An Instagram from the First Century

“Why Shroud of Turin’s Secrets Continue to Elude Science”

As the venerated relic goes on public exhibition, its origin remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The 53-square-foot rectangle of linen known as the Shroud of Turin is one of the most sacred religious icons on Earth, venerated by millions of Christians as the actual burial garment of Jesus Christ. It is also among the most fiercely debated subjects in contemporary science, an extraordinary mystery that has defied every effort at solution.” National Geographic, April 2015

Review of The Jesus Microbiome by Ian Wilson, author of several international best-sellers on the Shroud of Turin

“Dr Stephen J. Mattingly is retired Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, and as such is a serious scientist who can and does speak with real authority on the subject of microbes. … According to Mattingly, the apparent removal of the body from the cloth (by whatever means), would leave behind ‘a massive presence of bacteria’, the ensuing ‘oxidation of fatty acids and phospholipids’ resulting in ‘a permanent insoluble record of the crucifixion and death of the Man of the Shroud.’ In other words, what the eye sees as image on the Shroud would have been largely, if not entirely, created by microbes. …

It is a unique and undeniably remarkable argument, and to back it up Mattingly even provides detailed instructions for how any keen DIY experimenters can check it out for themselves, taking swabs from their skin and watching their microbes multiply exponentially. … Having known him for more than twenty years and personally seen and handled some of the results of his experiments I have absolutely no doubt that it all works. …

But quite aside for the image-making properties of microbes, Mattingly is similarly impressive in his arguments for the very significant part that they likely played in skewing the 1988 carbon dating. … as Mattingly points out, the 1988 carbon dating scientists failed to carry out any chemical test on the samples that they worked with. Being specialists in nuclear physics rather than biology they were unaware that any accretions of living and dead microbes from the handlings, because such accretions are effectively cellulose, would have been indistinguishable from the cellulose of the Shroud linen proper, thereby ineradicable by decontamination methods, and rendering any radiocarbon test a non-starter. Mattingly similarly rips into another common misconception, that because it would need a Shroud sample to have been 60% contaminated to change a true first century radiocarbon date into a false medieval one, any such high proportion of contamination is unbelievable, and in any event would have been readily visible. As Mattingly shows, not only would such massive proliferations of microbial activity have been near inevitable in the course of a human body’s reactions to crucifixion, quite aside from the effects of centuries of historical handlings, even when 60% contamination is present the surface characteristics of the affected linen fibrils are such that to all normal appearances they do not look significantly changed. 

The Jesus Microbiome is therefore a fascinating and important contribution to Shroud studies, compellingly written and readily intelligible to the non-scientist.”


The Jesus Microbiome is a breakthrough book unveiling radically new but scientifically demonstrable, universally replicable and factually definitive findings on the most mysterious and controversial piece of cloth on earth: the Shroud of Turin. The implications of these never-before publicized findings are historic in nature for The Jesus Microbiome shows that:

  • The image on the Shroud of Turin was literally created from the flesh and blood of Christ and the underlying processes that led to this particular form of image creation can be replicated today.
  • Microbiome = the body of microorganisms that inhabit a specific environment. The Carbon 14 dating study performed on the Shroud three decades ago (1988) was fatally flawed because the investigators were unaware of what is now known about microbiomes and failed to demicrobialize the Shroud. No decontamination = no valid dating.
  • Since the Shroud incarnates pivotal events in the New Testament narratives in real-time it can rightly be described as the fifth Gospel – an Instagram from the first century sent by Jesus himself!

The Jesus Microbiome is not just another book about the Shroud. It is a journey into the first century through the 21st the ancient world comes to life again through the medium of the microbiome.

Lead author Dr. Stephen J. Mattingly has presented earlier versions of the key thesis of this book before a conference of the American Society for Microbiology (published later as an ASM abstract). His work in this area has been cited in publications as diverse as Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, the Times Education Supplement, the Guardian and the New York Daily News. SJM was also engaged in a years-long dialogue on this thesis with Harry Gove, co-inventor of the AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) radiocarbon dating method used to date the Shroud in 1988. In point of fact, they co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific paper on the dating/contamination issue. Regarding their dialogue, Gove in his book on the Shroud, noted, “There is, however, one other development that should be taken seriously. All the reasons, mentioned above, that have been advanced for the age of the Shroud being younger than 1325 years, range from the highly improbable to the ludicrous. This one alone, at least so far, merits detailed investigation.” In JM, for the first time, SJM reveals the startling results of his research over two decades with a panoply of new data as well as scientific verification for theories he propounded from the outset.

