Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
Feb. 28, 2008 — The Turin shroud, the 14- by 4-foot linen long believed to have been wrapped around Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, has entered the digital age.
A huge 12.8 billion-pixel image was made of the linen,
on which the smudged outline of the body of a man is indelibly
impressed. The image was made following a Vatican request to obtain the
most detailed reproduction of the yellowing ancient cloth. The
technology allows a level of scrutiny of the linen as never achieved
"The Shroud has been photographed in high definition
for the first time. We have stitched together 1,600 shots, each the
size of a credit card, to create a huge photo which is almost 1,300
times stronger than a picture taken with a 10 million pixel digital
camera," Mauro Gavinelli, technical supervisor at HAL9000, a company
specializing in art photography, told Discovery News.
According to Gavinelli, who also created the world’s highest-resolution photo when he digitalized Da Vinci’s "Last Supper," the technology allows researchers to analyze the shroud in unprecedented detail.
"It is like looking at the Shroud through a microscope. You can see
the threads, the fibers that make these threads, the damage that the
shroud has suffered over the years," Gavinelli said.
As hundreds of shots were taken using sophisticated equipment, the
process, itself, was recorded by the British Broadcasting Company,
which will be airing a program about the project on the Saturday before
"It was fascinating. Seeing the shroud within a few inches is a
unique experience. The image is very visible, it isn’t true at all that
it is fading," said David Rolfe, director of the BBC documentary.
Kept rolled up in a silver casket, the shroud has been shown only
five times in the past century. When it last went on public display in
2000, more than three million people saw it. The next public display
will be in 2025.
Scientific interest in the cloth, which has survived several blazes
since its existence, began in 1898, when it was photographed by the
lawyer, Secondo Pia. The negatives revealed the image of a bearded man
with pierced wrists and feet and a bloodstained head.
Venerated by many Catholics as proof that Christ was resurrected from the grave,
the shroud was eventually dismissed as a brilliant, medieval fake
twenty years ago. Carbon-14 tests at three reputable laboratories in
Oxford, Zurich and Tucson, dated it to between 1260 and 1390.
After the tests, the Oxford laboratory’s founding director, Edward
Hall, told journalists: "Someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up
and flogged it."
But shroud scholars, known as sindonologists, have always argued
that no medieval forger could either have produced such an accurate
fake or anticipated the invention of photography.
Speculation about the linen cloth continued as well as debates over the validity of the carbon-14 tests.
"There is the possibility that new carbon-14 tests today will
produce different results. A new hypothesis has been formulated, and it
deals with information that wasn’t available twenty years ago," Rolfe
The new hypothesis, developed by "another contributor to the film,"
according to a University of Oxford press release, is being tested by
Christopher Ramsey, director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The results will be revealed in the documentary
Ramsey, a top expert in the use of carbon dating in archeological
research, is skeptical the new theory will prove that the carbon dating
tests were inaccurate.
"I keep an open mind–as I would about any
scientific investigation. However, my strong intuition, based on my
experience in this field, is that the new hypothesis will not challenge
the accuracy of the original radiocarbon dating exercise," Ramsey said
in a statement.
The new theory would only require two percent contamination to skew
the results by 1,500 years–not much considering the shroud’s long
history, handling and exposure to the elements.
"There is nothing new, as far as I know, which would change the
situation. These ideas have been raised previously and none has been
shown to have any merit. Many hypotheses, such as contamination, fire
changing the results and more dubious assertions have been made, but
none has seriously challenged the 1988 dating," Timothy Jull, a professor in geosciences at the University of Arizona who specializes in carbon dating, told Discovery News.
Indeed, numerous theories, such as a plastic coating built up on the
linen by millions of tiny micro-organisms, have been presented to
explain how the radiocarbon tests could have been inaccurate. All have
been rejected by the scientific community.
In 1998, Ramsey himself tested the possibility that carboxylation of
the cellulose in the linen during the 1532 fire could have produced a
younger dating, but concluded that "carboxylation is not a systematic
source of error in the dating of cellulose-containing materials such as
the linen in the Shroud of Turin."
The latest research, by the late Ray Rogers, suggested that the
sample used to test the age of the shroud in 1988 was taken from a
medieval rewoven area of the shroud.
Whatever the outcome of Ramsey’s tests, the high definition images
are expected to add new complexity to one of the most controversial
relics in Christendom.
"The Shroud has yielded surprises each time it is subjected to a new
form of reproduction. The first time it was photographed, it revealed
its negative characteristics. Then it was scanned and turned into a
tridimensional image. Now we have filmed it in high definition. We are
already seeing some interesting effects," Rolfe said.