Do we know of other ancient burial shrouds? Yes, we do. There are a number of ancient burial cloths in existence, but there are no known other intact cloths from Israel from that period. It was the practice in Israel to give the remains a secondary burial after about a year. At that time, the bones would be gathered and placed in a small stone ossuary (covered box) so that the tomb could be used again. Cloths were not placed in the ossuary. In any event, burial cloths from Israel would have deteriorated because embalming was not practiced. Some ancient burial shrouds from Egypt and other places are contemporary with the Shroud of Turin (i.e., about two thousand years old), some considerably older. They, too, are of linen, but usually have a plain weave instead of the three/one herringbone weave of the Shroud of Turin.
Are there images on these other ancient burial cloths? No. Egyptologists and other curators have studied and preserved these cloths and report that they have no image of any kind. There are smudges and stains of various kinds, but no images. Thus, the Shroud of Turin is a unique object, unlike anything else known.
How was the Shroud of Turin wrapped around the body, and was it the only burial cloth? In the Gospel of Matthew 27:59 (all Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version), we are told that “. . . Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth. . . .” The Gospel of Mark 15:46 says “. . . Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth . . .” The Gospel of Luke 23:53 records “. . . wrapped it (the body of Jesus) in a linen cloth. . . .” The Gospel of John mentioned more than one cloth. In 19:40, he recorded “. . . wrapped it (the body of Jesus) with spices in linen cloths . . .,” and again in 20:5-7 he wrote of “linen wrappings” and “. . . the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”
By the images on the Shroud, we know that the body enclosed in the Shroud of Turin was not wrapped mummy style. This is confusing to some people who, remembering the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead in the eleventh chapter of John in which Jesus commands that Lazarus be unbound, assume that the burial practices included the wrapping of the body like a mummy. This type of wrapping was not a part of the usual Jewish enshroudment practice of the time. They ordinarily used simple shrouds which were held close to the body by tying narrow cloth bands around the shroud-enclosed body at the feet, arms, and neck. The unbinding of Lazarus, therefore, would have been the removing of these narrow cloth bands. In the case of the Shroud, half of a long length of cloth was stretched out, presumably on a stone ledge in a tomb. The body was placed on the cloth, and the other half of the cloth was folded over the head and down to cover the feet. Because the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown and burials were not allowed on the Sabbath, Jesus’ burial was a hasty one without time to complete all of the usual ministrations to the body. Some of his followers planned to return early on the day following the Sabbath to complete the preparations for burial. They did return at the appointed time, but they never completed the ritual task because the body was no longer there, only the collapsed burial cloth.
Is there any evidence on the Shroud for more than one cloth? After all, the Gospel of John mentions linen wrappings. If this is indeed the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, should there not be more than one cloth? The answer is that, yes, there is evidence on the Shroud itself for other cloths: definitely a chin band and a modesty cloth, probably a wrist band, and possibly a band around the ankles. The wrist and ankle bands mentioned here were tied directly on the body to hold the arms and legs in place, and are not the same as those regularly used to secure the burial shroud close to the body.
It was customary at the time of death to tie the mouth shut. Evidence for the presence of a chin band can be seen most clearly on either side of the face between the face and the hair where there are areas with no image or stains. We feel the absence of stains or image was caused by the presence of the chin band. The beard also is horizontally divided where the band was placed under the chin. On the top of the head, there are faint markings that indicate the presence of a band and even of the knot by which the band was secured. We think that the band was probably about an inch and one-half to two inches wide and that it was wrapped around twice and then tied on top of the head.
The wrist band is less easy to see, but there are faint images that do indicate the presence of such a band. For the hands and arms to remain positioned as the Shroud image shows, it would have been necessary to tie the wrists together with the left thumb hooked under the right wrist. Pathologists who have studied the body image carefully have concluded that the body experienced cadaveric spasm (a type of nearly instantaneous rigor mortis) at the time of death, so the arms would have remained as they were positioned on the cross, i.e., outspread, unless secured otherwise. Although the positions of the feet and legs of the body images are probably close to their positions on the cross, it is possible that there is a band around the ankles also. Markings of the images do suggest this, but it is difficult to determine for sure.
