The fabled cloth — perhaps the linen Jesus’ body was buried in after crucifixion — rested lightly between Roger Morris’ fingers. The markings were there; the ones bearing Jesus’ image that are alleged to have scorched onto the shroud at the moment of resurrection.
His team had been given only a few hours to analyze the fabric and the pace was frantic. In the dim light of the 15th-century cathedral he quickly scribbled notes:
“Spectrum 28 position + 1 cm (“Blood line”)…TC=185.5 on the ‘blood line.’ TC=216 Centered on scorch at upper fold directly above the nose. TC 231.5 Centered on right eye (unfolded).”
Morris, a physicist at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL, as it was then known), couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. After all, this was the stuff of PBS documentaries and Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” series. Clasping one of history’s most enigmatic treasures, he immediately felt a perceptible distance between himself and his New Mexico home; a sort of “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment that washed over him in an instant.
The year was 1978. The Shroud of Turin Research Project was underway.
Dinner mysteries: 'Dad was cool!'
Like other kids in Los Alamos, Christine Rand (formerly with OSH-OH) didn’t know what her father did at LASL. She had stopped asking questions long ago — especially about anything related to science and math — to avoid hours of in-depth explanations and eye-rolling. Sometime in 1977 that changed.
“Dinner conversations started to include exciting words like ‘shroud,’ ‘Turin’ and ‘nondestructive testing’ in the same sentence as ‘Jesus,’ ‘crucifixion,’ ‘death’ and ‘blood,’” Christine said. “It was less physics theory and more like cold-case mystery! I thought, ‘Hmm, what’s going on here? This is Dad’s job? Dad’s actually cool?’”
Now the questions started to flow. Ever the academic, Roger was quick to initiate a learning experience for his inquisitive kids.
“He was not apt to spoon-feed you an answer,” Christine said. “He encouraged us to study, learn, query, investigate and make up our own minds based on the evidence.”
The year before
1977: Ford was out, Carter was in; Led Zeppelin played its last American gig; a movie called “Star Wars” exploded into theaters nationwide.
Overseas, the shroud, named for the city of Turin, Italy — usually kept under lock and key inside the 15th-century Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist — was about to make a rare public appearance.
Word spread, and a half-million pilgrims, seekers and history buffs from around the globe suddenly converged in northern Italy to see the mystical 14-foot textile unveiled. Among them, a group of curious scientists from LASL, including Roger, who had joined an international collective of researchers called the Shroud of Turin Research Project (“STURP” for short).
Turin’s announcement of the shroud’s exposition sent a ripple through a segment of the science community. This was an opportunity to examine an important religious relic with fascinating chemical and biological implications.
Thermochemists had posited that the shroud’s human image must have been formed by a burst of radiant energy, matching the Bible’s resurrection story. Was that true? Another unanswered question concerned the shroud’s age. Doubters cast the shroud off as a fake from the Middle Ages. Could technology prove otherwise?
Indeed, age was a huge factor in determining shroud sanctity. Its origins were cloudy and spotty records of its existence went back only to the 13th century — there was no evidence of its existence before.
In March of that year, STURP had met in Albuquerque to form a game plan convincing the office of the Archbishop of Turin to grant them special access to the holy cloth. Authorities agreed to an examination but allowed only 96 hours to conclude work.
Over a feverish four days, STURP labored over the shroud. Nondestructive experiments used X-ray fluorescence, radiography, ultraviolet spectroscopy, infrared reflectance, visible fluorescence spectroscopy and computerized photogenic enhancement and analysis. The tests were designed to look for fraud. Were the bloodstains real? Was the Christ image painted on?
A request for secondary radiocarbon testing — a destructive method requiring samples to be cut from the shroud— was denied. Could the question of age be answered with just nondestructive analysis?
The results were astounding
Initial STURP findings:
- The blood is real.
- Ordinary heat did not create the Christ image.
- The image was not painted on.
- The shroud material — a linen, hand-spun and hand-woven in a herringbone twill — is a type made in Roman times but not known in the Middle Ages.
- The image was impervious to high heat and water, both of which it had made contact with during a fire in 1532.
Not a hoax
“Every way we can think of for hoaxing it that would be credible, we can’t prove,” Ray Rogers, former LASL chemist and director of chemical research for STURP, later told The New York Times.
In a 1979 exposé on the project by The Washington Post, the Lab’s Robert Dinegar — a physical chemist and Episcopal priest — explained that the image was so precise the scientific team could determine that it was of a man who had been crucified, who had suffered a deep and bloody wound in his side, endured what appeared to be 120 lashes with a whip and suffered numerous wounds around the head “that could have come from a crown of thorns” — all features consistent with biblical accounts of Christ’s body post-crucifixion.
“When we came to the marks on the image, we asked ourselves could these be wound marks?” Robert said in the story. “We investigated further and said yes, they could be. We then counted the wounds. They came to 120.”
Proving immortality in a skeptical age
Later, in the last paragraphs of the LASL press release on STURP, Ray Rogers gave eye-opening perspective to the project’s mission:
Rogers, the scientist who believes the image on the Shroud was create by an intense burst of energy, says the Shroud has always represented the eternal question of whether or not man can achieve immortality. … What better way, if you were a Deity, of regenerating faith in a skeptical age, than to leave evidence 2,000 years ago that could be defined only by the technology available in that skeptical age?” Rogers asks. What better way indeed.
Their discoveries led some STURP members to immediately validate the shroud. Others, including Roger Morris, were still skeptical. “To say the shroud is authentic based on what we know today is too strong a statement,” he told reporters. “We need more evidence, especially on age.”
When the 96th hour arrived, scientists watched as two nuns carefully folded the shroud in a ceremonial red silk and disappeared with it down a dark hallway.
Based on evidence
STURP scientists were left with mixed emotions after returning home. It had been a successful venture, but the shroud provided no final answers. Most of the evidence suggested it was old enough to have been buried with Jesus, but there was no way to know for sure.
In many ways, STURP was a big success. International media attention brought major credibility to the project and helped generate new shroud research and theories.
Despite his reluctance to fully endorse the shroud’s authenticity, to Roger, the project had been a revelation.
“I think he was fascinated that his physicist/scientist mind could help solve a religious mystery surrounding this fiber relic, belief in which is not analytical or scientific,” Christine said. “He was honored to spread the Lab’s reputation as a leader in research across scientific, religious and historical fields of study.”
Even after STURP disbanded, Roger continued receiving shroud-related inquiries from people all over the world. He generally enjoyed the discourse and found humor in correspondence from the occasional conspiracy theorist. He died in 1999.
The enigma persists
In 2002, Ray Rogers, still part of the international Shroud of Turin research community, sparked new interest in the relic when he published information claiming radiocarbon testing on the shroud — which was eventually allowed on a small scale in the years immediately following STURP — was done incorrectly.
Ray — who died in 2005 — contended that the material used in the tests was taken from areas of the shroud that had been replaced over the ages. His findings, based on a measured lack of vanillin — a natural aromatic compound found in plants — in the linen flax fibers of the artifact could mean the cloth is close to 3,000 years old. Vanillin decomposes over time, making it possible to derive estimates on the age of plant-based fibers. In other words, less vanillin equals an older shroud.
Today, the Shroud of Turin continues to be one of the world’s most puzzling and prominent Christian artifacts.
Editor’s note: When this article was first published, Christine Rand worked in Occupational Health (OSH-OH). She left the Lab in 2020.