Pressed Flowers

Where Did the Shroud of Turin Originate?
A Botanical Quest

Flores Prensadas: ¿Dónde tuvo su origen la Sábana Santa de Turín? Una Investigación Botánica - En Español
Avinoam Danin

Reprinted from ERETZ Magazine, November/December 1997
Copyright 1997 - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by permission.

Where was the man whose silhouette is imprinted on the shroud kept in Turin's Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista crucified? By analyzing the impressions of bouquets of flowers once placed in it, Israeli botanist Avinoam Danin determines that the celebrated relic originated in the Land of Israel.

A coronal image of a chrysanthemum produced by Oswald Schewermann (left)
the image on the Shroud of Turin (center) and an illustration of the flower (right)
© 1997 Alan Whanger

A great deal of mystery surrounds the 4.3 - by - 1.1 - meter piece of linen kept in the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista in Turin, Italy. This piece of cloth, known as the Shroud of Turin, is one of the most important Christian relics in the world. On it is a full-scale imprint of the body of a man resembling the descriptions of the crucified Jesus that were common from the third century onward. The impression of the body in the shroud shows signs of flagellation, and it appears that the dead man’s hands were wounded and bloody. Marks of blood can also be seen on the parts of the shroud that lay on his nape and forehead. Consequently, there are many who believe that the Shroud of Turin was wrapped around the body of Jesus after it was taken down from the cross, and that the profile on the shroud is that of Jesus himself.

The Shroud of Turin is first mentioned in the fourteenth century, when according to the commonly accepted version of its history it was discovered in the vaults of Geoffrey de Charney. Presumably, it was taken there after having been removed from a church in Constantinople during a crusade aimed at bringing the shroud to France. Margarita, granddaughter of de Charney, handed the shroud over to Louis, Duke of Savoy in 1453, though it is unclear why she was willing to part with such a valuable item. Legend has it that her horse, after having the shroud loaded on its back, refused to move. To this day, the duke’s family is the legal owner of the shroud.

Experts in the natural sciences began examining the shroud toward the end of the nineteenth century. Among their findings were the imprints of plants and grains of pollen. In 1995 I was asked by Dr. Alan Whanger and his wife Mary, of Durham, North Carolina, to assist them in identifying the plants and to evaluate the identification of the grains of pollen that had been collected by the Swiss crime expert Dr. Max Frei.

Ten years previously, in 1985, Dr. Whanger was looking at a photograph of the shroud taken in 1931 when he noticed the faint outline of a flower later identified as the inflorescence of the crown chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium). Intrigued, the Whangers, amateur photographers, spent thousands of subsequent hours looking at photographs that had been specially enhanced so that the faint images stood out more clearly. They discovered hundreds of flowers, mostly in the vicinity of the figure’s head. Comparing the flowers they found with drawings in Michael Zohary and Naomi Feinbrun’s Flora Palaestina, they succeeded in identifying twenty-eight species of plants.

During the Whangers’ stay in Israel in September 1995, I recognized images of the crown chrysanthemum and the rock rose (Cistus creticus) in their photographs, and became convinced that the material was authentic and that the Whangers’ findings were valid. At their request, I collected pollen grains of the plants they had identified so that they could be compared to the pollen Max Frei had removed from the shroud by means of adhesive tape.

In February 1997, I visited the Whangers in their home and examined the images of the flowers in the original photographs of 1931. Indeed, the crown chrysanthemum was the easiest species to identify there. It took me some time to get used to the visual medium, but eventually I discovered the most interesting find on the "site" – a bouquet composed of bean caper plants (Zygophyllum dumosum). The Whangers had noticed that there were images of flowers and leaves on that part of the shroud, but had not identified the species.

It was after I discovered the images of both summer and young winter leaves of Zygophyllum dumosum that I became interested in ascertaining that the provenance of the shroud was the Holy Land. During rainy winters this species sprouts leaves whose petioles look like sausages with two leaflets at their head. When summer comes, the leaflets drop and only the petiole is left. The petioles shrink slowly during the summer, only to fill out and grow new leaves again with the arrival of winter. The only species of Zygophyllum that exhibits this behavior is Zygophyllum dumosum, whose petioles survive for up to three years.

A bouquet of rock rose, which I had noted along with the crown chrysanthemum in 1995, appears on the right cheek of the human profile on the shroud. Dr. Frei had placed his adhesive tape No. 6bd at that spot and actually found some grains of rock rose pollen long before anyone had discovered images of the plant on the shroud. The fact that the existence of this plant’s image on the shroud has been demonstrated by two independent botanical methods proves beyond a reasonable doubt that plants of this species were placed on the shroud at one time.

