How the Shroud Covers the Globe

Analysis of dust from the Shroud of Turin reveals DNA samples from people and plants from all over the world.

Pope Francis venerates the Shroud of Turin inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, on June 21, 2015.
Pope Francis venerates the Shroud of Turin inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, on June 21, 2015. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

The Shroud of Turin remains an object of fascination because it speaks to the central mystery of the Christian faith, what C.S. Lewis called the “one grand miracle” of the Resurrection. The man whose likeness is found on the shroud must have suffered horribly before dying by crucifixion, yet the shroud apparently also portrays a man who miraculously left his funereal bindings behind, without once fraying or tearing the fabric, or in any other way smudging or damaging the image he had imprinted on the cloth. One might argue that if the shroud is evidence of the miracle of the Resurrection, then the evidence is itself miraculous.

Now comes news that if the image on the shroud is that of Jesus of Nazareth, then perhaps the “Son of Man,” as he calls himself in the biblical Gospels, has been uniquely connected to the whole world. In a scientific paper published by last October, a research team, led by University of Padova (Italy) professor of genetics Gianni Barcaccia, reports that it has discovered genetic material from the shroud indicating contact with plant material, mostly pollen, from the eastern Mediterranean, but also from other parts of Asia and Middle East, and even from the Americas.

Human DNA was also present, indicating the shroud has been handled by people typical of Western Europe, the Near East, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent.

In other words, plant and human DNA found on the shroud is consistent with the cloth’s history, if in fact it once lay in a tomb in Jerusalem and then followed the traditional path that shroud historians claim led through Edessa (now Sanliurfa in Turkey) to Constantinople (Istanbul), Athens, France (in 1353, where its modern history is said to begin) and finally to the cathedral in Turin, Italy, where it now resides.

To add even more interest, there is some indication that the linen cloth might have originated in India.

The dust containing the genetic material was obtained in 1978 and 1988 by means of a specially filtered vacuum applied to the back of the shroud (from areas corresponding the image’s face, hands, glutei and feet) and in the space between the shroud and the Holland backing cloth added by Poor Clare nuns in 1534.

Particles thus separated included “pollen grains, cell debris and other minuscule organic specimens, such as plant-derived fibers and blood-like clots,” according to the scientific team. From this material, Barcaccia and his associates identified 16 plant species, including weeds (clovers and ryegrasses, as well as crops: chicory, cucumber and grapevine), trees (spruce and walnuts) and shrubs (willows). There were also genetic traces of birds, including the southern grey shrike and a marine worm that has been found in the Northern Pacific Ocean near Canada.


Challenge for the ‘Carbon Daters’

No discussion of the shroud can ignore the carbon dating done in 1988 by three separate laboratories in Arizona, England and Switzerland. Independently, the three laboratories tested samples of the shroud’s linen material and concluded its earliest possible origin had to be placed near the end of the 13th century, or slightly thereafter. Despite questions about the advisability of the decision to take test samples from the outer edge of the cloth and the demonstrable incompetence of several leading participants, all of which raise doubts about the usefulness of the test results, it remains a fact that skeptics continue to declare the 1988 carbon dating constitutes unassailable evidence of the shroud’s medieval origin.

But “carbon daters” must also confront the many lines of evidence pointing to the shroud’s first-century origins, including the new information gleaned from Barcaccia’s research. Relying on carbon dating limits the shroud’s appearances to Western Europe alone, no earlier than 800 years ago, he writes (Barcaccia did not respond to a request for an interview). But the deteriorated condition of much of the pollen and other DNA sources he found indicate that the dust trapped behind the shroud is much older, perhaps as old as the first century.

The great age of much of the material does not prove the shroud’s origins lie in the remote past. But, Barcaccia notes, “The time frame for the interaction with the DNA biological sources is much longer (2,000 years), and the geographic area where the [Shroud of Turin] was located includes the Near East, Anatolia, Eastern and Western Europe, with a potentially much wider range of plant and human interactions.” In other words, Barcaccia’s research is much more apt to support a first-century origin for the shroud than otherwise.


The Greatest Surprise

But the greatest surprise for Barcaccia’s team came in their discovery that a significant amount of human DNA indicated the shroud had experienced contact with people from India. Moreover, due to the degraded nature of the DNA and other cellular indicators, and because the Indian DNA comes from the center of the cloth and not from the edges, where any number of people have handled it, the team does not accept the suggestion that contact with Indian people came at some point after the shroud appeared in France.

“One alternative and intriguing possibility,” Barcaccia writes, “is that the linen cloth was weaved in India.” He goes on to state that the original word for shroud, sindon, may in fact derive from sindia or sindien, a fabric coming from India.

Indeed it might, said Frederica Gowen, graduate program administrator for the department of French, Italian and Spanish at the University of Calgary. A native Italian with a background in historical linguistics, Gowan notes that the ordinary Italian word for shroud is sudario, but the Shroud of Turin is called the sindone from the biblical Greek sindon (see Matthew 27:59), which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “probably of Oriental origin.” “The word indicates a fabric-like sheet,” Gowen said, “usually of good-quality linen, and woven in India.”

“Linen from India is a possibility,” agreed Barrie Schwortz, a specialist in documentary photography and a member of the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), to this day the only research team to have direct access to the shroud. It was a member of the STURP team who collected the dust particles used in Barcaccia’s research.

Still, Schwortz leans more toward the shroud linen originating in Syria, a well-known flax-growing area and much closer to the Holy Land. “For one thing,” Schwortz said, “if you measure the cloth using a Syrian cubit, it comes out to exactly 8 by 2 (14 feet by 3.5 feet, according to English measure). “But,” he added, “it could be that the linen came from India and was woven in Syria.”


Persuasive Powers

As a Jew, Schwortz is a unique witness to the shroud’s profound ability to influence anyone who examines it dispassionately. Surprised to be invited onto the STURP team, he did the work he was hired to do while never hesitating to voice his skepticism.

However, after 18 years of subsequent research he had not become a Christian (he is still not a Christian), but he had become convinced by the evidence that the image proved the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. “First, there’s the image itself,” he said. “It lies on the outer edge of the cloth fibers, thinner than a human hair. It isn’t painted on, and it isn’t burned on. It simply can’t be explained.”

Other proofs Schwortz lists include the nail holes in the victim’s wrists, not the palms — as commonly but erroneously depicted in most medieval representations of the Crucifixion — and similarly the presence of scourge marks on the front as well as the back of the body, as well as the pooling of blood under the back. “Nothing about the shroud resembles anything artists were doing in medieval times, Schwortz noted.

Then, quoting his mother, he added, “The only logical explanation is that this is Jesus. Otherwise, they [those in power] would have gotten rid of it. Had it been anybody else, no one would have cared.”


Shafer Parker writes from Calgary, Canada.