Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud

Holy Face of Jesus from Shroud of Turin (1909)

An investigation into the validity of the claims made about the age of the Shroud of Turin.

The Shroud of Turin is an artefact whose age remains a controversial subject. It is a large piece of cloth, bearing the image of a man who appears to have been crucified. Many believe that the image is of Jesus, and that the shroud is the one in which he was buried after his execution by the Romans. Using the prevailing consensus on the date of the crucifixion, this would make the shroud 1980 years old. However, when the shroud was radiocarbon dated, the results suggested that the shroud was much younger, having been created somewhere in the Middle Ages, no earlier than 1260 C.E.

(Radio)carbon dating is a method of determining an object’s age by determining the ratio of Carbon-14 and Carbon-12. C-12 is the standard, stable type of Carbon atom, whereas C-14 is an unstable form caused by the collision of Nitrogen atoms with cosmic rays in the atmosphere. All living things take in large amounts of carbon during their lives. Upon death, the amount of C-12 remains the same, while C-14 begins to decay and revert to nitrogen (the half-life is approximately 5730 years) so that newer artefacts will have similar amounts of C-12 and C-14, while older ones will have a proportionally smaller amount of the latter.

The shroud was carbon dated in the late nineteen-eightees, when it was suggested to have been produced in the thirteenth century. In 2005, though, a new investigation uncovered evidence to the contrary: It appeared that the particular patch of linen from which the 1988 sample was taken did not match the rest of the shroud. It appeared to be made of a more modern cloth, and to have been deliberately coloured to appear like the older parts. It also had higher levels of Vanillin, a compound derived from plant matter. The theory produced at this point was that the non-representative patch had been a replacement piece, woven in during the medieval period to repair fire damage to the shroud. When the cloth was re-tested, the age was estimated to be between 1300 and 3000 years. This would allow it to be from Biblical times. The issue of whether Christ was buried in the shroud, on the other hand, remains highly debated.


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