The other cloth that was placed on the body within the Shroud as part of the burial preparations was a modesty cloth seen on the frontal image and is a rectangular object extending from below the waist to just above the knees. It measures approximately six by nine inches and partially covers the base of the anatomic (refers to body anatomy) right small finger. The cloth appears partially folded over on itself vertically so that its original dimensions were about nine by nine inches.
There was yet another cloth intimately connected with Christ’s burial which was placed in the tomb but not within the Shroud. Remember in the Gospel of John there is mention of “. . . the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” This cloth is known as the Sudarium (face cloth) of Oviedo, and it has been in the Cathedral of Oviedo in Oviedo, Spain, since the mid-eighth century. Its history is known, and is different from that of the Shroud. The Sudarium stayed in Jerusalem until A.D. 614, when it began to be moved from place to place just ahead of conquering Persian armies. It was taken first to Alexandria in North Africa, from there to Cartagena in Spain, then to Toledo, and from there finally to safety in the Cathedral of Oviedo, where it has been kept without interruption since the mid-eighth century. It is kept in a beautifully decorated reliquary in a room known as the “Camara Santa,” which also contains other relics, and is taken out for viewing much more frequently than is the Shroud of Turin. The Sudarium is very highly venerated, and has been studied with great care and competence by the Spanish group Centro Español de Sindonologia (CES—Spanish Center of Sindonology, study of burial cloths). Like many Shroud researchers, we have compared the bloodstains on the Sudarium with those on the Shroud.
The Sudarium is a linen cloth measuring two feet nine inches by one foot nine inches. It was likely wrapped around Jesus’ head as he was transported from the place of crucifixion to the tomb. There are bloodstains on the area which covered the back of the head and neck, and double bloodstains (almost identical stains facing each other, as in a Rorschach-type stain) on areas which covered the face. One end of the Sudarium was placed under the head, and it was then wrapped around over the face and folded back upon itself so that the face was covered by two layers.
Overlay studies of the Sudarium and the Shroud blood pattern congruency. There are over seventy congruent bloodstains on the face portion and over fifty congruent bloodstains on the back of the head and neck. While a number of the bloodstains are faint, many are large and obvious, and some are quite dark.
These bloodstain patterns are so strikingly similar that they could have been formed only by both cloths being in touch with the same body. The stains on the Sudarium are more extensive, especially in the mouth and nose areas, indicating that the Sudarium was put on the body first while the blood was more fluid. This is consistent with the Jewish custom of covering the face of the deceased with a small cloth while burial preparations were being made if the face were disfigured or wounded. This was done as a mark of respect. The small cloth would be removed before enshroudment and, because it had blood on it, would be placed in the tomb. Life was considered to be in the blood, and it was customary for anything having lifeblood on it to be entombed with the body.
The stains on the Sudarium face area are found without interruption from the hair on one side across to the hair on the other side. This is different from the stains on the Shroud face image. On the Shroud, there are stain-free areas on each side of the face where the chin band encircled the face. We know, therefore, that, as was consistent with Jewish custom, the Sudarium was put on first and then removed before the chin band was tied in place. Since there are no body images on the Sudarium, we know that it was not put back over the face and then enshrouded with the body, but was placed in the tomb by itself.
There is a large, relatively stain-free area on the Sudarium which corresponds to the middle and right anatomic forehead area. There is a large bloodstain in the shape of a reversed number three and other bloodstains on the Shroud in the same area. We speculate that some thorns from the crown of thorns were broken off and may not have been removed at the time the Sudarium was put in place. These would have held the cloth at that place a little distance away from the body. Perhaps the explanation for the large blood flow and other stains found on the Shroud at that location is that the thorns were removed just prior to enshroudment, causing bleeding which the Shroud fabric absorbed. On the body side of the Sudarium in the middle of the forehead area is an image which looks like an upside down “Y.” Interestingly, this is almost exactly the length of the Gundelia tournefortii thorn that made up most of the crown of thorns, which we know from pollen analysis.