So let's look at the Shroud of Turin then. What method was used to create the thread? The cloth uses a Z-spun thread with a 1/3 herringbone twill pattern. As mentioned, all linen threads were spun with an S-pattern using a plain weave tabby. Orit Shamir, a curator of Organic Materials for the Israel Antiquities Authority, points out that a herringbone twill was not found in textiles in this part of the world until way after the Middle Ages. The thread count in the Turin Shroud is about 38,6 threads per centimeter on the warp or diagonal threads. It's 25.7 at the weft, or horizontal thread. This is a high thread count, especially when we compare this to the standard fabric in the region, with 10-15 threads per centimeter at the warp and 15-20 at the weft. 

So, what does all of this mean for the shroud? Orit Shamir put it pretty simply. The Turin Shroud would not have been manufactured in Israel or Palestine, nor would it have been imported, indicating a medieval date for the creation of the cloth. Everything in the creation of the fabric seems to point toward a medieval date somewhere in Europe.

Not everyone agrees with this conclusion, and this is one of these cases where Sindonology shows an exciting crossover with Alternative Historians and Ancient Aliens. Like those promoting the Ancient Astronaut idea start with their conclusion and work backward, so do Sindonologists. Giulio Fanti, an engineering professor, claims in his paper, "Why is the Turin Shroud Authentic?" that the Z-twist would indicate it was for a high-ranking priest. Why this would be or where he got this from is not mentioned. Nor is this backed up by other textile archaeology or history. While the Tora is quite precise in how things should be made, the twilling pattern is not mentioned. All I can find is Exodus 28:39 , where it's specified that the tunic should be "in chequer work of fine linen." This can also be translated to being embroidered. Also, in Exodus 28:3 , these garments need to be created and produced exactly as the Bible says. They are intended to be created to fulfill the word of god and, therefore, should be made by those within the faith. This practice is still practiced among Orthodox Jews, and the production of the Tallit is an example. Furthermore, the priest's clothes could not be sewn, meaning the fabric had to be woven in one piece. So, you could not go and pick up a piece of cloth at the market and use it for your priestly attire. 

Giulio Fanti also claims the cloth originates from India. Basing the claim not on archaeological or textile evidence from the era. Instead, use a paper on DNA found on the Turin Shroud published by Gianni Barcaccia et al. in 2015. The paper tries to trace the origin of the DNA found on the shroud of Turin, but its conclusion is a bit lackluster. As expected from being touched and handled by an unknown amount of people through the centuries. While much of what they found originates in Europe and the Middle East, they also found traces from South America and India. While the authors acknowledge that the American contribution might be later contaminated, it's not discussed in the other sources. The authors also speculate that the Indian DNA on the Turin Shroud comes from the one who created the cloth. Ignoring other sources of contamination, while only 2% of modern India is catholic, it still accounts for some 20 million people.

I've also been unable to locate this trade mentioned in Giulio Fanti's paper. What I do find is later import as described by Hillebrandt in the 6th and 9th centuries in the Early Islamic era. Orit Shamir's statement that the import of this type of textile was not present around the first century CE is holding up based on all the available evidence. 

Numismatic evidence

While discussing Jewish second-temple burials and the Shroud of Turin, a claim that occasionally arises is that coins are depicted on the shroud. These coins are claimed to have been minted during Puntius Pilate's reign. This opens up a couple of questions for us. Would a Jewish person have been buried with coins during the first century CE? And can we really see these coins represented on the shroud?

Jackson, Jumper, Moltern, and Stevenson claimed that coins were visible where the eyes were in 1977, based on a 3D picture they created. This was elaborated on by Virginia Bortin in 1980, who claimed that coins over the eyes were a common practice among Jews. This claim is not reflected in the understanding of the Second Temple burial practices either then or now. Hachlili and Killebrew elaborate on the coins found in burials in their 1983 paper; coins are rare in general. However, there are a few examples where coins were placed in the deceased's mouth. Two tombs in Jerico have been found with coins placed in this manner. As for coins being put over the eyes, only one example has been found. As Hachlili and Killebrew respond to William Meacham, this is far from enough to claim that this was a widespread practice. Israeli archeologist Levi Rahmani raises another question, why would coins by Pontius Pilate be put over the eyes of someone who was put to death by Pilate? While there is one known case, the coin over the eyes would be a foreign practice and not in line with the funeral mentioned in John 19:40

As for our second question, are the coins really visible? The answer is no. It's one of those cases where you will start seeing patterns if you look at random noise long enough. Basically, it's a Rocharch test but with a claimed divine twist. Recent tests performed in 2011 and published by Salvatore Lorusso et al. confirm that no coins are visible based on modern image analysis. 

