Shrouded in mystery

The Shroud of Turin is on public display for the first time in a decade. The Pope paid a visit  on Sunday and over two million people are expected to queue up to see the shroud during a six-week showing in Turin Cathedral. Some people will be there because they believe the shroud is the burial cloth of Christ, others will be sceptics wanting a closer look at what has widely been dismissed as a medieval forgery.

This small container carried a small sample of the shroud to Oxford for testing. (Science Museum)

A strong case against the shroud’s authenticity was made in 1998, when samples were radiocarbon-dated by three independent laboratories. This container in our nuclear physics collection was used to transport the sample that went to the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit - the red wax is the Archbishop of Turin’s seal confirming that the sample came from the shroud. The Oxford experiments concluded that the sample was around 750 years old, in broad agreement with the results from the other laboratories.

Seemingly conclusive evidence that the shroud is from the Middle Ages and not the time of Christ. But some people have argued that there may be other explanations, for example the shroud being contaminated during centuries of storage, or the samples having been taken from a medieval repair patch on a much older artefact.

Further testing may help to pin down the age of the fabric, although so far the Catholic Church has been reluctant to expose this iconic artefact to further study. And an agreed age still wouldn’t explain how the image of the man was formed – and certainly not who that man was. During his visit the Pope was careful to remain non-committal on the question of the shroud’s authenticity. It looks like this controversial item will remain a scientific as well as a religious mystery for a while longer.

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