Just in time for the current Easter season, news emerged from Italy that a new approach to dating the Shroud of Turin has located it squarely in the time frame necessary for it to have wrapped the crucified body of Jesus Christ.
A new book written in Italian, Il Mistero della Sindone (The Mystery of the Shroud), by Giulio Fanti, professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at the University of Padua’s Engineering Faculty, and journalist Saverio Gaeta, states that by measuring the degradation of cellulose in linen fibers from the shroud, two separate approaches show the cloth is at least 2,000 years old.
And while Fanti’s methodology has been questioned by others, the book also states that another series of mechanical tests, designed to measure the compressibility and breaking strength of the fibers, corroborated these findings.
According to Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, the three separate tests, when averaged, showed the linen fibers of the shroud to have been woven into cloth around 33 B.C., give or take 250 years, thus nicely bracketing the year 30, when most historians say Jesus died on the cross.
In response to email questions, Fanti explained that he used a pair of established techniques, infrared light (Fourier Transform Infrared, or FTIR) and Raman spectroscopy, to measure the amount of cellulose in shroud fibers given to him by microanalyst Giovanni Riggi di Numana, a participant in the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), as well as the controversial 1988 carbon-dating tests of the shroud. Riggi died in 2008, but the fibers were transferred to Fanti through the cultural institute Fondazione 3M.
According to Fanti, both the infrared light beam and the red laser of the Raman spectroscope excite the molecules of the material, and the resulting reflections make it possible “to evaluate the concentration of particular substances contained in the cellulose of the linen fibers.” Because cellulose degrades over time, he said, “it is therefore possible to determine a correlation with the age of the fabric.”
Fanti compared his results with nine other ancient textiles of known provenance, with ages from 3000 B.C. to 1000, and two modern fabrics. Having taken into account differences resulting from the various environments and pollutant levels to which the fabrics were exposed, he’s confident any remaining unaccounted variables are included in the 500-year window within which he placed his primary date of 33 B.C.
Because of the manner in which Fanti obtained the shroud fibers, many are dubious about his findings. The shroud’s official custodian, Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin, told Vatican Insider, “There is no degree of safety on the authenticity of the materials on which these experiments were carried out [on] the shroud cloth.”
Responded Fanti, “He did not read my book, and especially its appendix in which the traceability of the samples is clearly shown.” According to Fanti, Riggi unstitched the backing cloth that was sewn onto the shroud in 1532 to protect it after it was damaged in a fire and vacuumed some of the dust that had accumulated between the two sheets, catching this residue on a series of filters.
It was on fibers from “filter H” that Fanti did most of his work. “I discovered a relatively simple technique to detect which linen fibers were from the shroud,” he said, “based on cross-polarized light used in a petrographic microscope. The shroud fibers show a coloration like a coral snake, probably because in the original preparation of the fibers they were beaten with rods.” More recent fibers, Fanti said, were prepared differently and therefore appear differently under a microscope.
“[Fanti’s work] is new science,” acknowledged Barrie Schwortz, a lifetime student of the shroud and part of the original STURP investigation that undertook its first extensive scientific examination in 1978. “But it would be more convincing if the basic research had first been presented in a professional, peer-reviewed journal. If you’re using old techniques in new ways, then you need to submit your approach to other scientists.”
Fanti has announced that “an international professional journal,” presumably peer-reviewed, will soon publish a paper in which he defends his scientific approach. But, Schwortz notes, he has not yet announced which journal will publish his work.
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