Then we have Fanti, a name we will frequently encounter, with a different numismatic approach. Instead of looking at potential coins represented on the Turin Shroud, he compares the artist's renditions of Jesus on coins to the image we see on the shroud. While a novel idea, he is cherrypicking data, trying to get the narrative to fit his preferred conclusion. Nothing also stops the coins from spreading; one of these Byzantine coins with a Jesus motif was found in the Norwegian mountains

Is there anything else we can look at to see when and how the cloth was created? Maybe a method that takes place in a lab setting? Luckily for us, there is, and our first method is a good old carbon 14 dating.

C14 dating the Shroud of Turin

Before we get into the tests and the debate that has raged ever since we should look at how the tests were made and by whom. Radiocarbon dating has been around since the 1940s. While discussions regarding having the shroud tested started quite early, the methods avalible would require a rather large piece to give a decent result. As the technology improved, the question regarding the Turin Shroud age came up again. In 1970, the Roman Catholic Church put together a group of scientists who were responsible for the tests. In 1978, the Shroud of Turin Research Project, or S.Tu.R.P, was formed and originally had 33 members. While they all had a scientific background, none had any experience in archaeology, textiles, art history, or history. They were also religious; while this doesn't make you a better or worse scientist, it does throw a bit of the neutrality into question.

The group put together a testing protocol that was quite scientific; this was though stopped by the Catholic Church. The original protocol included blind tests and other examples of a sound scientific approach. The final protocol went as this:

The result was published 1989 in Nature, giving a calibrated date of 1273–1288 CE with 68% confidence and a calibrated date of 1262–1312 CE and 1353–1384 CE with 95% confidence. Giulio Fanti claims in a paper that these dates are widely contested, citing only his own papers. But sindonologists have contested these results ever since for a variety of creative reasons. These range from the specific part used was a medieval repair, contaminated by smoke from fire, bacteria, etc. None have been able to show that this is the case yet, and they are either highly unrealistic or based on data misuse.

A recent approach is to cast doubt on the C14 tests using statistics. While Andres Christen published a paper in 1994 that showed that the tests were statistically accurate, other authors used a different approach. A 2020 paper by Bryan Walsh and Larry Schwalbe claims the tests lack statistical heterogeneity in the Turin Shrouds data. These claims are not new, and as former editor of Nature Philipp Ball puts it, these papers don't show that the 1989 paper was inherently wrong. However, they show that the date itself is not conclusive. Here I agree with Walsh and Schwalbe, who suggest that more testing is needed. While these authors want to re-use the samples taken in 88, I would prefer that new samples were taken. This is to silence claims of repairs or other fringe ideas regarding the samples taken. I suspect that if the existing samples are re-tested with a similar date, this will just take us back to where we are now.

Alternative non-intrusive dating methods have been suggested by sindonologists, such as vibrational spectroscopy. While this is a new and exciting way to date material in a non-destructive way, it still feels like it is in its infancy. I also noted some weird dates and calibrations. Baraldi and Tini pointed out in a 2015 presentation that the Turin Shroud with this method was dated to 300 BCE +/- 400 years and 200 BCE +/- 500 years. It's a very high uncertainty range for these tests. While it's a promising method, the dates for the Turin shroud still don't fit with a first-century date and the other archaeological records we have. Based on unspecified records, Fantini has since calibrated these dates to 400 CE with an uncertainty rate of 500 years. Other authors, while being optimistic, point out that there are still a lot of unknowns with this method.