The Jesus Microbiome is written for a mass audience with the scientific content delivered at a “popular” level. The book’s major contribution is to uncover, with the aid of modern microbiology, the startling secrets hidden in plain sight on the Shroud of Turin. In the process, it makes sense of all the data traditionally associated with the Shroud: from the photographic, 3D nature of the image embedded in it to the preservation of its material over centuries. The Jesus Microbiome also shows why the 1988 Carbon 14 dating test gave us not the date of birth of the Shroud but the overall “age” of all its living and dead microbes. Because it is built on mainstream science, the book offers natural and inescapable answers that are, in principle, acceptable to the faithful, the skeptical and the curious.

The timing for the book is comparable to a perfect storm. The book shows how microbes created the image of Jesus. Given the pandemic, microbes are very much on the minds of most people. So this unique microbe-centric approach to the best-known religious artifact in the world is likely to get the attention not simply of Christians but of the general public.

Top Ten Reasons Showing the Shroud to be a First Century Photograph of Jesus

The Gospels are narratives of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus play a pivotal role in these narratives. Remarkably, this textual record from the first century does not stand alone. It is complemented by a visual portrait which is literally a photograph (as will be seen) of Jesus. On his burial garment. The Shroud of Turin.

The Shroud is a linen cloth with a bloody image of a crucified man. An image of someone who seems to have mysteriously dematerialized through the Shroud. For centuries the Shroud was revered as the cloth in which the body of Jesus was wrapped after the crucifixion.

With the invention of photography, the barely visible image on the Shroud seemed to come alive. Usually once a photograph is taken, the negative is “developed” and the positive appears. But with the image on the Shroud, the opposite happened. The negative image of the first photograph of the Shroud, taken in 1898, looked like a photographic positive of a man crucified in the manner described by the Gospel. Advanced observational technologies in the 20th century revealed previously undiscovered dimensions of the mysterious image such as its three-dimensional nature.

The positive appraisal from science changed nearly three decades ago with the 1988 radiocarbon dating of the Shroud. The scientists who carried out the dating tests pronounced the Shroud to be a medieval artefact created in the 13th century. But there was one fatal flaw in this dating exercise: it ignored the most ubiquitous life-form in the universe – the microorganisms that pervade our planet and transform their immediate environments. There were no microbiologists on the team and no thought was given to “clean” the samples in such a way as to remove microbial contaminants. Bacteria are known to dramatically skew dating tests by centuries. Harry Gove, the co-inventor of the AMS radiocarbon dating methodology used for the study later admitted that “bioplastic coating of the linen fibrils could not have been removed even by the most stringent pretreatment cleaning process and would, definitely, skew the real age of the linen.” In short, the results of the 1988 dating tests were invalid because they were dating not simply the Shroud but also the microbes that became part of the Shroud across centuries and especially in the Middle Ages when it was publicly displayed.

This issue and others are addressed in The Jesus Microbiome. The book unveils the revolutionary discoveries of its lead author Dr. Stephen J. Mattingly, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for 33 years and past President of the Texas branch of the American Society for Microbiology. Mattingly has brought microbiology to the investigation of the Shroud and engaged researchers such as Gove. His conclusion is that the Shroud of Turin is literally a photograph of Jesus. Photographs in the old days were images made by the action of light on light-sensitive surfaces. In the case of the Shroud, “the unusually large number of bacteria on the skin is responsible for image formation on a linen surface that has attributes of a photograph. Instead of the effects of light on oxidation of photosensitive chemicals producing images in classical photography, oxygen oxidizes unsaturated fatty acids breaking double bonds producing the straw yellow discoloration. Oxygen breaks the double bond by adding an atom of oxygen producing an oxidation product that has the straw yellow discoloration.”

Here are the top ten reasons why the Shroud of Turin should be considered a first century “photograph” of Jesus.

