David Rolfe with cameramen David Crute (L) and Mark Lewis (R) filming the Shroud in 2009 for the film "Material Evidence" for the BBC. This is the only time the Turin authorities have allowed the Shroud to be filmed removed from its bomb-proof case.
This story starts in 1974 when, having graduated from the London Film School three years earlier, I was earning a precarious living making what were known as "sponsored films" mainly for civil engineerings companies. I was anxious to get something substantial to get my teeth into and advertised for documentary ideas. A historian, Ian Wilson, was working on a book on the history of the Shroud and sent me some information and, more importantly, the image of the face which I'd never seen before. Indeed, I'd never even heard of the Shroud but I was hooked. Whatever it was - it was the oldest and strangest "photograph" in the world. That would have to make a good story. I'll now leap forward three years. Two of which I took to raise the money for the film and the third to make it. It was quite an adventure. I called the film "The Silent Witness".
By February 1977 the film was finished but I could not sell it for anything like it had cost to make. Hard to imagine but there were only two TV networks in the UK then. The film was about an obscure relic and there were limits on what their effective "cartel" would allow them to pay. In some desperation, I found enough money to rent a cinema in the West End of London for 6 weeks. There was no money left for publicity but, in return for an exclusive, the Sunday Times magazine promised me the front page for the Easter Sunday edition. Everything would depend on it. The film would open on the following day.
A few days before the Easter weekend a Fleet Street strike was called. There would be no papers at all over the weekend. I thought I was finished and I would have been but for the fact that, being colour, the magazine went to press many days earlier than the rest of the paper. Come Easter Sunday, the only thing available in the newsagents was the magazine. And, it was free! On Easter Monday the queue to see the film went 100 metres down Piccadilly. For the six-week period the film outgrossed Saturday Night Fever. Within 10 days the film was sold around the world and both UK TV networks were fighting over it. It also picked up that year’s BAFTA for best feature documentary.
In those pre-internet days my research for the film had discovered groups of scientists and scholars from all over the world - unknown to each other - who were all working on different aspects of the story. Aspects that dovetailed into the film to paint a coherent picture of a very remarkable phenomenon. The publicity, particularly in Italy, paved the way for the first ever in-depth scientific examination of the cloth which took place the following year. It was led by an American/Italian team, several of whom had appeared in the film. They were known as STuRP - Shroud of Turin Research Project. Their study, illustrated below, confirmed that, whatever it was, the Shroud was not the readily detectable medieval forgery many had assumed. Far from it. It appeared to be - (and still is) - a unique artefact with no equivalent from any age and with no explanation at all for its multifaceted image and forensic accuracy. And the blood image was real blood. Even the sceptical and secular began to take note.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in a cave by the Dead Sea, had been an early success for the newly developed C14 test that could date organic material by measuring the relative decay of the C14 isotope relative to C12. A clamour grew for the Shroud to be subjected to this new and cutting edge science. After sustained pressure, and with some justified optimism for a 2000 year-old date, the Church agreed. The press could not help themselves and billed it as "Science v's Religion".
After the surprise success of The Silent Witness My contacts with Turin were good. The BBC asked me to make a film about C14 test and watch it unfold in real time. My proposal for the film stipulated, in accordance with Turin's own insistence, that the test would be performed blind alongside control samples. This would allow Turin to publish all the results to coincide with the broadcast of the film. Turin assumed, mistakenly, that the world of C14 was driven only by scientific objectivity and academic rigour. In practice, as is now well documented*, the seven capable labs fought vehemently behind the scenes to be chosen for the task. Commercial supremacy - even survival - in a very competitive field was at stake. They knew this event would create even bigger headlines and prestige than the dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
* See "The Quantum Christ" by New York Lawyer, John Klotz.