Pollen on the shroud

Another approach to dating and authenticating the Turin Shroud is pollen spores on the cloth. Swiss criminologist Max Frei-Sulzer claimed to have found 33 Middle Eastern pollen that would place the shroud in first-century Palestine. On top of this, Frei-Sulzer also contended that the pollen was from Edessa in Turkey and the Anatolian steppe. Why Edessa is named specifically due to sindonologists' attempts to connect the Turin Shroud with the shroud that was supposed to be located in the city, also known as the Mandylion. According to sindonologists, this would solve the origin of the Turin Shroud. As we mentioned last time, the Turin Shroud appeared one day in France, and no one connected to it could tell where it came from. This theory that the Turin Shroud is the Mandylion has then been disproven by Andrea Nicolotti.

But let's return to the pollen samples. Micropaleontologist Steven D. Schafersman points out that it's a bit unlikely that 33 pollen species would make it to the cloth and that they are specifically from Palestine, Turkey, and Anatolia. Schafersman also points out that what's missing from the fabric is the most common species in the area; for example, no pollen from Olive trees can be found all over the region. That the winds would select only specific pollen from the different areas and collect them in a small area could be, as Schafersman suggests, a case of fraud. Or some particular divine pollen intervention. 

Frei-Sulzer was also one of the scientists who claimed that the now infamous "Hitler diaries" were genuine. Walter Mcrone would later show that the pollen samples were doubtful after Frei-Sulzer died in 1993. Joe Nickell also points out that McCrone found that Frei-Sulzer several times had been found guilty by the Police in Switzerland of some artistic interpretations of criminal evidence.  

Later samples seem to have not been able to confirm this idea, as I mentioned earlier, with the DNA trace study done in 2015. 

How was the Turin Shroud made?

But how was the Turin Shroud created then? In Ancient Aliens, we're told the following: 

"And in 2011, Italian scientists were able to prove that the Shroud of Turin was created by a supernatural flash of light, an unearthly flash of light. In my opinion, the Shroud of Turin is proof that Jesus transformed himself into a being of light, and projected himself through the Shroud of Turin."

– William Henry.

This quote references a study by Paolo Di Lazzaro et al., that claims that the image we see on the Turin Shroud was achieved through a flash of UV light. The team behind the studies has not been able to produce a full body image on the textile, citing this as being due to limitations in the current technology. But like many other sindonologists, they claim that the image is impossible from the start, hinting that the only solution can be divine. The team also sets up strange limits on the criteria of what a replication must have to be viewed as a proper replication. For example, Di Lazzaro often claims that the coloration depth can't be deeper than 0,2 micrometers. This measurement is based on the paint that came off when a few pieces of sticky tape were put on the textile. But Di Lazzaro doesn't adequately explain why the pigments found on scotch tape would indicate the coloration depth. But this is used to rule out other recreations of the Turin Shroud that do not fit the preferred narrative of a divine creation. 

Because other replications have been made. Joe Nickell, who we have mentioned before, replicated the image through a basic relief method in the 1970's. Nickell even appeared in the show "In Search of" to demonstrate how one could create a replica of the Shroud of Turin. Nickell created the copy by wrapping a wet cloth around a bas-relief sculpture and letting it dry. He then applied pigments on the textile to achieve the darker and lighter portions. Others have used this method with some variation to create other replicas of the shroud. 

Other methods include a dust-transfer technique, as Craig and Bresee did in 1994. Luigi Garlaschelli replicated the image in 2009 using medieval methods and acid. That study was later criticized by Fanti and Di Lazzaro with their own limit of 0,2 micrometers as the main criticism. 

All three of these methods show that replicating the image isn't as tricky as the pro shroud crowd suggests it is. These methods also answer something the sindonologists fail to answer: a question I have as someone with long hair. Why is the hair hanging down in the shroud? This would not be the case if it was a natural person, but if it was a statue, this was based on. Well, then, it makes more sense. I also wonder why, on the one hand, the sindonologists claim the image can't be created by color pigments while, on the other hand, admitting that there are pigments throughout the cloth. Also worth mentioning is that the supposed blood on the fabric has failed forensic serological tests.

So, where does this leave us? If we look at these points separately, they don't deny or confirm the Turin Shroud. But when we look at everything together as we should, the evidence for the shroud being a medieval hoax is somewhat overwhelming. We can't look at the evidence in a vacuum. Still, we need to put everything together and look at it with critical eyes. Something both sindonology and Ancient Aliens seem to struggle with.

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Sources, resources, and further reading suggestions


“Folie hatt” by Trallskruv

Lily of the woods by Sandra Marteleur