  • The image on the Shroud matches the profile of the subject of the Passion narratives. Jesus is said to have been scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified and speared. The wounds and blood flow patterns of the Man of the Shroud precisely reflect these specific actions: some one hundred whip marks; wounds on the wrists, feet, hands, side and head; and bruises on the face, knees and shoulders. The former Chief Medical Examiner of Rockland County, New York, and other medical doctors have confirmed this. Two features stand out: the crucifixion wounds appear on the wrists and not the palms and there are head wounds consistent with the crowning. All medieval crucifixion paintings show the nails piercing the palms. Only in later centuries was it discovered that the Roman method of crucifixion entailed driving nails through the wrists (to hold the body) and not the palms. So this was no medieval painting! Also, although thousands of victims were crucified by the Romans and others, none were crowned with thorns other than the Jesus of the Gospels and the Man on the Shroud.
  • Modern microbiology tells us that if a man goes through the exact sequence of ordeals described in the Passion narratives and is then wrapped in a burial cloth, an image such as we find on the Shroud would emerge. It would be caused by skin bacteria and the bacteria associated with wounds. As Mattingly says, “the presence of high levels of S. epidermis on the body at the time of death is a certainty. To say otherwise is to disregard the biology of the human body. In the case of the crucifixion … there is nothing that would have prevented the growth of epidermidis over the body of Jesus. It will happen every time under these conditions. It is not another hypothesis for how the image formed on the Shroud of Turin. It is the only natural explanation that takes into account the entire journey from his arrest in the morning through his crucifixion to his death and burial.” This cause-and-effect framework is not a matter of speculation but can be demonstrated here and now as has been done by Mattingly, et al. Jesus was a human being with a normal human body. When wounds were inflicted on his body, its after-effects would be consistent with normal anatomical functioning.
  • Prominent chemists such as John Heller, professor of Internal Medicine and Medical Physics at Yale University, and blood specialist Alan Adler (who was Jewish) performed multiple chemical and immunological tests to show that the bloodstains on the Shroud had the chemical characteristics of blood: hemoglobin, serum albumin, etc.. Their studies were published in scientific journals. The Shroud also has traces of iron oxide on it as is to be expected given that, in the Middle Ages, paintings of the image were touched to the Shroud so as to sanctify them.
  • Botanical experts have detected pollen grains on the Shroud that are found in the Israel-Palestine region. Professor Avinoam Danin (also Jewish), a world authority on Middle Eastern flora from Israel’s Hebrew University, not only found a profusion of pollen grains from Israel on the Shroud but also detected non-photographic images of plants on it that are common to Jerusalem and bloom usually in March and April! In Danin’s view, the Shroud was an ancient Israelite cloth.
  • The body of Jesus was laid to rest in a cave. Researchers have detected traces of limestone dust on the Shroud. Chemical analysis of the dust showed that it is similar to the limestone dust found in other ancient tombs in Jerusalem.
  • The history of the Shroud may be classified under pre- and post-medieval eras. Its history in pre-medieval times is speculative given the state of persecution and war of that era. For the first five centuries of Christianity, its adherents communicated in codes and symbols for fear of their enemies under what is called “The Discipline of the Secret.” Nevertheless, there are powerful references to the Shroud’s existence: “the Lord, after having given the Shroud to the servant of the priest” (second century), “the portrait of Jesus” (Doctrine of Addai, fourth century), “the divinely wrought image which hands did not form” (590), “Peter ran with John to the tomb and saw the recent imprints” (sixth century). Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria (328-373) reported that “the icon of our holy Lord and Savior came from Judea to Syria.” Edessa was the home of this image for centuries and it was called the Image of Edessa. In 944, the Image was moved to Constantinople as narrated in histories of the time: the “image not made by man of Christ our God was transferred to Constantinople.” It was called the Mandylion and was described as “an impression of God’s assumed human form by a moist secretion without coloring or painter’s art. An impression of the face was made in the linen cloth.”
  • Constantinople was conquered by the Crusaders in 1204 and the Mandylion disappeared at that time. One of the Crusaders wrote: “There was another of the churches … where was kept the syndoine in which our Lord had been wrapped, which stood straight every Friday so that the figure of our Lord could be plainly seen. No one, either Greek or French even knew what became of the syndoine after the capture of the city.” But another writer reported in 1205 to the then Pope that the “predators” preserved “the sacred linen in Athens.” In 1357, a French knight, Geoffrey II de Charny, displayed the Shroud as we know it today in a church in France. The public history of the Shroud begins from this point. His descendants passed it on to the House of Savoy which became the ruling family of Italy. The family bequeathed the Shroud to the Church in 1983.
  • The Shroud is complemented by what is called the Sudarium of Oveido, a blood-stained cloth that is believed to have been placed on the face of Jesus after the crucifixion. The Gospel of John tells us that there was a headcloth: “When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.” (John 20:6-7). It was common practice among the Jews to place a cloth on the face of a deceased person. The Sudarium was believed to have been in Palestine until 614. After the Persians conquered Jerusalem it was transported to Alexandria until finally reaching Spain. The Sudarium shows only bloodstains and no image. Its blood type matches the blood type on the Shroud (AB) and it facial and neck stains match the stains on the Shroud.
  • The icons of Jesus that emerged at least from 532 A.D. reflect the image of the Man on the Shroud. There can therefore be little doubt that this image served as the template for the various icons of Jesus which means the Shroud was known to Christendom since its earliest years.
  • On a natural level, the Shroud also bears witness to the Resurrection. We know that the crucified body of Jesus was wrapped in a linen shroud: “Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock.” (Matthew 27:59-60). The Gospels tell us that the first witnesses saw: But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone.” (Luke 24:12). So we see here a shroud without a body. But what is remarkable is the fact that the Shroud survived. Burial shrouds never survive because when the body decomposes, its shroud decays with it. Biochemically, the same microorganisms are responsible for the decomposition of both. But if the body in the Shroud did not decompose, if it “left”, then the Shroud as we have it would be what we should expect. Paradoxically, the Shroud was preserved because its body had disappeared. Moreover, it is clear too that the body was not physically removed because the blood clots seen on the Shroud were not smeared or broken which they would have been if the body was moved.

