While periodic claims continue to surface purporting to debunk the Shroud of Turin as a hoax — including one made earlier this year by an Idaho academic — one local scientist has no doubt that the cloth covered the crucified Christ and has survived intact for nearly two millennia.

Eugenia Nitowski, an archaeologist and former nun, bases her conclusion as much on science as on faith: The shroud's existence has forced science to seriously debate the Resurrection of Jesus.

In 1986, Nitowski conducted one of many experiments now referenced by shroud scholars in trying to determine whether the cloth — a linen containing the image of a man who had been brutally scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified with spikes through his wrists and feet, and speared in the side before death — was Christ's burial shroud. (See story below.)

The fine-twined linen Shroud of Turin, approximately 14 feet, 3 inches long by 3 feet, 7 inches wide, has been one of the most closely scrutinized religious icons in history. Owned and conserved by the Roman Catholic Church, it is housed in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Torino (or Turin), Italy — in the news most recently as the next host of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

Just as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became a focal point of news media coverage during the Winter Games here three years ago, the Catholic faith and Turino's famous artifact will no doubt be part of the story during the 2006 Games.

Though a couple of strokes and failing eyesight have left her unable to actively research with the so-called "shroud crowd," Nitowski will likely be among Utahns watching from afar, curious about any new discussion of the cloth she believes covered Jesus Christ.

Nitowski's efforts to re-create the conditions that would have existed inside an excavated Middle Eastern stone burial chamber have since been cited as another piece of evidence that places the shroud in first-century Jerusalem.

"We rented a tomb there for two weeks," on the grounds of the French School of Architecture in Jerusalem, said Nitowski, who has a bachelor's degree in biblical languages and history, master's degrees in biblical archaeology and medieval history and a doctorate from Notre Dame in medieval history.

As a Middle Eastern archaeologist, Nitowski told the Deseret Morning News, she had previously excavated 17 tombs and knew "pretty well what the environment was like," including the first one she'd ever worked on — a "rolling stone tomb dated to the time of Christ."

While she was working inside, a fellow worker rolled the stone closed, encasing her in stony darkness and silence, she said. She found a bench that lined the walls of the tomb's central chamber and lay down on it, enjoying the cool stone wall's feel against her face. As she did so, she thought about the temperature inside and later began digging into literature on the Shroud of Turin and whether anyone had tried to determine the temperature inside Christ's tomb.

A resulting article, "New Evidence May Explain Image on Shroud of Turin," published in Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1986, was co-written with a researcher named Joseph Kohlbeck.

Kohlbeck was listed as a resident scientist at Utah's Hercules Aerospace Center. It was reported that Kohlbeck, with assistance from Richard Levi-Setti of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago, compared dirt from the shroud to travertine aragonite limestone found in ancient Jewish tombs in Israel.

Kohlbeck's dust particles were taken from sticky tape samples that researcher Ray Rogers, from the 1978 shroud investigation team, had taken from the Shroud of Turin and compared with Nitowski's samples.

According to several scholarly papers and a book by author Ian Wilson called "The Blood and the Shroud," the particles of dirt on the Shroud of Turin provided a close chemical match to the samples Nitowski took from the tombs. At the time, Kohlbeck acknowledged that his work was not proof that the shroud was in Jerusalem and that there might be other places in the world where aragonite has the identical chemical composition.

Barrie Schwortz, a Jewish researcher and member of the original 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) team, said his knowledge of research on the shroud leads him to believe the image on the cloth "is not the product of a scorch," even a very mild one like Nitowski described.

"There are many known scorches on the Shroud from the fire in 1532. Scorched linen will fluoresce, and as expected, the scorched images (on the shroud) do show fluorescence, but it's not a product of heated linen in the image the way a scorch would be. I believe there is ample scientific evidence to support that."

Schwortz now owns and operates an active Web site on the shroud, www.shroud.com. He said he believes the shroud is most likely authentic, but moving from skeptical science to active advocacy of that position took him about 18 years of study.

"I became an advocate based on direct involvement and personal examination of the cloth. I expected to see the brush strokes (that many have speculated were used to paint the image) and come home. But there is no paint. This is not a painting. Then it became a question of what is it."

For him, science became advocacy "when the weight of all the science together leads in one direction. I believe that's the case with the exception of the radiocarbon dating."

In 1988, three separate laboratories tested a small section of fiber from the shroud and dated it to medieval times, yet "all of the other evidence was pointing the other way," Schwortz said. At the time, many serious scholars dismissed the shroud as a fake, but earlier this year, Schwortz said a fellow shroud researcher who was part of the STURP team produced evidence that the sample used in radiocarbon dating experiments was actually taken from a part of the cloth that had been woven in to repair the shroud, meaning the sample was not a part of the original fabric.

To date, no access has been granted by the shroud's conservators to do another radiocarbon sample.

"I'm pretty convinced now the best explanation is that it is what we think it is," said Schwortz, who is Jewish and claims neither religious nor personal stake in the outcome. "I've spent years and years of studying this thing and doing everything in my power to find it's not some kind of medieval fake or forgery. Why is it so hard to accept that we could have an artifact of the historical Jesus? I would think that would be welcome."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com