The socio-politic of a relic: carbon dating the Turin Shroud

  • H. Laverdiere

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The Michelin guide to Italy gives it 3 stars. It is probably the most widely known Christian relic. It is kept in a brownish chapel in Turin's Cathedral, next to the Palazzo Reale. The present Pope, John Paul II, is said to have a longstanding special interest in it. On the few occasions when it has been displayed in the last centuries, millions of visitors have been to view it. Dominique Lapierre, when relating his experience of working and living with the poor in Calcutta (cf. La Cite de la Joie), described its image as the sustaining force which enabled him to cope with his hardship. It has also attracted some attention from less Christian groups, like, for example, the Rolling Stones Magazine, which had an article on it, titled The first Polaroid in Palestine. There was even a musical about it, on 52nd Street, New York.

It is the Shroud of Turin. It has a long history of scientific testing, a fact about which both the proponents of its authenticity and the disclaimers agree.

This thesis deals with the scientific investigation it generated and more specifically the carbon dating test which was performed in 1988 and was seen by most as the test to end all tests. It deals with it from the point of view of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (S.S.K.).

Since the beginning of the 1970s, S.S.K. has provided a new way of looking at scientific controversies. In this perspective science is treated not as a neutral dispenser of ‘truths’ but as a means of mediating the apprehension of the world. The impetus, and legitimacy, for such a move came mostly from the works of Wittgenstein, underlying the historicity of scientific and logical laws (but see also Bachelard and Canguillhem) and the works of Kuhn, showing the role of paradigms. Within the new perspective, science emerged as a cultural activity, where the ‘cultural’ aspects could no longer be seen as ‘defects’ but as an integral part of the activity, as tools for the ordering of what we know as reality.

Date of Award1989
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath

Cite this