So what is the significance of these ten facts? When we connect these dots we get a picture – a real-time image of Jesus. Science starts with a hypothesis to explain a set of data and then aggregates and analyzes supporting evidence. In the case of the Shroud, we have both evidence and explanation as our starting point. The “explanation” handed down centuries ago is that this is the burial cloth of Jesus. The “evidence” supporting the explanation became increasingly visible (literally!) over the centuries and especially in the modern era. And today microbiology has verified what was proclaimed in the first millennium: the Shroud of Turin is the “image of God incarnate.



The Jesus Microbiome is the announcement and description of a series of scientific discoveries relating to one of the greatest mysteries in human history: the Shroud of Turin: what the UK Telegraph described as the world’s most controversial piece of cloth.”

This work is of interest to a diverse audience: the faithful, of course, but also the scientific community and the world at large. The Shroud with its haunting image is a hard fact calling out for an explanation: even after the 1988 Carbon 14 radiocarbon dating, mainstream scientists admit that they have no idea how the image was formed. Esoteric writers have proposed theories built on outlandish speculation – it was a Michelangelo painting or the product of a hitherto-unknown medieval pro-photography technology – but no such account has won scientific acceptance. Numerous such theories on the formation of the image have been proposed and promptly laid to rest.

Of course, given its fame, the Shroud has inspired numerous works. Well over 1,500 books have been written on the Shroud. So what more needs to be said and why should anyone care?

The answer is that the mystery remains. If a plausible resolution to the mystery is to be possible, it has to:

  • come from science;
  • be compatible with what is already known scientifically about the Shroud including the Carbon 14 results;
  • go beyond current scientific paradigms, which have failed to provide a path forward, while being grounded in demonstrable hard facts;
  • originate from a specialist in the specific area of discussion;
  • comport with what is known historically about the Shroud.

The Jesus Microbiome meets all these criteria. It is:

  • Restricted to the natural, which in this instance is the purview of science, with no appeal to the supernatural;
  • Entirely compatible with the Carbon 14 data (although not the popular interpretations of this body of data which wrongly assume decontamination) as well as various other specialist-generated scientific data;
  • Introducing an entirely new paradigm in exploring the question using mainstream microbiology, an obviously relevant discipline ignored by previous researchers, and applying its latest methodologies;
  • Co-authored by a veteran microbiologist who was President of the Texas branch of the American Society for Microbiology, a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a professor for 33 years at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center;
  • Continuous with what is known about the various “sightings” of the Shroud in history and various accounts of it across the centuries.

The main objective of The Jesus Microbiome is to consider the Shroud from the standpoint of 21st century science. Genetic discoveries dominated the 20th century but microbes “own” the 21st (think, for instance, of the Human Microbiome Project begun in 2008 to explore the trillions of microbes that live in the human body). In what is sometimes called “the microbial century,” microbiology helps us unveil the true story of the Shroud. Nearly three decades ago, the latest dating technology of the time (AMS Carbon 14 radiocarbon dating) was deployed in an attempt to determine the Shroud’s true age. The verdict from this study – as lethal as the fiery flames that often enveloped the Shroud’s various homes – was that its material dated back only to the Middle Ages. Yet, as it turned out, the dating investigation itself was fatally flawed. No thought was given to the elephant in the room, namely the most ubiquitous life-form in the universe – the microorganisms that pervade our planet and transform their immediate environments. And microbiology, the science most relevant to an analysis of any organic artefact like the Shroud, was simply not invited to the table. There were no microbiologists on the investigation team and no effort to analyze the scientifically indisputable part played by known organisms in the history and therefore date-ability of a burial cloth such as the Shroud. Fortunately, this shortcoming has now been remedied. In JM, a long-time microbiologist has re-opened the case and replicated the processes that led to the formation and preservation of the Shroud image. His investigation, carried out in cooperation with the co-inventor of the AMS Carbon 14 system, has yielded instantly and universally verifiable claims and predictions shared here for the first time. And the biometric verdict on a natural level is that the Shroud is the first photograph in human history – a photograph enabled in large part by the very microorganisms that were not even considered in prior investigations.