In 1973, some clerics in Turin had asked police crime expert Dr. Max Frei to examine the shroud with a microscope and to apply to it the method he had developed to study crimes, for the purpose of determining its origins. Among the flax fibers of which the shroud is made, Frei found dust particles, parts of plants, and grains of pollen. He placed strips of transparent adhesive tape on the shroud, folding them after taking the samples in order to prevent contamination. An expert on the flora of central Europe, Frei had trouble identifying the pollen. He made several trips to Israel to collect plant samples from the Jerusalem and Dead Sea areas: with their help he succeeded in identifying twenty-five species of plants whose pollen he had found on the shroud. The Whangers’ alternative method of identification confirmed Frei’s findings.

Dr. Frei collected hundreds of pollen grains from the shroud, but he died in 1982 before he could finish examining and publishing all of his findings. Part of his collection was studied by the American Paul Maloney, who found hundreds of pollen grains on the adhesive tapes. On tape No. 4bd, for example, no less than forty-five shreds of plant parts were found, including a whole anther full of pollen. Maloney is not a botanist, but he managed to record tens of pollen grains on microscopic photographs. Today his collection is kept in a vault in the care of the Whangers, and his findings are being documented using the latest microscopic methods.

I collected samples from Israel of the pollen of all twenty-eight species identified on the shroud so that they could be compared to the grains on Frei’s adhesive tapes. In addition, I gathered samples of related species belonging to the same genus or family, to be used in cases of doubt concerning the identification of the plants. I hope that Dr. Uri Baruch, an expert on the pollen of Israel and the surrounding area who has joined our research team, will help us reveal the secrets of the pollen grains on the shroud.

I also checked the distribution pattern in Israel of the plants that had already been identified on the shroud. In my database on local plant distribution (designed by Barak Danin), data is organized in topographical squares of five kilometers to a side. The database includes more than ninety thousand units of information, including the names of the plants and the squares in which they appear. I asked Barak to correlate twenty-six of the species whose imprints were found on the shroud with the plant lists on the various squares superimposed on the country.

At first we analyzed squares of 5 km to a side; later we combined four such squares to form squares of 10 km to a side, and then squares of 20 km to a side. We discovered that there is one square of 10 km to a side that contains 70% of the species we were seeking – and is located midway between Jerusalem and Jericho. Another check determined that five of the 5-km-sided-squares containing twenty-seven out of the twenty-eight species are in the Jerusalem area: one includes the villages of Aminadav and Mevo Beitar, two include the eastern and western sections of Jerusalem, another includes the village of Kfar Adumim, and the last includes the ruins of Qumran. Other combinations of squares will be examined in the future.

As far as establishing the shroud’s provenance, Zygophyllum dumosum is the most significant plant on the list. Max Frei identified pollen grains of this species on the adhesive tapes he examined. The northernmost extent of the distribution of this plant in the world coincides with the line between Jericho and the sea level marker on the road leading from Jerusalem to Jericho. As Zygophyllum dumosum grows only in Israel, Jordan, and Sinai, its appearance helps to definitively limit the shroud’s place of origin. The fact that the images of winter leaves appear on the shroud together with the previous year’s petioles indicates that the plant was picked in spring. This conclusion is reinforced by the state of growth of the other plants whose images are to be found on the shroud.

Research on the Shroud of Turin is far from over, and the identity of the man it once enfolded remains unresolved. I hope, however, that the comprehensive study of the pollen and plant images on the shroud leads us to full agreement at least about where it originated.


The best explanation for the appearance of the plant images on the Shroud of Turin is the one proffered by physics teacher Oswald Schewermann, who noticed the images on it in 1983 and conducted many unpublished experiments on the phenomenon of coronal discharge, which involves the discharge of radiation from a surface charged with static electricity. Flat objects like leaves lose electrons on their edges when they touch cloth, for instance, forming a dark line that follows the contours of the points of contact. The images are sharply defined where the body touched the cloth and fuzzy where it did not. (See the chrysanthemum image above, produced by Schewermann.)

The Whangers discovered images of other objects on the shroud as well, including a nail, a hammer, a broom, a rope reminiscent of ropes found in Nahal Heimar whose ages are estimated at eight to nine thousand years, a round wreath of thorns, a reed, and a sponge. The reed and the sponge recall the description of the crucifixion in the New Testament: "And one [bystander] ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink…" (Mark 15:36).

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