An Appraisal of the Mistakes Madeby
Regarding the Shroud Samples Taken in 1988 -
and a Suggested Way of Putting These Behind Us
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Reprinted by Permission
I know that many of you have been looking forward to this Congresso as a gathering of those united in an interest in the Shroud. Although I wish I could share that enthusiasm, what I am very conscious of (and which pains me), is that some of the differences that I have with fellow sindonologists are actually greater than those with some of the Shroud's greatest detractors. So I can only say to you that the points that I am about to put have their sights set firmly, not on whatever egos that they might bruise, but instead on what I regard as necessary to take the subject of the Shroud into the 21st century.
For unlike many of you, what I have to deliver is not any line of latest research. Instead it is an appeal for us to put the mistakes of the past behind us and to strive for what I would call the 'right thinking' for the future. Right thinking that is needed on the part of everyone from His Holiness the Pope, as owner of the Shroud, to His Eminence Cardinal Saldarini, as the Shroud's custodian, to all you here present listening to me.
For as a result of the near-simultaneous publication of my book The Blood and the Shroud in both the US and UK I think I can say that few can have had more experience than I during the last few weeks of how the English-speaking world-at-large, in the US, the UK and Australia, currently perceives the Shroud. And what is quite obvious is that the tide is very much more against belief in authenticity than it was back at the time of the last round of Expositions. At that time the scientific evidence such as Dr. Frei's pollen findings and the work of the STURP group was all in our favour. Now even the most uninformed about the Shroud have heard that it was radiocarbon dated to the Middle Ages. Very understandably they assume that that's the end of the story, and if we are realistic it is going to take a great deal to significantly change the tide back in our favour - if it ever can be.
Now here we come to the first plank of what I call 'necessary right thinking'. For if the radiocarbon dating findings of 1988 really were wrong - and that remains a very big if - then it is crucial for us to understand how they went wrong. Many of you here in continental Europe have opted for there having been some kind of clandestine switch of the samples used for the dating, basically, that Dr. Michael Tite and/or his colleagues in some way conspired to pervert the truth. If that is what you still believe, then I can only disagree with you most strongly. I would also put it to you that if the test were to be run again with different personnel whom you ruthlessly watched for the slightest sleight-of-hand, only for the same result to be reached, where would you be? All that you would have proved is that the 1988 test had been honestly run after all - which I could have told you all along. So please, I do personally know some of the radiocarbon dating scientists, and would urge you to respect them as basically honest individuals who conducted an honest test using the best possible scientific methods. My quarrel is only with the conclusiveness they attached to their findings.
As an alternative to radiocarbon dating skulduggery, many of you here on continental Europe, and some also in the US, have opted for the 'isotope exchange' hypothesis of Dr. Dmitri Kouznetsov - that it was an effect of the 1532 fire which skewed the result. Two years ago, via the British Society Newsletter, I began some serious warnings not to trust Dr. Kouznetsov, and these have proven very justified. As some of you may still not yet have heard, at the end of last year Dr Kouznetsov was arrested in Connecticut, USA on larceny and forgery charges and spent several months at a remand centre there. Although recently has come news of his release and return to Moscow, anyone clinging to the idea that his science on the Shroud may still be all right has a greater faith in human nature than I do. The radiocarbon dating laboratories have repeatedly assured me that they have tried and failed to replicate the Kouznetsov experiments, and I believe them. So please, just as strongly as I have urged you to respect the radiocarbon scientists' basic integrity, so I also urge you to set aside Dr. Kouznetsov's claims as just a very sad 'red herring' on the sea of the Shroud controversy.
Not least I would recommend you to ignore the claims that the area of the Shroud from which the radiocarbon sample was taken was one in which 'invisible mending' had been done in the Middle Ages, and therefore was not the original Shroud. If you go down that road, you are asking for the Middle Ages to have been able to perfectly duplicate the Shroud's weave, dubious ground in itself, and in my estimation extremely unlikely. For had such a match been anything but perfect I would have been bound to spot it when I minutely examined the Shroud back in 1973, and I saw nothing of this kind. So please: simply don't believe in it.
Which leads me now to an evaluation of where, in my lay opinion, things actually did go wrong in the carbon dating, and where, if the right thinking is adopted, we can set a proper and constructive course for the future.
First, when on April 21 1988 Professors Riggi and Gonella selected from where the radiocarbon dating sample was to be cut, they could hardly have chosen a more ill-advised location. You have only to look at the numerous depictions of Shroud expositions over the centuries to see that the particular corner that they selected, and its opposite number, were the very points by which the Shroud was invariably held up before the faithful by umpteen generations of clergy. Because this corner had more handling than any other part, it was therefore the area that would have received the greatest amount of microbiological contamination from those hands. Gonella and Riggi's choice thereby broke one of the most elementary rules for radiocarbon dating samples - if at all possible avoid any area carrying a high microbiological contamination risk.
Second, when the laboratory personnel who collected their Shroud samples from Turin returned with these to their laboratories, we know that all three took photos of the portion they had received. But Oxford photographed theirs only from the cloth's 'face' side, Zurich only from the underside, and Arizona, who had received their sample in two bits anyway, photographed only one of the portions. So none of them properly documented their entire sample (a sample they were irrevocably about to destroy), from both sides. Nor did they remember to include a measure in the photo, despite this being standard in any archaeological photography.
