Richard Corfield on the role that Oxford played in exposing the Turin Shroud as a fake

Twenty-five years ago this month Oxford University’s academic establishment was agog with the news of the arrival of a scientific sample, which was at that moment sitting in a secure location on Keble Road. The sample had been taken a few months before in an antechamber at the Cathedral of Turin under the supervision of the Archbishop of Turin, his scientific adviser, two textile experts and Dr Mike Tite of the British Museum. It was a sample of the Turin Shroud, and it was in Oxford to be dated.

The method that was to be used was a very sensitive type of carbon-14 dating.

Radiocarbon dating, as it is formally known, has been around since 1949, when Willard Libby, a member of the team that had invented the atom bomb (thanks for that, guys!), realised that once an animal or plant dies the radioactive carbon-14 in its tissues decays towards nil at a constant rate.

It thus provides a natural chronometer for measuring the time since something died.

In the case of the Turin Shroud this was the flax from which the material of the shroud had been woven. Oxford had been selected as one of the three labs to date samples from the Turin Shroud due to the tireless entrepreneurship of Edward ‘Teddy’ Hall, the University’s first Professor of Archaeometry, the scientific study of archaeological artefacts.

Teddy Hall had gone ashore at Normandy in the Second World War and had distinguished himself during the fighting there.

He was expert in both engineering and archaeology and due to the fact that the silver spoon he had been born with was large enough to support a small ocean he was the natural choice to head up the university’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, when it was established in the 1950s. Hall knew very well that the Turin Shroud was an obvious candidate for radiocarbon dating. The problem had been that earlier versions of the technique required large sample sizes.

Using Libby’s original method a sample about the size of a handkerchief would be required. This, quite obviously, was not going to happen to one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most priceless relics.

And then in the 1970s, a scientist at the University of Rochester in the USA developed a refinement of the carbon-14 technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry dating.

Not only did this extend the range of the technique back from about 40,000 years to 100,000 years, it also meant that milligram size quantities would now be sufficient.

The samples had been taken in April 1988 and after extensive work on the Oxford machine to make sure it was working perfectly, the measurements were made in the summer of 1988.

The results were then sent securely to Dr Mike Tite of the British Museum, who collated them with the results from the other two labs in Zurich and Arizona.

A paper was written and submitted to the premier journal, Nature, which published it in the February 1989, issue, 25 years ago this month.

The Turin Shroud, it turned out, was a medieval forgery.

The result was a massive disappointment to everyone, not least to the scientists who made the measurements.

If it had dated to the first century, then at least it would have had a chance of being Christ’s burial shroud.

But, of course, it didn’t.

Instead it dated from a time when Europe was awash with medieval forgeries.

Every cathedral city wanted a relic — preferably some remnant of Christ’s crucifixion — because it was a dead cert to bring the pilgrims in, and pilgrims meant punters, and punters meant money.

There was also the little fact that the Turin Shroud had first made its appearance in historical references in the 14th century, so in this case, history and science were in complete agreement. But human nature is a wonderful thing and the irresistible force of science meeting the immovable object of faith was a collision that sent shockwaves across the world. Almost immediately there were those who came forward to say that the part of the shroud that had been sampled was a later patch and that the original material had not been measured.

There were others who claimed that the radiocarbon date had been reset to read 13 centuries too late by bacterial action on the cloth or even a burst of neutron radiation emitted as the Hand of God touched the body of Jesus and resurrected him.

In short — people whose religious world view was being challenged were bending over backwards to discredit the results of the testing.

Even today there are those who are busy developing new dating techniques that will prove the Shroud dates from the time of Christ — a clear case of putting the scientific cart in front of the horse if ever there was one, in my view.

But the simple truth remains — according to the most appropriate technique currently known to science, and three of the best labs in the world, the Turin Shroud is a fake.