The Shroud of Turin allows us to see Jesus as he truly looked on the day of his crucifixion. It is a visual, real-time manifestation of the most important events recorded in the Gospel narratives: the world’s ONLY palpable connection to the scourging, crucifixion, piercing and death of Jesus. It is the fifth gospel.

An introductory write-up sets the stage for what it follows in the rest of the book. Seemingly trivial discrepancies in reigning theories when properly investigated revolutionized our understanding of physical reality. Relativity and quantum theory are two examples of such transformational change. The perspective of bio-history plays the same role in the investigation of the Shroud.

Shroud 3.0
The first section lays out the central thesis of the book: the Shroud’s embedded microbiome is the key to understanding the genesis of the image on it and, in fact, its very preservation across centuries. The microbiome also makes it impossible to accurately date the Shroud without cleansing it of microbial contamination – something that was demonstrably not done before the 1988 Carbon 14 radiocarbon dating. The microorganisms that initially created the Shroud image were skin and wound bacteria and, in fact, the image on the Shroud was formed by the same processes as those underlying modern photography. The Shroud was subsequently preserved by the action of thousands of other kinds of microorganisms. One highlight of this book is the fact that we show that these claims can be universally verified and replicated. We also demonstrate with replicable studies that the Carbon 14 testing did not decontaminate the Shroud and so the results of this dating test are therefore inadmissible. These arguments complement the ten hard facts underlying Shroud 2.0.

Shroud in toto
The new breakthrough represented by this book has to be located in the context of everything else we know about the Shroud. Our criteria for accepting scientific evidence relevant to the Shroud are twofold: it has to derive from an authority in the field and it has to be replicable. With these starting points, we consider verdicts on the Shroud from various researchers who studied its different dimensions: physical structure, bloodstains, the pollen and pollen images. We begin with an analysis of the reports on the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth who many identify with the Man of the Shroud. This is followed by the reports of specialists including: physicians like Zugibe who sought to replicate the conditions of crucifixion; the STURP team that examined the Shroud with a broad range of scientific tools; blood scientists; and pollen experts. We then consider the Sudarium, the ancient cloth in Spain that is believed to be the cloth that covered the face of Christ and that has blood stains that reportedly tie in with those on the Shroud. Finally, there is the question of history. What happened to the Shroud before 1357 when it was first publicly displayed? There are clues in fragmentary statements that go back to the second century and in reports of the image of Christ “not made with human hands” in Ephesus, Constantinople and elsewhere. At best we can make educated guesses. But this does not bear on the antiquity of the Shroud given that the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls did not rest on certitude of its prior history. It should be said, however, that mainstream historians today take for granted the validity of the Carbon 14 dating and, therefore, discount any evidence in favor of the Shroud’s first-century origin. A serious study of the historical evidence for the antiquity of the Shroud must begin with an admission that the Carbon 14 tests did not settle anything with respect to its dating.

Who Was the Man of the Shroud?
Who was the man of the Shroud? Was this the Shroud of the crucified Jesus? Is its image the image of Jesus? The image of the Man of the Shroud bears the unique signature of the crucified Jesus: struck on the face, scourged, crowned with thorns, made to bear the beams of the cross on his shoulders, crucified, pierced on the side, wrapped in a shroud, laid to rest in a tomb – over a period of six to eight hours. This signature coupled with the dematerialization of the body built into the Shroud tells us that the Man of the Shroud was indeed the Jesus of the Gospels.

Shroud in a Shroud
The 1988 Carbon 14 radiocarbon testing of the Shroud had a devastating impact not just on the faithful but also on continuing investigation. The case was closed. Carbon had spoken. The Shroud was without doubt a medieval painting. Disparate researchers, however, continued their work often on the fringe. Shroud organizations attracted a small but loyal following who continued their work through conferences, books and online exchanges. But mainstream opinion took it for granted that the Shroud was produced in the Middle Ages. It turned out, however, that the obituary was premature. Although the radiocarbon dating of the Shroud has been criticized on various grounds (the material studied was a later addition, etc.), its most obvious error was failing to recognize the microbial contamination that had already taken place. As is result, these contaminants were not removed and the dating exercise was flawed. Critics of other aspects of the Shroud, it is further argued here, were as eccentric as some of the defenders of the Shroud. A case in point is Walter McCrone who persistently argued, against all the evidence, that there were no bloodstains on the Shroud. He refused to either respond to criticisms of his positions or address the case made by scientists who had examined the Shroud. Skeptical historians may be divided into two categories: those who see no substance in the Edessa-Constantinople arguments and those who try to show that the Shroud was a medieval painting. Both take the Carbon 14 test results as their starting points. What is required is a “big picture” perspective which considers all the evidence while subjecting speculation to critical scrutiny. Finally, there are the “wild and crazy” skeptics – those who claim, for instance, that the Shroud is a work of Michelangelo. They are not taken seriously even by their more respectable fellow skeptics given that they base their arguments not on evidence but on unverifiable speculation – while ignoring the hard facts testifying to the authenticity of the Shroud.

