Pope Francis gazing at the Shroud of Turin. Source vimeo

New studies of DNA on the Turin Shroud?

The Turin Shroud is one of the most contested relics in Christianity. New article presents the history of the scientific hunt for “proofs”, which reads like a thriller. And calls for renewed studies of the ancient DNA in the blood-stains

Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination, he [Henri de Poitiers] discovered how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist, who painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought … it would be quite unlikely the Holy Evangelists would have omitted to record an imprint on Christ’s burial linens or that the fact should have remained hidden until the present time.
From: Letter from Pierre d’Arcis to Clement VII 1389 [1] 

Already in 1389, Pierre d’Arcis, the Bishop of Troyes tried to stop the Avignon Pope, Clement VII to exhibit the Shroud of Turin at Lirey. In his memorandum from 1389 (quoted above) he famously raised doubts as to the veracity of the claims of its authenticity; concerns, which he shared with his predecessor, Henri de Poitiers. Following this, the Pope instructed the people at Lirey not to present the cloth as the actual shroud of Christ, but rather as an image or representation of it.

Later studies of historical sources from the 13th century were however able to document that the written sources concerning the shroud attested to its presence in Constantinople before 1204 and perhaps even earlier. Since then, the questioning of the authenticity by Pierre d’Arcis had been understood by the faithful to be no more than part of schismatic politics of the 14th century in Avignon, thus demonstrating beyond doubt that the claims of the medieval prelates in the late 14th century had no other intent than to control the emotional capital invested in the cloth.

As we well know, this battle for the minds and not the hearts of the faithful have never stopped. Last year throngs of people went to Turin to solemnly venerate the cloth, which – as opposed to many other such relics – continue to sway the feelings of the faithful, whenever it is on show. When the shroud was displayed, the present Pope Francis paused in silent prayer in front of the relic and called it an “icon of love”, endorsing Catholics to use it as impetus to reflect upon “the face of every suffering and unjustly persecuted person”. He thus cleverly evaded the question of its authenticity (a trap which his predecessor fell into at one point).

Scientific Investigation

The point is that this particular relic – as opposed to most others – has been surrounded by a continued process of resacralisation and  demystification since d’Arcis.

It is in view of this – and the particular character of the relic – that a series of scientific and archaeological investigations have been carried out since the beginning of 1900 [3]. In the 1980s this was followed by a new spat carried out since 1969 -73 by archaeologists and biological scientists under the supervision of the so-called Turin commission. Later in the 1980s the Turin Research project continued the work, which resulted in the seminal article by William Meacham in Current Anthropology in 1983. [2]

At this point, the main results were the identification of the 49 species of pollen of which 13 were peculiar to the Negev and Dead Sea area. A further 20 plants were assigned to the Anatolian Steppes, while 16 species were found in northern Europe. Examination of the cloth identified the weave as a herringbone twill, commonly used in silks in Antiquity. Another feature was the find of microscopic fibres of cotton, indicating that it had been woven on a loom used for weaving cotton. Further, the thread had been spun by hand indicating a production of the cloth ante c. 1200. This – and much more evidence – led to the famous conclusion reached by Meacham in 1983, by which the authenticity of the shroud of Turin was deemed to be highly probable. Although contested by some fellow archaeologists, this publication of the findings obviously fired the imaginations of more than a billion people.

However, in 1988 a number of radiocarbon measurements were carried out by three independent laboratories, resulting in a calendar range of AD 1260 -1390, with a 95 % confidence, thus arguably providing evidence for a Medieval origin of the Turin shroud. William Meacham and others have nevertheless argued that these studies were carried out “since the dating was poorly planned, marred by petty rivalries, and scientifically flawed”. The basic critique was based on the fact that the shroud had obviously undergone reparation during the centuries and the documentation of where the samples had been taken from was not conclusive. Later, the Turin Archdiocese carried out a very controversial and aggressive restoration of the shroud, which according to Meacham seriously hampered further archaeological studies. [3]

Blood and DNA

The Shroud of Turin before 2002
The Shroud of Turin before 2002. Source: Wikipedia/officially released photo

Already in the 80s evidence was provided that the stains (and the image) on the cloth was created by blood and not painted by red okra. These stains were further shown to belong to an MNS positive individual of the AB group. Further it was demonstrated the halos around the stains were compatible with serum containing trace amounts of bilirubin, albumin and immunoglobulins. Later in the 90s contamination between male and female DNA was documented on the shroud; with male DNA being more noticeable. However, he question of the mixture of male and female DNA could of course easily be considered null and void since the fondling and handling of the shroud (kissing) would easily explain the contamination of the blood imprinted on or used to create the image on the shroud. It is thus a well-known fact that Carmen Polo, the wife of Franco left vestiges of lipstick on the so-called sudarium in Orviedo (the cloth said to have covered the face of the crucified Jesus). Later studies of the human mitochondrial genome lineages from dust particles have detected sequences from multiple subjects of different ethnic origins, clustering into some haplogroups ranging from India over the Near-East to Europe, thus demonstrating the fact that as of now contamination of a any DNA evidence is a fact to be reckoned with.

