Did a biological polymer throw off the carbon dating?

Few think so. Unfortunately, this speculative explanation for why the carbon dating might have been wrong received a considerable amount of undue attention after Harry E. Gove of the University of Rochester, one of the significant players in the development of Mass Spectrometry Analysis for carbon dating, wrote, “There is a bioplastic coating on some threads, maybe most. . . . [if thick enough it] would make the fabric sample seem younger than it should be.”

Thick enough? An error of 1300 years resulting from bacterial contamination would have required a layer approximately doubling weight of the tested samples. Moreover:

  • Biological polymers do not obtain their carbon from the atmosphere but from their host. That would have been the fibers of the cloth. Thus the bioplastic would have had the same carbon 14 ratios as the Shroud and this would not affect the dating.
  • Using highly sensitive pyrolysis-mass-spectrometry, scientists at the National Science Foundation Mass Spectrometry Center of Excellence at the University of Nebraska could not detect any such polymers on Shroud fibers.

Some have argued that the corner from which the sample was taken would have been handled more often than other parts of the Shroud, increasing the likelihood of contamination by bacteria and bacterial residue. Bacteria and associated residue (bacteria by-products and dead bacteria) carry additional carbon and would skew the radiocarbon date toward the present. So far, this is only an argument and there is no evidence to support this contention.

For the most part, serious Shroud researchers do not take this argument seriously.

What was the reaction to the 1988 carbon dating?

When the carbon dating results for the shroud of Turin were announced. many who already were convinced (or hoped) it was a fake, were gleeful. But those who had become convinced from the avalanche of historical and other scientific evidence—some of it good and some of it bad, some of it interpreted one way or another—were sure that there must be something wrong with the carbon dating. They argued so. And they expressed their frustration.

Physicist Peter Carr would later write words that expressed that frustration.

When the testing was complete, the scientist reported their findings . . . giving the age as 1260 to 1390, therefore the cloth was mediaeval. This was the limit to their remit, to date the cloth. But they exceeded their remit by making comments about the nature of the cloth, ie that the shroud was a mediaeval forgery. In making such a sweeping statement, they showed complete arrogance of other disciplines and a blind faith in a piece of technology. No self respecting scientist would be so bold. They ignored, or were ignorant of the wealth of historical information that shows that a cloth of some form has been in existence for many centuries, and it predates the carbon dates. The carbon dating information should have been presented along side all other information, and an objective discussion taken place.

If arrogance was a strong word to use, it seemed justified. The official press conference to announce the results really didn’t go beyond the boundaries of science. Journalists did that. The photograph that appeared along with the story told the story. There were three people in the picture. There was Teddy (Edward Thomas) Hall, the director of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford who had previously played a significant role in exposing the Piltdown Man hoax.  There was Robert Hedges also from Oxford and Michael Tite of the British Museum. The dates 1260 to 1390 with a big explanation mark were written on the blackboard behind them. The faces and the body language seemed arrogant, at least to those who are not happy with the announcement. Perhaps there was nothing of the sort in those faces or in the way Hall crossed his arms in front of his chest. Perhaps it was an unfortunate Kodak moment.

But it wasn’t the frustration steeped with emotion that caused people to question the carbon dating. The picture in the Hungarian Pray Codex, the very convincing history from Constantinople, the apparent pollen data, the mysterious and so far inexplicable image characteristics, the forensic pathology all combined to trigger a cascade of research.

Carbon Dating in 1988

Cutting the Shroud of Turin for carbon dating

It happened in 1988. The Shroud of Turin was carbon dated. After the results had been leaked, twenty-one scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, the Institut für Mittelenergiephysik in Zurich, Columbia University, and the British Museum wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in Nature in 1989:

The results of radiocarbon measurements at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich yield a calibrated calendar age range with at least 95% confidence for the linen of the Shroud of Turin of AD 1260 – 1390 (rounded down/up to nearest 10 yr). These results therefore provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval. How can anyone argue with this? The radiocarbon measurements were done, not at one laboratory, but at three highly regarded institutions. The authors are emphatic. The results provide not just evidence but conclusive evidence. Does this not suffice to answer the students’ questions?

Craziness ensued. One explanation after another was offered. Finally Ray Rogers, who had accepted the carbon dating, decided to disprove a crazy explanation from what he called the lunatic fringe. The crazy idea was that the Shroud had been mended and the samples were from that mending job. What Rogers discovered was that the crazy idea seemed to be right. He concluded that the sample used for carbon dating was not representative of the cloth. It was chemically different. Moreover, one of the chemical differences, the amount of vanillin, provided a new clue about the cloth’s age. Samples from the main part of the cloth, unlike the carbon 14 sample area, did not contain any vanillin. If the shroud was only as old as the radiocarbon date, it would have plentiful vanillin.  The Shroud was at least twice as old. It might be 2000 years old. After a lengthy peer review process, his findings that the carbon dating was wholly invalid were published in the scientific journal Thermochimica Acta.

Rogers’ published work showing that the carbon dating is invalid has been confirmed by John L Brown, a forensic materials specialist at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia and by Robert Villarreal and a team of nine scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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