Thanks to the reputation of the man it is said to have covered, there is always likely to be controversy over the origins of the Turin Shroud. The "negative" image of the bearded face will forever be associated with the popular image of Jesus Christ. Radio-carbon dating identified the cloth as medieval more than a decade ago, but, desperate not to lose the Shroud’s religious significance as one of the world’s most potent relics, many people continue to challenge this scientific evidence.
One of the most recent explanations of the Shroud’s history, however, does not question the findings. The claimants agree that the fabric, with its curiously imprinted image, is medieval. Where they differ from all the previous research, however, is over the identity of the Shroud’s former occupant, and their conclusions are bound to provoke heated debate.
Bradford University lecturer Robert Lomas and colleague Christopher Knight claim they can link science and history to prove that the face on the shroud is that of a priest whose followers helped Scotland to win independence from England in the 14th century.
"The scientific facts leave me in no doubt," says Dr Lomas, a physicist who now lectures in Information Systems. "The cloth was used to wrap Jacques de Molay, the leader of a monastic order known as the Knights Templar and whose followers were given refuge by Robert the Bruce."
The idea, he says, might sound far fetched, but he’s confident it would stand up in court against the original claim.
"For a start, the radiocarbon dates fit. Also, de Molay was neither dead nor resurrected. The person in that shroud had to be alive to produce the image."
The image on the Turin Shroud is, it seems, only on the surface of the fabric and has been described by independent sources as "a series of tiny scorch marks".
Lomas maintains the image on the shroud was created through a process known as the Volckringer effect, where heat, sweat, acids and oxygen-free radicals scorch the cloth. A paper recently published by Dr AA Mills from Leicester University appears to back up this theory. It shows how extreme conditions, such as a body under torture, force oxygen atoms apart to give off pinpricks of atomic energy.
"In stable conditions oxygen atoms are bonded in pairs," says Lomas, "but lactic acid being released from muscle tissue under extreme stress would cause an unstable reaction. The marks on the shroud are pixelated - thousands of dots scorched on the cloth."
This, he says, causes an image like a photographic negative - although he stresses that forms of primitive photography using chemicals like silver nitrate are not an issue here, despite some well-publicised theories involving the creative genius of Leonardo da Vinci.
"Apart from the fact that the shroud was first publicly displayed 100 years before da Vinci was born, any photographic-type image of a full length body would produce a foreshortened result, and the figure on the shroud is distorted the opposite way, with strangely long arms."
But what if Christ himself wasn’t dead? argue those who might concede a death and resurrection scenario but point out that a potion to slow down metabolism and simulate death might have been administered through the wine/vinegar said to have been given to Christ on the cross. Theories suggest that because death during crucifixion comes about through asphyxiation - the lungs can’t inflate - the hole pierced in Christ’s side was to relieve the fluid pressure building up in his chest and keep him alive as long as possible.
"Nope," says Lomas. "We spent a lot of time on that one, too, and the blood flow doesn’t fit with the Roman style of crucifixion. We carried out experiments ourselves and had the help of notes and illustrations from an early 20th-century Parisian surgeon. He had a shroud fixation and had plenty of access to methods of proving blood flow theories which were denied us."
It appears that the victim in the shroud had been nailed up with his right arm over his head and his left arm thrown out sideways. According to the blood flow on the lower arms of the image, and a dislocated thumb and right shoulder (which have been verified by medical experts), Lomas has worked out that the victim in the shroud was crucified by nailing him to a door which was slammed open and shut, causing excruciating pain. On the point of death, when he was taken down, soaring temperature and sweat would have produced metabolic acidosis - with lactic acid causing a fibril yellowing reaction on the cloth.
An intriguing theory expounded by Dr Mills is that the initial energy release would have set in motion an extremely slow chain reaction. If the cloth were kept in a dark place with a good oxygen supply that reaction would continue to darken the affected fibrils until it had run its course, after which the image would begin to fade (also very slowly). Rumours of the shroud mysteriously fading have been circulating recently, though no source will confirm it.
"Interesting to see that where there were blood clots, the linen had been protected from that yellowing reaction," notes Lomas, who agrees with those who say the cloth was a sophisticated weave unknown at the time of Christ (and bearing traces of European holm oak). It should, he reckons, be virtually an open and shut case even without the radiocarbon dating results arrived at by three independent laboratories.