However, in a recent article (2016) a group of Italian scientists have argued for renewed studies since – as they write – significant advancements have been made over the last 30 years in the development of serological and molecular tools, as well ad in microscopy techniques. This might prove useful in finally deciding whether the blood used or imprinted on the cloth is in fact human and not animal (a question on which the jury is apparently still out).

Following this, another possibility would be to perform so-called next generation DNA-sequencing method. This would be especially interesting since it might identify the mitochondrial DNA of the blood, which has a very high mutation rate, making it a marker, which can be used to uniquely identify a specific human being and his and hers close maternal relations. Due to mutations, we only share our full mitochondrial DNA with our mother, grandmother or great-grandmother. The scientists write that “depending on the extent of similarity present within specific mitochondrial DNA segments, ancestry may be traced back to previous generations that existed hundreds of years ago”. What it seems, they believe is, that a renewed study of the DNA of the blood stains might reveal the contamination of persons maternally related to each other – in casu the admixture of mother and son! (This is not distinctly voiced, but may perhaps be characterised as a hidden agenda).

Another potential is of course the fact that studies of ancient DNA may identify the exact character of the mutational profile and thus contribute to a more exact dating of the DNA-fragments. To this should be added the continued lobbying carried out by Meachem for a renewed carbon-dating of parts of the shroud, which may now be carried out on microscopic fragments and help to solve the questions surrounding the process of dating, carried out in 1988.

Shroud mysteries abound; not least since it has as yet not been possible to recreate the way in which it would have been technically feasible to create the imprints on the linen. Another factor is the continued reticence by the clerical authorities to let the shroud undergo further scientific exploration.

Nevertheless, it appears, the quest for a scientific resolution still fires the imagination of scientists. Sindonology – the formal study of the shroud – is thus alive and well!

Is this a question, which should be of interest to medievalists? Obviously! One of the more fascinating theories concerning the shroud is that put forward by Charles Freeman, who has argued that it was a medieval prop in the Easter liturgies in Savoy [5]. An important witness to this is the story of the first known owner of the Shroud, Geoffrey de Charny, who obviously was responsible for  placing it in the custody of the Collegiate church in Lirey, which he planned as early as 1343 at his estate there. Five clerics were appointed to serve the chapel, praying and celebrating Masa for his family as well as that of the king. We know of this, because Charny over the years sent a number of letters to the Pope requesting the approval of the project, including the right to have a family churchyard near the chapel. The fact remains that in none of these letters does he point to the Turin Shroud, which one might have expected, if the linen had the status of a relic and not just a mere icon. It seems that at least at this point the status of the object was not that, which it acquired later, when his wife and son (after his death in 1356 in the battle of Poitiers) began to turn Lirey into a magnificent locus for pilgrimage.  We know of from the local production of pilgrimage badges, documented through finds both in Paris and at Lirey in 2012 (when a mould for a similar badge was found at Machy near Lirey) and of course from the letter of Pierre d’Arcis, quoted above [6]. All this fits extremely well with the contested results of the radiocarbon measurements from 1988.

However, it would be nice to get a proper dating in order to decide on this hypothesis.  Who knows: in the end we might even be able to decide how, where and why it came about. First, we need the when, though! Perhaps renewed and state-of-the-art analysis of the bloodstains would tell us more, as Di Minno and his group from Napoli are advocating.


The Pope praying in front of the Shroud of Turin

[1] Quoted from: The Shroud of Turin. By J. Wilson. Image Books 1979, pp. 320. (New edition 2010). See also: Les sources de l’histoire du linceul de Turin. Revue critique. By Emmanuel Poulle. In: Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique 2009, Vol 104, No. 3 -4, 747 – 782

[2] The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology. With  Comments and Reply.
By William Meacham, James E. Alcock, Robert Bucklin, K. O. L. Burridge, John R. Cole, Richard J. Dent, John P. Jackson, Walter C. McCrone, Paul C. Maloney, Marvin M. Mueller, Joe Nickell, Adam J. Otterbein, S. F. Pellicori, Steven Schafersman, Giovanni Tamburelli and Alan D. Whanger
In: Current Anthropology,  (June 1983) Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 283-311

[3] The Rape of the Turin Shroud. By William Meacham, Lulu 2005, ISBN 1-4116-5769-1. See also the overview of the debate evolved in this particular debate in Wikipedia: Radiocarbon 14 dating of the Shroud of Turin

[4] Blood Stains of the Turin Shroud 2015: beyond personal hopes and limitations of techniques
By Giovanni Di Minno, Rosanna Scala, Itala Ventre and Giovanni de Gaetano
In: Internal Emergency Medicine 2016, vol. 11, pp. 507 -516

[5] The origins of the Shroud of Turin. By Charles Freeman. In History Today 2014, Vol 64, No 11

[6] Autour du Saint Suaire et de la collégiale de Lirey (Aube)
By Alain Hourseau. Books on demand 2012. See also: A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry. By Geoffroi de Charny, Elspeth Kennedy (Translator) and Richard W. Kaeuper (Introduction). University of Pennsylvania Press 2005, pp. 28 – 29