Journal paper claiming Shroud of Turin shows trauma is retracted – after a year

Editors call research integrity into question, while a second shroud paper, concerning a scrotum, continues to stand. Andrew Masterson reports.

The Shroud of Turin, scrotum not shown.
The Shroud of Turin, scrotum not shown.
Philippe Lissac/Getty Images

A peer-reviewed journal paper that claimed to show the Shroud of Turin was originally wrapped around a man who had suffered multiple traumas has been retracted after the quality of the research was called into question.

The paper was published in the journal PLOS One in 2017. A related paper, written by two of the same authors and published in another journal, claims the shroud shows clear evidence of the purported occupant’s scrotum. It remains in circulation.

The retracted paper, written by a team led by Elvio Carlino of Italy’s National Research Council, reported using transmission electron microscopy and wide-angle X-ray scanning microscopy to investigate a single one-millimetre-long thread from the shroud down to atomic resolution.

The shroud is one of the most famous relics of the Roman Catholic Church. It is held in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of John the Baptist in Turin.

Samples analysed by mass spectrometry in three separate laboratories in 1989 established conclusively that the linen from which it is made was manufactured in the Middle Ages. This, however, has not deterred many people from believing it is the burial cloth of the historical Jesus.

The analysis reported by Carlino and his colleagues does nothing to support or disprove that view. Instead, the researchers report that their single fibre shows “evidence of biologic nanoparticles of creatinine bounded with small nanoparticles of iron oxide”. The findings, they conclude, are consistent with a “human organism” suffering from “severe polytrauma” and constitute a “scenario of violence”.

In a long and detailed retraction notice – first reported by the academic integrity site RetractionWatch – the PLOS One editors report that internal assessments and external advice prompted the withdrawal of the paper, against the wishes of the authors.

The editors assert that “there are not sufficient controls to support conclusions referring to human blood or physical trauma”. The presence of ink or animal blood was not conclusively ruled out, and the findings “do not provide definite evidence of trauma or violence”.

They also question the provenance of the fibre used in the analysis, and note that contamination of the sample cannot be ruled out. Finally, they accuse the authors of failing to declare a competing interest, in that they did not disclose that the fibre was passed to them by the Shroud of Turin Education and Research Association, an organisation with a website that features many testimonials attesting to the belief that the artefact really did encase the body of Jesus.

Two of the paper’s authors – Liberato De Caro and Cinzia Giannini, both crystallographers from the National Research Council – wrote another paper, published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage, reporting the results of a digital restoration of a section of the shroud.

The results, they write, reveal “the scrotum and part of the right hand’s thumb”. The thumb, they add, is in a weird position that “seems to denote a stress, which could be consequent to crucifixion”.

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