LA STAMPA Culture & Shows - Saturday, January 26, 2008, pag. 37

“Perhaps wrong tests” – Shroud, thriller without age

Vittorio SABADIN

Christopher Bronk Ramsey, director of Radiocarbon Accelerator of Oxford, was little more than child when the scientists of the laboratory in which he already worked tried to date the textile of the Shroud. The result of the text, carried out in 1988 with the method of carbon 14, besides in Oxford, also in Tucson and Zurich, established that the sheet kept in Turin Cathedral could not be the one which had wrapped Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. In fact, the decay of the radioactive isotope particles in the linen cloth indicated a date between 1260 and 1390, in full Middle Ages.

But perhaps that test was wrong. Dr. Ramsey, who spends his time dating dinosaur’s bones and Neanderthal men, has declared in an interview to the BBC, that will be broadcasted on Easter eve, that the results of the 1988 surveys could be questioned by the technological evolution that, in the meantime, has made the carbon 14 observation more refined. Mgr. Giuseppe Ghiberti, president of the Diocesan Commission for the Shroud of Turin, has disclosed the contents of the interview,  taking part in a convention of the cultural association “The New Regaldi” in Novara.

Mgr. Ghiberti, who has never needed the support of scientific tests to be impressed by the correspondence between the Gospels’ literary story and the image imprinted in the sheet, has explained that Dr. Ramsey’s change of mind has probably had the same reasons as those then advanced to question the Middle Ages dating: the Shroud has not reached the 20th century scientists in a sealed container. It has been exposed to the air, kept in conditions we do not know, handled and partially burnt in the 1532 fire in Chambéry cathedral, transported from Palestine to France. A long and troubled travel through the countries and the centuries, that may have contaminated the sheet and made the C14 test approximate. The American chemist Willard Frank Libby himself, who had devised the method and won the Nobel prize for this, had advised against applying it to the Shroud. Ramsey would have discovered that the dating of a particular organic matter, present on the sheet, varies just according to the conditions in which it has been kept, and that was unknown to the scientists who carried out the 1988 test. 

So the Shroud of Turin reopens its mystery, which has been with us for centuries and seems never to find a solution. When the Swiss criminologist Max Frei Sulzer discovered that on the linen cloth there are spores and characteristic pollens of Palestine, he was harshly attacked and accused of  having manipulated the results. “Frei – Mgr. Ghiberti says – had been extraordinarily precise. The spores that he had discovered were characteristic of a zone that went from Jerusalem to a neighbouring zone in the Arabic desert.” Had it been a Middle Ages fake, as the 1988 test had asserted, it would have been very, very well contrived, indeed: the linen is hand-spun and hand- woven in a herringbone pattern and with a clockwise twisting, a technique used in the Middle East in Jesus’ times. Moreover, cotton fibres (cotton was then cultivated in Egypt and Palestine, but not in Europe) have been found on the sheet, and no wool fibre, in compliance with the Mosaic Law that in Deuteronomy 22:11 orders to keep wool separated from the linen.

“These are important indications – Mgr. Ghiberti asserts, – but the truth is that no scientist has been able to explain how it has been possible to imprint the image on the sheet. Any conscientious researcher has to admit that this is still an unsolved mystery.” But it is not the only one: the incredible correspondence of its features with those of a crucified body still leaves all the observers astonished, as it happened in 1898 when a photographer noticed for the first time that the image imprinted in the negative was much most recognizable than the positive one. The man of the Shroud is an about 30-year-old male, with Middle Eastern features, muscular and taller than the average of his time, used to manual works. The blood traces tell of his martyrdom, the absence of the hand inches, folded inward, confirm the median nerve lesion, provoked by the nails hammered into his wrists.

“This vision of suffering – Mgr. Ghiberti asserts – leaves us astonished for two touching characteristics, which are not in other crucifixions stories: the crown of thorns and the blow of spear inflicted to a corpse, as it is demonstrated by Professor Baima Bollone’s tests. It is the observation of these details, compared to the story in the Gospel according to John, which has convinced me that there are the highest probabilities that in the Shroud we can see precisely the body of Christ.”

The last experiments - “Removal” to the sacristy in order to take 1,650 photos

In order to allow a control of the high technology case where it is kept the first control since when, ten years ago, it was put there – on Monday the Shroud was moved into the new sacristy of Turin Cathedral. In an environment made almost sterile, for three days, the cloth was the object of several shots. On Tuesdays the technicians of the Novara society “Hal 9000” have taken 1,650 photos that will lead, after a long computer elaboration, to the realization of an image of highest resolution (1250 dpi), useful also for scientific studies. The first outcome (with still partial elaboration) will be seen on one wall of Novara Cathedral from 6 February: a blow-up of the Shroud 21 by 9 metres. Then, on Thursday, a BBC troupe worked around the relic.  M.T.M.