Shroud Unshrouded
Having cleared away the grime, we can now see better. We have a complete picture that unites the fascinating micro-world of trillions of micro-organisms and the macro-world of organic artefacts. We also connect Shroud 2.0 and 3.0 so that all the data of science and history give us a coherent and unified vision of the most famous and mystifying image in history.

About the Lead Author

Dr. Stephen J. Mattingly is uniquely qualified to be the lead author. He is the only microbiologist to have studied the question of the Shroud and is often quoted in the Shroud literature. Moreover, he has been investigating the issues at stake for over two decades and has engaged most of the leading Shroud scholars as well as skeptics. He has been interviewed by international media ranging from well-known newspapers to TV networks like ABC. To date, the results of his preliminary research have been carried in interviews, papers and a booklet. JM brings together his previous work and most recent breakthroughs, addresses earlier criticisms from non-microbiologists and presents, for the first time, a new and compelling paradigm for understanding the nature and origin of the Shroud and its image.

Dr. Mattingly was Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for 33 years and past President of the Texas branch of the American Society for Microbiology. He is also an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, a branch of the American Society for Microbiology. He was the 2000 recipient of the Graduate Faculty Award of the American Society for Microbiology. He also received the Outstanding Teaching Award of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio in 1998. He was first invited to participate in research on the Shroud of Turin in the 1990s and published several scientific papers and a book on his findings. Participants in his 1994 scientific conference on the Shroud included Harry Gove, co-inventor of the AMS Radiocarbon dating technology used in the 1988 Carbon 14 dating study, who had helped arrange the dating study. After his ongoing discussions with Mattingly, Gove later said in a BBC interview that the “bioplastic coating of the linen fibrils could not have been removed even by the most stringent pretreatment cleaning process and would, definitely, skew the real age of the linen.”


Philip Ball, Nature

To know a veil

Attempts to date the Turin Shroud are a great game, says Philip Ball, but don’t imagine that they will convince anyone.

The most recent scientific study of the Turin shroud will not surprise anyone with even a passing interest in this mysterious bit of cloth.

Retired chemist Raymond Rogers claims that the sample used for radiocarbon-dating studies in 1988 – which suggested that the shroud was a medieval forgery – is quite different from the rest of the relic.

Rogers, who worked on explosives at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, presents chemical arguments for the shroud being much older than those datings implied. It is, he says, between 1,300 and 3,000 years old. Let’s call it somewhere around the middle of that range, which puts the age at about 2,000 years. Which can mean only one thing…

But it would be unfair to imply that Rogers has steered his study towards a preconceived conclusion. He has a history of respectable work on the shroud dating back to 1978, when he became director of chemical research for the international Shroud of Turin Research Project.

At the time, he says, he suspected that taking the job was ” a good way to destroy my scientific credibility”. And when he found that some of his findings did not fit with what some wished to hear, he was reproached: “Ray, you are not a soldier for Christ.”

“That,” he says, “is the kind of goal-directed approach I had feared.”

Shrouded in mystery: no one knows how this image was imprinted on the Turin shroud. ©SPL

Cloth of old

Rogers has spoken of “the pseudoscience surrounding the shroud”. Future studies, he says, “must be carefully planned and executed, and they cannot involve management by dilettantes”. He has complained about the uncooperativeness of the shroud’s guardians in Turin, saying that because of this, “competent scientific efforts to understand the shroud have a bleak future”.

This should not, perhaps, make anyone terribly distraught. The scientific study of the Turin shroud is like a microcosm of the scientific search for God: it does more to inflame any debate than settle it.

Believers’ ability to construct ingenious arguments is more than a match for the most exhaustive efforts of science. The shroud literature leaves no stone unturned in casting doubt on ‘evidence’ that the relic was faked, while embracing with blind rapture every argument for its authenticity. So why study it at all?

And yet, the shroud is a remarkable artefact, one of the few religious relics to have a justifiably mythical status. It is simply not known how the ghostly image of a serene, bearded man was made. It does not seem to have been painted, at least with any known historical pigments.

And the relic is surrounded with legend and linked to Cathar sects, shady secret societies and papal conspiracies. If all this sounds like a popular current novel about hidden codes and religious mysteries, that may be no coincidence: among the flaky theories about the shroud’s origin is one that it was created by Leonardo da Vinci, using a primitive photographic technique to record his own image. You couldn’t make it up (although people do).