But QED is not likely to follow this particular mathematical equation - it is simply too passionate an issue to be brushed off by pragmatists. Serious doubts on the validity of the carbon dating have been expressed by a team from the University of Texas led by Dr Leoncio Gardez-Valdez, who held the chair of microbiology at the university’s Health Sciences Centre. They say the samples used for dating were contaminated by a microbe build up which created a form of bioplastic coating on the fibres of the shroud. The contamination has been proved, they claim, to be completely resistant to the cleansing methods used by the three laboratories who did the carbon dating. The end result? Such a gross distortion of results that the age and authenticity of this relic is still open to question.
Others query the analysis of the cloth and support forensic tests on the threads which claim the material was woven in the Middle East (the presence of a particularly specific cotton - gossypium hebaceum - is significant here).
Conspiracy theories surrounding the radiocarbon dating are still rife 12 years on. A particularly interesting argument lobs the ball back to the Church with accusations that discrediting the authenticity of the shroud is in Christianity’s own interest because the results prove Jesus was still alive when he was taken down from the cross.
Knight and Lomas are not for turning. They dismiss any notion that three academic laboratories with worldwide reputations would put these at risk, then they trash the bioplastic coating argument.
"The microbe build-up is only on some parts of the shroud," says Lomas "and we’re not asking anybody to take our word for it, so I’ll quote Professor Harry Grove, the co-inventor of the accelerator mass spectrometry method of radiocarbon dating, who says, ‘It may be that the bioplastic coating will change the shroud date somewhat. My bet is that it is unlikely to do so by more than 100 years or so."
And Lomas is not content to let sleeping dogs, priests or messiahs lie. His latest task has been assimilating all the information available on the bioplastic coating and using new calibration methods based on dendrochronology (tree ring data) to calculate the growth and death rates of the microbes and subtract them from the thickness of the coating. He says the net result shows the flax was living between 1013 and 1143 AD.
"It’s not old enough to be anything but a medieval artefact, so QED it damned well is, as far as I’m concerned."
Knight, who studies social behaviour and belief systems, says the shroud would have been de Molay’s own. "Templars were part of the pre-Christian Jerusalem Church which carried out symbolic death and resurrection ceremonies. Priests in the order would carry shrouds for this purpose." When they were denounced as heretics by Pope Clement in 1307, hundreds of Templars in France were rounded up and tortured by the Paris Inquisition.
"De Molay was accused of denying the divinity of Christ so it’s logical that they would have subjected him to a re-enactment of the suffering of Christ - including a copycat crucifixion," says Lomas. "The final act of mockery would have been to use his own shroud."
Meanwhile, so legend has it, many Templars fled to Scotland, where Robert the Bruce gave them refuge. The Scottish warlord had been excommunicated by Pope Clement in 1305 because when Bruce’s rival John Comyn had run into a church to seek sanctuary, he hadn’t let that interfere with his primary purpose and summarily dispatched him in front of the altar.
In 1309, Templar vessels are said to have landed on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, not far from Bruce’s stronghold near Stirling. Remains found in the 1990s during excavations on an ancient monastic settlement on the island, included a skeleton with a cockle shell placed between the teeth. The cockle shell was a secret symbol showing membership of the Knights of Santiago - an order formed at the time of Templar persecution in France. Former Templars were affiliated to the new order by swearing allegiance to the Spanish crown. The ships landing at the Isle of May were said to have sailed from Portugal, another safe haven.
In 1314, three months after de Molay was finally put to death, Bruce made his stand at Bannockburn. Tradition has it that towards the end he was heavily outnumbered when a fresh force of horsemen appeared and routed the English. Several versions of the story tell of the "Beauseant" (the Templar war banner) flying as they charged.
According to family records of the St Clairs of Roslin, William de St Clair was part of that charge. He went on, it is said, to become leader of the Scottish Knights Templar after Bannockburn and one of his titles - again according to family records - was "Knight of the Cockle".
As for de Molay, there is no recorded mention of the shroud until it was publicly shown for the first time in 1357 in the French town of Lirey by the widow of Geoffrey de Charnay. His uncle had been a Templar and had been burnt to death together with Jaques de Molay in 1314. "Coincidental or what?" says Lomas.