Shroud forgery? Not so fast, say scientists

Rome, Italy - The radiocarbon dating that concluded the Shroud of Turin was a medieval forgery has been called into question by a new study published by the Italian Society of Statistics claiming the results contain huge inconsistencies.

The article – authored by three Italian university-based statisticians and a professor of statistics from the London School of Economics – was published in Italian April 7 in the magazine of the Italian Statistical Society.

The authors challenged the results of the 1988 radiocarbon testing performed at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and published in 1989 in Nature magazine. They charged that upon subsequent, more thorough testing the results failed to reach the level of statistical significance needed to establish with 95 percent confidence – as was originally claimed from the 1988 tests – that the Shroud of Turin was a medieval creation.

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Moreover, the authors charged that the 1988 radiocarbon tests failed to take into consideration pollution on the shroud, both from plant life from the many locations it had travelled and from centuries of contact with human hands. They point out that even Nobel Prize chemist Willard Frank Libby, the creator of the carbon-14 dating method, had warned such factors could contaminate the results.

The statisticians further detected a "systematic contamination" in the samples of the shroud selected for radiocarbon dating tests that could have produced in the results of all three laboratories a "non-negligible error" that accounted for a wide variety of dates being produced from the samples tested at the three laboratories, ranging from A.D. 1260 to 1390.

Medieval reweaving

The conclusions coincide with other independent scientific research that suggests the samples taken in 1988 from the edge of the shroud may have been contaminated by expert medieval reweaving.

A scientific paper was published in 2005 by the late Ray Rogers, a chemist with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and a member of the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project, said that after a fire in 1532 nearly destroyed the shroud, French Poor Clare nuns repaired it by adding 16 burn patches. The nuns stitched a reinforcing cloth to the back of the shroud that is known as the Holland cloth.

The nuns were able to repair the edges of the shroud by expertly reweaving with cotton much of the damage the fire did to the original linen cloth.

Rogers was able to detect under a microscope the reweaving, because the cotton had been dyed to match the linen. The fibers could be distinguished in the reweaving at the edges of the shroud, because linen is resistant to dye, while cotton is not.

Rogers' paper made an impact on the Shroud of Turin research community worldwide, because immediately after the results of the 1988 radiocarbon dating were made public, he was a leading voice asserting the shroud was a medieval forgery.

Just before he died, Rogers expressed his views in a video interview recorded with Barrie Schwortz, the official photographer of the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project. Rogers concluded the combination of 16th century cotton and first century linen skewed the 1988 radiocarbon dating tests.

He also examined the rate of loss of vanillin in the linen fibers of the shroud.

Vanillin disappears in the thermal decomposition of lignin, a complex polymer in the cells of the flax plants used to make linen.

Rogers concluded in his 2005 paper that the linen in the main body of the shroud had lost vanillin, much like the Dead Sea scroll linens, suggesting the shroud itself is much older than the radiocarbon dating had suggested, very possibly reaching back 2,000 years to the time of Jesus Christ.