I watched, at close hand, how the internecine machinations of the competing C14 labs resulted in the removal of STuRP from the exercise and the abandonment of the protocols agreed to ensure a definitive result. The labs soon discovered that a blind test would not be possible as it was impossible to find a medieval linen cloth with the same weave as the Shroud. With STuRP excluded from the process there would be no one qualified to select a sample area known to be free from repair or contamination. I withdrew my proposal knowing I could not fulfil my assurances to the BBC. And, sure enough, when the test went ahead, the only sample was taken from the worst possible place on the cloth. When the medieval date was announced no mention was made of the compromises made. The Shroud of Turin was effectively finished for any further serious consideration and has been ever since.
(Place cursor over image above to see detail of weave.) Prof. Michael Tite, The British Museum independent test supervisor could not find a medieval cloth with the same ancient herringbone weave as the Shroud. This meant that a blind test would be impossible. This was not revealed with the results.
Please read the highlighted text which quotes the late Professor Edward Hall, Head of the Oxford C14 Laboratory at the time. Note the "measured, scientific and dispassionate" tone he adopts. However, for some reason, he omits to point out that for diverse reasons - under the auspices of the "independent"* supervisor of the test, Professor Michael Tite, the five key protocols agreed with the Turin authorities to ensure a definitive had all been abandoned. Although Hall claimed a victory of science over religion the fact is - as my new film "A Grave Injustice" makes clear - despite the very best intentions of the Church in allowing it, the test had been shoddily and very unscientifically undertaken.
* The rigorous independence required for the role of supervisor for the test was entrusted to Michael Tite in his capacity, then, as Head of Research at The British Museum. The extent of this independence has been called into question by Harry Gove, a pioneer of C14 and head of one of the rejected C14 labs. He relates in a book how he became aware that during the run up to the test, Michael Tite was in discussion with Edward Hall about a position at Oxford.
Although, for a while, the world had began to wonder, the blunt and dismissive way the results were announced killed interest in the subject almost stone dead. The secular and even the religious press had no interest in interrogating the process and the Shroud, slowly but surely, disappeared below the radar so as to become almost unknown today.
In the last ten years I have made three further films that have drawn attention to the fact that the C14 date looks more and more like an outlier against a collection of newly discovered historical and scientific information. In one made in 2009 for the BBC, the current head of the Oxford Radiocarbon Unit, Professor Christopher Ramsey, conceded that there is competing evidence with which the C14 test must somehow be reconciled.
A clip from "Material Evidence - The Shroud of Turin". An extract from an interview with Prof. Christopher Ramsey, Head of Oxford's Radio Carbon Unit. (This film is available to view by following the Supporters Page link below and on DVD in the USA and Canada from Ignatius Press.)
Despite this very late acknowledgement that there may remain a question mark over the date, it has cut very little ice with a disinterested media and a very wary world of academia and scholarship. For them, the battle between science and religion is over and religion lost. It is almost as if it is "taboo" to resurrect it. The Shroud is "tainted" by association with the centuries when the contents of a reliquary often turned out to be fakery. The clergy, too, approach the subject with justifiable caution. For "Material Evidence" I used the Orthodox Cathedral in West London as a location for a reconstruction sequence. The Archdeacon enquired what our film was about. "Ah." He said, with a long sigh. "What a disappointment that was."
One of the most powerful sequences in The Silent Witness was when Professors John Jackson and Eric Jumper from the US Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs demonstrated the 3D properties encoded in the Shroud's image.
Below, Frenchman, Thierry Castex has used more sophisticated equipment to take this phenomenon to the next level. Not bad for a medieval forger, who, according Professor Edward Hall, "…just faked it up and flogged it".
On these images you can see perhaps the most compelling aspect of the Shroud's claim to authenticity. No medieval forger who hoped to make a sale would have depicted Christ naked. Even when copies of the Shroud were made throughout the centuries a loin cloth has always been added. (See below). That is how the Romans carried out such punishments. Maximum humiliation was combined with maximum pain.
I hope this has whetted your appetite to find out more or, perhaps, to come to one of my talks or even book one for your own organisation. Just email me using the "Contact Link" on any page. Feedback or comment on what you have seen and read would also be welcome.
…is to get justice for the Shroud of Turin. With your help we will campaign to get the Shroud the recognition it deserves as a genuine mystery. It is up to those who have condemned it to obscurity to demonstrate how it could be a medieval creation.