The photographic hypothesis has been developed (so to speak) in some detail, notably by South African art historian Nicholas Allen. He has even used medieval materials to create faint photographic images on linen cloth saturated with silver nitrate. But Allen failed to convince other shroud scholars, who reasonably asked how an invention as marvellous as photography could have remained otherwise unknown until the nineteenth century.

Besides, this is a crowded field. Among the wilder entrants is the idea that Christ’s image was burned into the cloth by some kind of release of nuclear energy from his body.

Winding sheet

The international team of scientists who convened in 1987 to put a date on the shroud probably did not expect to banish such fantasies. But by applying radiocarbon dating to the fabric, they were at least employing the most definitive of archaeological tools. Or so they thought.

The textile sample was cut from the shroud in Turin Cathedral in April 1988, under the supervision of textile experts, representatives of the laboratories in Arizona, Oxford and Zurich selected to perform the analyses, a conservation scientist from the British Museum, and the Archbishop of Turin.

The three measurements indicated with 95% confidence that the shroud’s linen dated from between AD1260 and 1390. This, the researchers said, was “conclusive evidence that the linen of the shroud of Turin is medieval”1.

Needless to say, the ink was barely dry before others started to quibble. Professor of history Daniel Scavone collected examples of erroneous radiocarbon dates and problems with the method that were “well known to the 14C community”. And microbiologists Leoncio Garza-Valdes and Stephen Mattingly proposed in 1996 that bacteria and fungi on the fibres had skewed the dates, by a thousand years or so.

Patch work

Rogers has pursued another objection. Originating as it did from a couple who research ‘pyramid energies’ and ‘the existence of the soul’, the suggestion that the carbon-dated fragment was taken from a patch repaired in the sixteenth century did not look promising.

“Competent scientific efforts to understand the shroud have a bleak future”

The shroud was indeed damaged by fire and patched up in 1532, but those patches, called the Holland cloth, are obvious. Rogers thought that he would be able to “disprove [the] theory in five minutes”.

But he now says that there is something in it. Luigi Gonella, the Archbishop of Turin’s scientific adviser, provided Rogers with a few threads from the piece cut for dating, which he compared with the samples he collected during the Shroud of Turin Research Project.

The radiocarbon sample, but not other parts of the shroud, seems to have been dyed with madder, a colorant not widely used in Europe until after the Crusades, Rogers writes in Thermochimica Acta2. This suggested that the fabric could have been inserted during repair, after being dyed to match the original, older cloth.

Well, maybe. Perhaps more compelling is that most of the shroud lacks vanillin, a breakdown product of the lignin in cotton fibres. There is vanillin in the Holland cloth, and in other medieval linen. Because it decomposes over time, this suggests that the main body of the cloth is considerably older than these patches. By calculating the rate of decay, Rogers arrives at his revised estimate of the shroud’s age.

Facing faith

There is no explanation, however, of how the ‘repaired’ threads used in radiocarbon dating were woven into the old cloth so cunningly that the textile experts who selected the area for analysis failed to notice the substitution. This is by no means the end of the story.

Will scientists ever accept that trying to establish the true status of the Turin shroud is a vain quest? The object itself is too inaccessible, and its history is too poorly documented and understood, to permit irrefutable conclusions.
And of course ‘authenticity’ is not really a scientific issue at all here: even if there were compelling evidence that the shroud was made in first-century Palestine, that would not even come close to establishing that the cloth bears the imprint of Christ.


1. Damon P. E. et al. Nature 337, 611-615 (1989).
2. Rogers R. N. Thermochimica Acta 425, 189-194 (2005). doi:10.1016/j.tca.2004.09.029 | Article | ChemPort |


Relic, Icon or Hoax? Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud. Harry Gove (p.308)

There is, however, one other development that should be taken seriously. All the reasons, mentioned above, that have been advanced for the age of the Shroud being younger than 1325 years, range from the highly improbable to the ludicrous. This one alone, at least so far, merits detailed investigation.

