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Dating the shroud by its vanillin content

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Sponsored link.

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"As unlikely as it seems, the sample used to test the age of the shroud in 1988 was taken from a rewoven area of the shroud." Ray Rogers. 3


"This incident just underlines the fact that the Shroud of Turin will never go away, and believers will try anything, including arguments masquerading as science, to prove its authenticity." Jay Ingram, host of Daily Planet of the Canadian Discovery Channel. 1


"Science has proved the Shroud of Turin a medieval fake, but defenders of authenticity turn the scientific method on its head by starting with the desired conclusion and working backward to the evidence—picking and choosing and reinterpreting as necessary. It is an approach I call 'shroud science'." Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow, CSICOP. 6

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Ray Rogers is a retired chemist, a Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a long-time believer that the shroud is an actual burial cloth of a crucified man which dates from the first century CE. He accepts a well known theory -- believed by many who reject the Carbon-14 dating of the shroud in 1988 -- that the small sample of the shroud which was submitted for testing was not actually a piece of the original shroud. It was either:


A piece of cloth that had been used to patch a damaged portion of the shroud, or


A mixture of cloth -- part actual shroud and a part patch.

Rogers said: "As unlikely as it seems, the sample used to test the age of the shroud in 1988 was taken from a rewoven area of the shroud. Indeed, the patch was very carefully made. The yarn has the same twist as the main part of the cloth, and it was stained to match the color." 3

It is difficult to conceive how scientists, who were given the task of removing a representative sample from the shroud for testing, could have removed cloth from a patched section. But that is the belief of some members of the STURP team -- a group of American scientists who started to study the shroud in 1978. It would have been an act of extreme carelessness and lack of attention to detail. Describing the C-14 sample collection, scientist P.E. Damon indicated that textile experts took care to select a site from which to take the sample that was some distance from patches and seams. 5 Presumably, the experts' eye sight was not sufficiently degraded that they were all legally blind.

Rogers believes that the Carbon-14 results measured by three laboratories in 1988 are thus closer to the date when the shroud was repaired than to the date when it was made.

In the past, various methods of estimating the age of the shroud were considered:


The color of the linen is one potential indicator. Linen develops a gradually deepening sepia color over time. Unfortunately, bleaching methods have changed over the centuries, and so no accurate age measurements could be made.


Flax fibers collect defects over time from radiation in its environment. Unfortunately, background radiation varies from place to place. This would be a very subjective measurement.


Carbon-14 radiometric measurements have had an excellent track record and are the analytical technique of choice.

Rogers developed a new method of dating linen based on its vanillin (a.k.a. 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) content. Linen is made from the flax plant. Lignin is a chemical compound present in the flax. Vanillin is a breakdown product of the lignin. As linen ages, the vanillin content declines and eventually becomes undetectable. Thus, by measuring the amount of vanillin remaining on the cloth, one might be able to estimate the age of the cloth.

Rogers believes that vanillin is detectable in the sample taken for radiocarbon testing. Thus, it must date from medieval times. He believes that vanillin is also present in the "Holland cloth" used to patch the shroud. But he could not detect it in material taken from the rest of the shroud. He concludes that the sample submitted to Carbon-14 testing "cannot be older than about 1290 [CE], agreeing with the age determined by carbom-14 dating in 1988. However the shroud itself is actually much older....A determination of the kinetics of vanillin loss suggests that the shroud is between 1,300 and 3,000 years old" 3 That is, the flax which made up the shroud was harvested between 1000 BCE and 700 CE. He concludes that the shroud could have been the burial sheet of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) who was executed about 30 CE ± 3 years by the Roman Army.

There exists a method called pyrolysis mass spectrometry which Rogers had used recently for other testing of the Shroud of Turin. 2 It has been shown to generate extremely precise quantitative measurements of carbohydrates, such as vanillin. Unfortunately, he allegedly chose to use a qualitative analysis method: He stained a sample of the shroud in his home laboratory using phloroglucinol–hydrochloric-acid reagent. If a significant amount of vanillin is present, the reagent changes its color. In spite of the lack of accuracy of the measurement, he concluded that the shroud could date to the lifetime of Yeshua of Nazareth. He published a report in the journal Thermochimica Acta a chemistry peer reviewed journal, on 2005-JAN-20. 4

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Skeptical responses to Rogers dating method:

Carbon 14 is the classical method of measuring the age of carbon-bearing materials. It is based on sound science -- the precise rate at which Carbon 14 decays to Carbon 16. But before it could be used to date real materials, it had to be calibrated by using the technique on samples whose ages were independently known. Rogers has not performed this necessary calibration on vanillin analysis.

