In an attempt to prove that the Turin Shroud—a strip of linen that some people believe was used to wrap Jesus’s body after his crucifixion and carries the image of his face—is real, researchers have strapped human volunteers to a cross and drenched them in blood. Most mainstream scientists agree the shroud is a fake created in the 14th century.
The mock crucifixions are the most reliable recreations yet of the death of Jesus, the researchers suggest in an online abstract of a paper to be presented next week at a forensic science conference in Baltimore, Maryland (abstract E73 on p. 573 here). And they are the latest in a tit-for-tat series of tests, academic rebuttals, and furious arguments over the provenance—or lack thereof—of the centuries-old religious artifact. But the researchers hope the experiment will “support the hypothesis of Shroud authenticity in some new and unexpected ways.”
The research team from the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado in Colorado Springs would not comment on the crucifixion experiments before presenting them to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’s (AAFS’s) annual meeting on 21 February. But the abstract describes "an experimental protocol by which special wrist and foot attachment mechanisms safely and realistically suspend the male subjects on a full-size cross."
The researchers used the image on the cloth to work out the mechanics of the crucifixion, such as where the nails were hammered in, according to the abstract. They tried to re-create these features when they placed each volunteer on the cross. The male subjects “were carefully chosen to correspond, as closely as possible, to the physiology depicted by the frontal and dorsal imprints visible on the Shroud of Turin,” they write in the abstract. “The cross and suspension system were designed to accommodate various positional adjustments of the body as appropriate.”
“Professional medical personnel were invited to not only contribute to the experimental protocol and analyses, but also to ensure the medical safety of the subjects,” the abstract states. Then, the researchers applied the blood and “documented and analyzed” the “resulting flow patterns over the simulated, crucified subjects.”
The study challenges a previous analysis of the way blood released during a crucifixion would have stained a wrapped body. That research, presented to the AAFS meeting in 2014 and published last year in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, suggested that whoever produced the stains on the shroud believed that people were crucified with their hands crossed above their heads—which historians have contested.
Matteo Borrini, the forensic scientist at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom who produced that analysis says he will be at the Baltimore meeting and will attend the talk. “I’m happy to discuss this with them,” he says. “At least we are discussing something physical.” He says there is no dispute among scientists over the shroud’s origins: historical records and carbon dating show it was created in medieval times.
The Colorado center experiment is the most recent in a long line of unusual tests on the cloth. It was led by John Jackson, a physicist who was part of a weeklong 1978 scientific survey of the shroud. Its 1981 report concluded that the shroud’s famous image of the bearded man—which was discovered in 1898 in a photographic negative of the cloth—was that of a “real human form of a scourged, crucified man” and was not produced by an artist. The report concluded that neither chemistry nor physics could explain how the marks were made on the cloth, an area of uncertainty exploited by those who choose to believe they were left by the bleeding body of Christ. (Jackson has also suggested the marks were left by a body that disappeared and emitted powerful radiation.)
Other shroud researchers have pored over what little physical evidence exists, much of it left over from the 1978 study. They have analyzed pollen grains found on the material to track its movements through history and examined physical stresses placed on recovered fibers.
One of the most unusual experiments was performed by Giulio Fanti, a mechanical engineer at the University of Padova in Italy. To test Jackson’s radiation theory, in 2015 Fanti described how he suspended a mannequin wrapped in linen and then blasted its feet with 300,000 volts of electricity for 24 hours to create a coronal discharge that ionized the surrounding air and stained the covering material. He says: “Hundreds of scientists in vain [have] tried to propose hypotheses able to partially explain that body image.”
Fanti says arguments over the authenticity of the shroud can come down to faith. Borrini, a Christian, disagrees. “I have faith. Here we are discussing authenticity.”