On 2 and 3 September 1994 a Round Table on the Microbiology of Ancient Artifacts was held in San Antonio, Texas. It was held by Dr. Steven J. Mattingly and Dr. Leoncia A. Garza-Valdez of the Department of Microbiology of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA). Garza-Valdez is also a medical doctor with a pediatric practice in San Antonio, Texas. The main subject of the round-table was a discussion of the formation of bio-plastic coatings produced by bacteria and fungi and found on the surface of ancient artifacts, desert rocks (where it is referred to as desert varnish) and around the fibers of some ancient textiles including the Turin Shroud. These bacteria take their nourishment from the air and hence can be adding carbon with a component of carbon 14 contemporaneous with the time of bacterial growth – and thus younger than the cellulose content of the ancient textile. With the help of Giovanni Riggi (the person who removed a sample from the shroud in 1988 for radiocarbon dating by AMS) Garza-Valdez obtained a small sample of cloth from the shroud taken from the same area as those used in the AMS measurements. Microscopic examination showed a definite halo or bio-plastic coating of varying thickness around the fibers. The UTHSCSA researchers established that the acid-base-acid cleaning method employed on shroud samples by the three AMS carbon-dating laboratories left the bio-plastic coating intact. They conclude that this coating added Carbon-14 to the Shroud cellulose thus causing the AMS carbon date to be young. How much too young has not yet been established is too early to say and, indeed, will not be easy to establish. Research on the question is continuing.”

Mattingly and Gove and the Carbon 14 Test

“It was a letter to Professor Gove from then BSTS General Secretary the Revd David Sox, sent by Sox from London on 24 June 1977, which started the process by which in April 1988 three AMS laboratories received samples from the Shroud, and on 13 October of that same year delivered their now infamous ‘1260-1390’ radiocarbon dating ‘verdict’. Sox had seen an article in Time magazine describing Gove and his colleagues’ development of the AMS method radiocarbon dating by which much smaller samples than previously could now be dated with much the same reliability. On Gove’s own admission, before his receiving Sox’s June 1977 letter, neither he, nor any other member of his team, had ever even heard of the Shroud. But he responded positively to Sox, whilst sagely remarking that it was ‘probably a bit to soon to apply so recently a developed technique to such a renowned object’. With typical astuteness Gove subsequently kept detailed notes of everything that transpired. And although he himself was not directly involved in the work on the Shroud samples, his role as architect of the AMS method caused the Arizona laboratory invited him to be present when they became the first of the three laboratories to produce a dating result for their Shroud sample, on 6 May 1988. As a result of this experience (which had to be kept secret at the time), and his close involvement with all the political manoeuvrings throughout the preceding eleven years, Gove was well-positioned to write an authoritative book concerning all that he knew. Entitled Relic, Icon or Hoax? Carbon Dating and the Shroud, this proved to be a most unstuffy chronicle of the events, full of pertinent observations on the personalities involved in them, and written with a verve, style and detail worthy of a Samuel Pepys. Gove’s enthusiasm for the method that he had developed undoubtedly led him to make some unwarranted claims for it with reference to the Shroud. His altogether serious declaration that the odds were ‘about one in a thousand trillion’ against the Shroud dating to the time of Jesus might in time be shown to have been more than a little misguided for someone for whom numbers in the zillion carried real meaning. This said, Gove was a good, honest, well-balanced scientist – such that when in September 1994 he attended a Round Table at the University of Texas and was invited to view under a microscope some Shroud threads contaminated by a substantial build-up of microbiological coating, as from repeated handling over the centuries, he readily acknowledged that there certainly seemed to be such a coating present. . But as he can hardly have failed to realise, any further such admissions might damage the reputations, and thereby the livelihoods, of the very radiocarbon laboratories that it had been his life’s work to bring into being. As was generally agreed, it needed 60% degree of contamination for a cloth genuinely of the first century to appear to be from the fourteenth. Specialist microbiologist Professor Stephen Mattingly of the University of Texas, confident that because of the transparency of the micro organisms, such a substantial degree of coating could be present yet all but invisible, decided to artificially prepare sample cloths with such a coating, particularly so that Gove could see for himself the scientific truth of this. As Mattingly takes up the story: I went back and forth with Harry Gove about this and finally sent him two linen samples. One was uncontaminated and the weight was determined and included with the sample. A second sample with near the identical uncontaminated weight was coated with enough bacteria (previously killed by heat) to represent 60% of the dry weight of the linen sample. The contaminated sample was more yellow in color and had a stiffness as previously noted in regard to the Shroud. Harry never corresponded with me again. What he did with the samples, I have no idea. Being a scientist I think he realized that I was correct and he saw no further need to argue with me. I was still a little surprised by his attitude…1 Despite the passing of several years Gove not only failed to respond to Mattingly, he also never returned the samples. As a result of this, in my view uncharacteristic behaviour on Gove’s part, on 15 January of this year I wrote to Gove, who had always been courteous and forthcoming in his responses to me over the years, enquiring whether he still had Mattingly’s samples, and whether he might now be willing to comment on the issue. Sadly, I had left the pursuit of the enquiry too late. For there was no reply from him, and less than five weeks later he was dead.”

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