Some criticisms of Roger's work:


According to Jay Ingram, host of the Daily Planet TV science program on Discovery Channel: "He's got things completely backwards. He is supposed to be testing the shroud to see how old it is, not deciding in advance that it is older and then concluding that vanillin might be a good clock to prove it. This is bad science. The only way this could be taken seriously would be if Rogers had tested a wide variety of cloths, [of known ages], decided that dwindling amounts of vanillin served as a clock, then -- and only then -- tested the shroud." Ingram also criticized the "Staining is a rough guide to the presence of vanillin and cannot detect very small amounts." 1


Malcolm Campbell, a botanist at the University of Toronto said: "In biological sciences, a scientist would be hard pressed to get their paper published if they ever attempted to quantify vanillin on the basis of this staining technique." 1


Joe Nickel, Senior Research Fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) wrote: "In fact, the radiocarbon sample...was destroyed by the testing. Rogers (2005) relied on two little threads allegedly left over from the sampling, together with segments taken from an adjacent area in 1973. He cites pro-authenticity researchers who guessed that the carbon-14 sample came from a 'rewoven area' of repair—'As unlikely as it seems,' Rogers admitted to one news source....Rogers compared the threads with some small samples from elsewhere on the Shroud, claiming to find differences between the two sets of threads that 'prove' the radiocarbon sample 'was not part of the original cloth' of the Turin shroud....The reported differences include the presence—allegedly only on the 'radiocarbon sample'—of cotton fibers and a coating of madder root dye in a binding medium that his tests 'suggest' is gum Arabic. He insists the sampled area was that of an interwoven medieval repair that was intentionally colored to match the 'older, sepia-colored cloth'....However, Rogers’ assertions to the contrary, both the cotton and the madder have been found elsewhere on the shroud. Both were specifically reported by famed microanalyst Walter McCrone...who was commissioned to examine samples taken by the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). After McCrone discovered the image was rendered in tempera paint, STURP held him to a secrecy agreement, while statements were made to the press that no evidence of artistry was found. McCrone was then, he says, 'drummed out' of the organization."

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Path forward:

One method of accurately dating the shroud would be to assemble a group of skilled scientists:


Some who are devout believers that the shroud dates to the first century CE;


Others who are skeptics who consider the shroud to have been created as a piece of artwork -- either as a fraud or as a religious icon -- in the fourteenth century; and


Others who are genuinely undecided about the age of the shroud.

They develop a consensus on a precise protocol for sampling the actual shroud. The material would then be submitted to some world-class Carbon-14 labs for accurate dating.

Alternatively, a dozen or so shrouds of know ages dating from the first century CE to the present time could have their vanillin levels measured using a quantitative technique like pyrolysis mass spectrometry. That would produce a calibration curve. If the data were reproducible, then a vanillin test could be used on linen to obtain an accurate measure of its age in parallel with Carbon-14 tests.

One hopes that the Roman Catholic Church will permit additional testing on the shroud. Still, additional data is unlikely to produce a consensus. Beliefs on all sides have hardened and are essentially unchangeable.

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  1. Jay Ingram. "Hard to keep a good shroud story down," The Toronto Star, 2005-FEB-05, Page F5.
  2. Raymond Rogers, "Pyrolysis/Mass Spectrometry applied to the Shroud of Turin," (2004) at: http://www.shroud.com/
  3. Rossella Lorenzi, "Face on the Shroud: Turin Shroud Older Than Thought," Discovery Channel, 2005-FEB-09, at: http://dsc.discovery.com/
  4. Raymond Rogers, "Studies on the radiocarbon sample from the shroud of turin [sic]," Tehermochimica Acta, 2005-JAN-20, Pages 189 to 194. Online by Science Direct, at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/ Also in PFD format at: http://www.shroud.it
  5. P.E. Damon, et al. 1989. "Radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin," Nature 337 (1989-FEB),  Pages 611 to 615.
  6. Joe Nickell, "Claims of Invalid “Shroud” Radiocarbon Date Cut from Whole Cloth," Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, at: http://www.csicop.org/

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2005-FEB-05
Latest update: 2005-FEB-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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