IL GIORNALE - Wednesday, February 2, 2005, page 14

 “Certainly not medieval! The Shroud dates back to Jesus’ times”

So the miracle of the scientific method lives again - The mystery and the science



The case of the Holy Shroud is, perhaps, just for its peculiarity, the most interesting example of the power of the scientific method as an instrument of enquiry. Surely, it is not the only one: to understand  the world around us we also need art, philosophy, religion; however, science is an utterly special and unique activity, because, unless any other, it obeys two rules:

1) submitting its own statements to the test of the other scientists;

2)  abandoning those statements if they do not pass that exam.

The scientific activity is, therefore, constantly a “work in progress” one, and every “truth” is always temporary, or, in any case, is considered like that. In a word, as a definition, science – or, better, the scientific method – refuses prejudice.

For centuries we have believed that the Holy Shroud was the cloth where the body of the dead Jesus was wrapped; for centuries until 17 years ago, when a powerful and reliable dating method, scientifically codified, established in an “unequivocal” way that that cloth was a medieval forgery. What we are interested in here are those inverted commas, which are obligatory today.      

Raymond Rogers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and leader chemist of the team who, since 1977, have taken part in the project of dating the Holy Shroud, declared that he would have “proved Sue Benford and Joseph Marino wrong in five minutes”; five years ago, they claimed the unreliability of the C14 dating, carried out in 1988. Well, here is how the scientific method works: Rogers, who had started with the purpose of proving his colleagues wrong, has had to recognize their reasons, or, at least, their conclusions.

The sample taken in 1988 from the Holy Shroud for the C14 dating was divided among three different laboratories (in the USA, in England and in Switzerland) for three separate datings. The three laboratories agreed in establishing “with a confidence of 95 %” the date of those samples between  1260 and 1390: the Holy Shroud seemed, beyond any sensible doubt, a medieval forgery. The C14 dating method is, as we have already said, powerful and reliable and, even if they have to take a lot of care in avoiding possible contaminations of the sample they are analysing, the skilled operators succeed in giving answers with little mistake margins. In any case, from the 1st to the 14th century there is a lot of time: too much to think of mistakes in the C14 method; its answer was, in fact, correct. What the devil has happened, then?

It happened that the devil himself seems to have come between: the sample taken for the dating was not representative of the whole relic and, therefore, was not valid to determine its age, as Rogers’ research, published in the latest issue of Termochimica Acta, has “unequivocally” (this time the inverted commas are mine) defined. Later the Shroud was mended and, as ill luck (or the devil, if you like) would have it, the sample taken in 1988 contained a wide part of the “patch” added  later, a patch which, apparently, was added with such a skill as to make it invisible at the naked eye. In fact, Benford and Marino had to use high resolution photographic techniques to notice the darn and to suppose it could have been a later addition, as Rogers, against any expectation of his own, has just confirmed.

For the origin of the darn, Benford and Marino have suggested a far more poetic story, which dates back to Margaret of Austria, emperor Maximilian I’s daughter, queen of Holland and, after marrying, as a second marriage, Filiberto II, the duchess of Savoy (and, for that reason, the custodian of the Holy Shroud). Margaret had a particular passion for the textile art, a passion she must have transmitted to her nephew Charles V, whose guardian she was and who, when Maximilian died, became the last emperor of the Holy Roman Empire crowned by the Pope. Margaret made testamentary disposition that, at her death (occurred in 1531), an edge of the Shroud, slightly wider than a square decimetre, would be cut and given to the Catholic Church. Charles, besides having that interest in fulfil that last will of Margaret’s (driven by the interest of strengthening his bonds with the Church), would also have had the desire to preserve the beauty and the integrity of the Shroud; his desire came spontaneously from the passion for the textile art Margaret had transmitted to him and which had driven him to surround himself with high quality weavers, surely able to carry out the darn perfectly.               

The presence of a more recent portion of cloth in the sample used for the C14 dating, mixed to an older one, would have, therefore, determined the date announced 17 years ago. The scholars of the Shroud will be able to answer the many questions everyone of us asks himself spontaneously in front of this fascinating story. In the meantime, we wait, more prosaically, for a C14 dating carried out on samples more carefully chosen.