New dating technique could establish age of the Turin Shroud
The researchers said the new method was so safe it could allow scientific analysis of hundreds of artefacts that until now were off limits because museums and private collectors did not want the objects damaged.
"This technique stands to revolutionise radiocarbon dating," said Dr Marvin Rowe, who led the research team at the Texas A&M University.
"It expands the possibility for analysing extensive museum collections that have previously been off limits because of their rarity or intrinsic value and the destructive nature of the current method of radiocarbon dating.
"In theory, it could even be used to date the Shroud of Turin."
Traditional carbon dating involves removing and burning small samples of the object.
Scientists remove a small sample from an object, such as a cloth or bone fragment.
Then they treat the sample with a strong acid and a strong base and finally burn the sample in a small glass chamber to produce carbon dioxide gas to analyse its C-14 content.
Although it sometimes requires taking minute samples of an object, even that damage may be unacceptable for some artefacts.
The new method does not involve removing a sample of the object.
Scientists place an entire artefact in a special chamber with a plasma, an electrically charged gas similar to gases used in big-screen plasma television displays.
The gas slowly and gently oxidises the surface of the object to produce carbon dioxide for C-14 analysis without damaging the surface, he said.
Dr Rowe and his colleagues used the technique to analyse the ages of about 20 different organic substances, including wood, charcoal, leather, rabbit hair, a bone with mummified flesh attached, and a 1,350-year-old Egyptian weaving.
The results match those of conventional carbon dating techniques, they say.
The chamber could be sized to accommodate large objects, such as works of art and even the Shroud of Turin, which some believe to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, Dr Rowe said.
The origins of the shroud and its image are the subject of intense debate among scientists, theologians, historians and researchers.
Some contend that the shroud is the cloth placed on the body of Jesus Christ at the time of his burial, and that the face image is the Holy Face of Jesus.
Others contend that the artefact postdates the Crucifixion of Jesus by more than a millennium.
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