Such omissions inevitably gave conspiracy theorists such as Brother Bruno Bonnet-Eymard and the Holger Kersten/Elmar Gruber duo all the ammunition they needed to cry foul.
Compounding the laboratories' lapses, they conducted no chemical analysis of what exactly it was they dating, despite (again) their knowing destruction of all the evidence. As very recently pointed out to me by the American microbiologist Professor Steven Mattingly of the University of Texas: 'Lack of a chemical analysis of the Shroud linen violated the first basic principle in biochemistry - account for the chemical components on a dry weight basis. A total glucose analysis of the linen would have spared us this controversy.'
Which leads me now to that very controversy to which Professor Mattingly is referring - pertaining to the one serious and totally scientific argument that has yet to be addressed for how the Shroud's date may have been skewed, together the ticklish complications that arise from it. For as we now know, when Giovanni Riggi cut off the carbon dating sample back in 1988, not all of it was apportioned to the laboratories. Riggi kept part back, including some trimmings which he kept in his own personal safe. In 1993 he allowed snippets from these to be examined and taken away by physician and microbiology enthusiast Dr. Garza-Valdes of San Antonio, as a result of which at the Shroud conference in Rome that very same year Dr. Garza-Valdes began claiming his discovery that the Shroud's surface has a bioplastic coating made up of a transparent layer of microbiological contaminants accumulated to quite sufficient thickness to have caused a 1300 year error in the carbon dating.
Now since Dr. Garza-Valdes is himself present at this Congresso, it is not my intention either to try to explain or to defend these findings. What I can say, however, is that I have been very greatly encouraged by Professor Harry Gove, the co-inventor of the AMS method used to radiocarbon date the Shroud, who has treated Dr. Garza-Valdes's arguments with considerable seriousness. Indeed, Professor Gove has collaborated with Garza, Professor Mattingly and the Egyptologist Dr. Rosalie David in a highly important experiment with an ancient Egyptian ibis mummy and its linen wrappings. This has shown that a similar coating on the ibis mummy's linen wrappings, one significantly thinner than that on the Shroud, was sufficient to have caused a 550 radiocarbon dating discrepancy. By extrapolation, the thicker coating said to be on the Shroud, thicker because of all the aforementioned extra handling the sample area received, could very easily have skewed the date by 1300 years.
But however, promising as all this may sound, there is inevitably a downside. Since Dr. Garza-Valdes did not receive direct approval for his work from Cardinal Saldarini, the samples on which he worked have been declared as lacking the proper official recognition. Technically, therefore, the whole credibility of Dr.Garza-Valdes's findings lacks the appropriate accompanying validation.
Now it is far from my intention to uphold everything of the way that Dr.Garza-Valdes has handled this particular matter. Nor do I wish in any way to criticise His Eminence the Cardinal for the stance he has taken. I have read very carefully his courteous but insistent letter to Dr. Garza-Valdes, recognise that he felt this to be the only course open to him, and this I fully respect and accept.
The bottom line, however, is that if Dr. Garza-Valdes's bioplastic coating hypothesis truly is the cause of the Shroud radiocarbon dating having been skewed, then sooner or later someone both at the ecclesiastical and at the scientific level will need to pursue and develop the matter further. In this regard, although Dr. Garza-Valdes is showing frustratingly little interest in such a move I am receiving altogether more encouraging signals from Dr. Garza-Valdes's former colleague Professor Steven Mattingly.
As Professor Mattingly has explained, there is a method - one broadly involving reduction of the flax cellulose to glucose - by which the bioplastic coating could be properly eliminated prior to radiocarbon dating. If this were done, obviously the promise is for the Shroud's true date to be reached, rather than one falsified by the partly still living material of the coating. However, first what is needed is for this to be tested on a representative set of samples of ancient Egyptian linens that bear a similar bioplastic coating. Then, once the procedure has been thoroughly perfected, and demonstrated to correct the current surprisingly common radiocarbon date discrepancies between mummies and their wrappings (and obviously this should be accompanied by proper scientific publication), the way should be open for a fresh radiocarbon dating of the Shroud that may furnish a significantly different date to that arrived at in 1988
Now I can only very greatly hope that this can and will happen sooner or later, and two factors greatly encourage me that the opportunity may not be too far off. First, from the sample cut off from the Shroud in 1988 there should still be sufficient left for precisely such a re-run. So no fresh assault on the Shroud is necessarily needed, a situation most devoutly to be wished. Second, only two weeks ago, on his visit to this very city, His Holiness Pope John Paul II positively indicated his willingness for the Shroud to be made available in the event of what clearly need to be the right sort of fresh scientific procedures.
So this is why I plead for the right thinking to be behind whatever happens next on the Shroud. Obviously I can offer no guarantees that the bioplastic coating hypothesis really is correct. But at least it demands no fresh access to the Shroud until the very last stage, and even then the sample held back in 1988 may suffice. All I would simply most humbly ask of His Holiness and His Eminence is that when that stage is reached, the Church's door should be open and welcoming .