A new French-Italian study on the Shroud of Turin throws doubt on what many thought was the definitive dating of the cloth believed by millions to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
This latest two-year study was headed and funded by French independent researcher Tristan Casabianca, with a team of Italian researchers and scientists: Emanuela Marinelli, who has written extensively about the shroud; Giuseppe Pernagallo, data analyst and senior tutor at the University of Catania, Italy; and Benedetto Torrisi, associate professor of economic statistics at the University of Catania.
In 1988 radiocarbon tests on the Shroud of Turin dated the cloth to between 1260 and 1390. The implication was clear: The shroud was a medieval forgery. After a 2017 Freedom of Information (FOI) request, a new team of researchers gained access to the original data used for the 1988 test. The findings of this new team are that the 1988 test results were unreliable.
Three laboratories involving researchers from the University of Arizona, Oxford University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology contributed to the 1988 study, which was carried out under the auspices of the British Museum.
When the scientists performed a radiocarbon analysis of the Turin shroud, their results were published in the journal Nature in 1989. They provided what was said to be “conclusive evidence” of the medieval origin of the artifact.
For many years the raw data used in these tests was never released by the institutions involved, despite multiple requests for them to do so. Finally, in response to the 2017 FOI, all raw data kept by the British Museum was made accessible to researchers for the first time.
“For almost 30 years, scholars asked in vain for the raw data from the three laboratories and the supervising institution, the British Museum,” Casabianca told the Register. “I graduated in law, so I had the idea to make a legal request based on the Freedom of Information Act. The British Museum was the only institution to fully and quickly answer my request.”
Only then, after the British Museum acceded to the FOI — something it was legally obliged to do — did Casabianca and his teams gain access to hundreds of unpublished pages from the earlier study. The subsequent examination of the data by the Franco/Italian team found evidence, now published in Oxford University’s Archaeometry, which suggests that the methods employed by the 1988 scientists were flawed.
This news comes as no surprise to Russ Breault, the president of the Shroud of Turin Education Project Inc.
“It is amazing that it took a Freedom of Information request to finally get the raw data from the British Museum, who oversaw the 1988 dating tests,” he told the Register. “The decision not to publish all the data in Nature was no doubt so they could achieve the coveted ‘95% confidence’ regarding the medieval date.”
Casabianca’s team found that the 1988 carbon dating was unreliable, as only pieces from the edges of the cloth were radiocarbon tested. It has been long held by some scholars that those sample areas had been affected by exposure to fire in 1532 while the shroud was stored in the Sainte-Chapelle, in Chambéry, France.
“The tested samples are obviously heterogeneous from many different dates,” Casabianca, a convert to Catholicism, told the Register. “There is no guarantee that all these samples, taken from one end of the shroud, are representative of the whole fabric. It is, therefore, impossible to conclude that the Shroud of Turin dates from the Middle Ages.”
Like others engaged in the study of the shroud, Breault also has doubts about the samples used in 1988. He said that the latest study “tells us there is something anomalous with the single sample used to date the shroud. This is something we have long suspected because the corner chosen was absolutely the most handled area of the cloth, exactly where it was held up by hand for hundreds of public exhibitions over the centuries.”
He further pointed out: “If you were looking for the worst possible sample location, you would choose from one of the two outside corners — right where the sample was cut in 1988.”
Doubts persist elsewhere, too, about the methodology and findings of the 1988 study.
David Rolfe, the editor of the British Society for the Turin Shroud newsletter, is also a filmmaker whose award-winning work such as The Silent Witness (1978) has done much to bring the shroud to the attention of a wider audience. For some time he has been skeptical about the research that took place in 1988. He told the Register that the latest findings “confirmed that the abandonment of the agreed protocols rendered the test unreliable.”
Rolfe explored that “abandonment of protocols” in his 2015 film A Grave Injustice. He explains how all the controls, initially put in place for the 1988 tests, that the scientists might proceed in a rigorously scientific manner, were disregarded.
Rolfe thinks that knowledge of the shroud and its fabric has grown significantly in the decades since the 1988 test. This, he says, is especially relevant when considering the samples taken for the 1988 study and underlines the real suspicion that the area from which the samples came was a mended or patched part of the shroud, and these patches almost certainly dated from the medieval era, during which period the cloth was known to have been exhibited.
He suggests: “For reasons of their own self-interest, the individuals supervising the test and those running the labs — in Oxford in particular — glossed over the abandonment of the protocols, as they needed to give the impression of accuracy and infallibility of the new method.”
When the 1988 findings were published, Rolfe says: “No one was prepared to challenge the weight and might of the combined authority of the British Museum and Oxford. No academic [was], or, for that matter, the vast majority of clerics were, brave enough to challenge this authoritative verdict.” In the end, Rolfe feels that “the  result matched the prevailing intellectual zeitgeist.”
Casabianca shared Rolfe’s view about the necessity of adhering to agreed protocols in any future test.
“New tests, with robust protocols, are needed,” he said. “We have to learn from the failure of the 1988 carbon dating.”
He added: “On a much deeper level, I would like to emphasize that those findings show why Christians should have no reason to be afraid of the scientific process. The quest for truth is at the heart of our faith and will never be a danger for our belief system. That’s why we should not be afraid of new tests on the Turin shroud.”
Regardless of the possibility or outcome of any further tests, Casabianca, quoting St. John Paul II from his 1998 address in Turin, said that the shroud’s “message will remain a ‘challenge to our intelligence.’”
Nevertheless, the work recently carried out by Casabianca and his team raises the question: Why has it taken more than 30 years and a FOI to access the raw data involved in the 1988 tests?
Breault told the Register, “Usually when something is revealed only under duress it is because there is something to hide. Is that the case here?” He observes that “not publishing all the data for the most significant carbon-dating event of the 20th century sure seems foolish, almost as foolish as only taking one sample!”
One other aspect of the 1988 test leaves Breault perplexed.
“In April of 1988, when the sample was being selected and cut, the entire process was caught on film,” he said. “However, when it came time to cut up the sample into sections and deposit them into stainless steel vials, they went into a room outside the view of the camera.” This fact is not helpful, he contends, going on to ask: “Did they not know the whole world would be watching?”
In light of the latest findings, the 1988 testing, its results and the scientists involved in them will doubtless be the subject of further speculation. As to further tests, only the Vatican can authorize these. To do so, however, would cast doubt on the 1988 tests. As Breault acknowledged: “Politically the Church does not want to be viewed as anti-science. Hence, the shroud is often referred to as a ‘symbol of Christ’s suffering, worthy of veneration.’”
He said that this definition is necessary, as the word “symbol” does not make a statement regarding the authenticity of the artifact. To call the shroud a “relic” would imply it is authentic, whereas to call it an “icon” is to suggest that it is manmade.
As to what might happen next in attempting to authenticate the shroud, Breault says: “[Any] decision could only come from the Pope.”
For Casabianca and his team, their latest groundbreaking research is only the start.
As Casabianca told the Register: “I would say that when the lack of reliability of this carbon dating was shown, we were already aware it was just the first step [in] bringing important new data to the community of scholars and [having it] published in a prestigious academic journal.” However, with regard to the mysterious Shroud of Turin, he says that, as far his team is concerned, “Our task is far from over.”
Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.