Monday, May 28, 2007

A proposal to radiocarbon-date the pollen of the Shroud of Turin

Note: This is an early version of my paper of the same name, which has now been published in December's British Society for the Turin Shroud Newsletter. That paper differs in some respects (mainly in the Protocols section) from this early blog version. I have since created my other blog, TheShroudofTurin, and all my posts subsequent on the Shroud of Turin are now there.

After my post of 22-May-07 about the pollen on the Shroud of Turin from plants native only to the Middle-East and Turkey being strong evidence for the Shroud being the very burial sheet of Jesus Christ, and having previously posted 06-May-07, 09-May-07 and 14-May-07 on the problems of radiocarbon dating the Shroud's linen, the question occurred to me, "Why not radiocarbon-date the pollen from the Shroud of Turin?"

[Above: Scanning electron micrograph of pollen grains, Wikipedia]

I have learned a lot about the Shroud since I first read about it in January 2005, and had recently re-read my books and articles on radiocarbon-dating the Shroud and the analysis of the pollen collected from the Shroud, for my above recent series defending the Shroud from the charge (by a Christian) of being "bogus". But I could not recall ever having read where the pollen from the Shroud had been proposed to be radiocarbon-dated.

I emailed a leading Shroud of Turin researcher and he was not aware of it having ever been proposed that the Shroud's pollen be radiocarbon dated. But he thought that might be because the quantity of pollen required would require the destruction of most (if not all) the Shroud's pollen. I replied to him that my understanding was that with advances in the Accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) method of radiocarbon dating (the same method used to date the Shroud's linen in 1988), that much less pollen was now required (which I have now found is in fact so-see below). Although he had reservations about the validity of radiocarbon dating in general, he agreed that if only a small proportion of the Shroud's pollen would need to be destroyed then my proposal that its pollen be radiocarbon-dated was worthwhile.

Radiocarbon dating of pollen in general
Pollen is a powder comprising individual pollen grains, which are the male gametes or sperm cells of flowering plants. When mature a pollen-grain has a tough outer wall called the exine, which is made of a tough organic polymer called sporopollenin and has spines and other characteristics which are unique to each genus or even species. Because the pollen exine is so durable, the earliest fossil of a flowering plant is pollen, 130 million years old. The carbon dating of pollen is now an important part of a branch of science, palynology. Advances in AMS radiocarbon dating have meant that as little as 50-100 micrograms (i.e. millionths of a gram), can be dated. And given that the average pollen grain weighs 1/4000th of a gram, or 250 micrograms, "analyses of very small samples," including "dating of single pollen grains ... is now commonplace" (my emphasis):

"Radiocarbon dating is a relatively new science, in use only since the 1960's. As our knowledge 14C increases, we expect that both the accuracy and precision of radiocarbon dates will increase. Technological advances have made analyses of very small samples possible, using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). AMS dating of single pollen grains, ostrocode shells and plant seeds is now commonplace." ("14C (radiocarbon) Dating)," U.S. Geological Survey, 2 May 2001).

Radiocarbon-dating the pollen from the Shroud
Since pollen is just another part of its parent plant, with the same carbon, photosynthesised from atmospheric CO2, that carbon in the CO2 would have, other things being equal, the same proportion of carbon-12 to the isotope carbon-14 for every plant that was alive at the same time. That includes the pollen on the Shroud, and the flax that the linen the Shroud was woven from, although the latter may have been woven many years before and therefore could have an older radiocarbon date. However the pollen on the Shroud from plants that are native to around Jerusalem, e.g. Zygophyllum dunosum, Gundelia tournefortii, Cistus creticus and Capparis aegyptia, should, if the Shroud is the very burial sheet that covered Jesus' crucified body, all be from the same year, ~30AD, although presumably radiocarbon dating is not accurate enough to resolve down to the very year.

Pollen being so hard and durable that it may last for many millions of years, presumably would not be as subject to contamination by a biofilm or bioplastic layer of younger microorganisms and so a more accurate radiocarbon date (i.e. less subject to confounding variables) should be possible from the pollen on the Shroud than from the linen of the Shroud itself. Also, Dr Frei's pollen samples came from deep into the weave of the Shroud and so may have been less subject to contamination by human handling.

Objections to radiocarbon dating the Shroud's pollen
The first objection might be to radiocarbon dating itself. But as far as I am aware, most (if not all) leading Shroud researchers accept that radiocarbon dating is, in principle valid, with the problem being not radiocarbon dating per se but the implicit ceteris paribus "other things being equal" condition that applies to every scientific experiment. And also the arrogance of some scientists who don't make this clear in their pronouncements to the general public via the media. In the case of the Shroud, as historian Ian Wilson points out in his extensive discussion of the problems of radiocarbon dating archaeological artifacts in his book, "Holy Faces, Secret Places" (1991), and also in this video interview, there are major problems carbon-dating a porous material like linen, particularly when it has wrapped bodies. However, those same problems would not apply to carbon-dating a non-porous material like pollen.

Since radiocarbon dating of single grains of pollen is now feasible, the objection that dating the pollen grains on the Shroud would require the destruction of a significant proportion of the pollen collected from it, no longer applies. Moreover there seems to be ample pollen collected from the Shroud to enable a representative sample of all, or at least most, of the pollen species to be dated. For example, Ian Wilson quotes from a paper at a 1989 conference that, "Eighty-eight pollen grains were counted in approximately 2 square centimetres on a dorsal `sidestrip' tape," a "hundred and sixty-three grains were counted on the same size area on a tape from the left arm" and "an astounding circa 300 grains were counted on a tape taken from near the face in a comparative size area" (Wilson, I. & Schwortz, B., "The Turin Shroud: The Illustrated Evidence," Michael O'Mara Books: London, 2000, p.82). Indeed, according to one estimate there may be from 47,000 to 94,000 pollen grains on the Shroud."

The objection that the Shroud is sacred and should not be further destroyed, no matter how small the sample required, would presumably not apply to the pollen from the Shroud. Also, while the Pope is the legal owner of the Shroud, and therefore of its pollen, Dr Max Frei collected his pollen from the Shroud in 1973 and 1978, when it was then the property of King Umberto II of Savoy, who upon his death in 1983 bequeathed the Shroud to the Pope. After Frei's death his pollen collection was passed by Frei's wife to ASSIST (Association of Scientists and Scholars International for the Shroud of Turin) in the USA (Wilson & Schwortz, 2000, pp.81-82). So ASSIST is the legal owner of the pollen in the Frei collection and therefore the Pope's permission is not required to test those pollens (see also under Protocols below).

Testing Shroud origin and image-formation theories
Other advantages of radiocarbon dating the Shroud's pollen is that it would enable the testing of the theory that the Edessa Cloth (1st-2nd, 6th century), the Mandylion (10th-13th century) and the Shroud of Turin (14th century), are one and the same. If the pollen from plants on the Shroud that are native to Turkey (e.g. Atraphaxis spinosa, Prunus spartioides and Epimedium pubigerum (Wilson, I., "The Evidence of the Shroud," Guild Publishing: London, 1986, pp.38-39) are carbon-dated over the period the Eddessa Cloth and Mandylion are known to have been in Eddessa and Constantinople (2nd, 6th, 10th-13th centuries) then that will be strong evidence that these three cloths are one and the same.

Then if the pollen from plants native to Israel are carbon-dated to the early 1st century, that will be further evidence that the Shroud was the very burial sheet of Jesus. However, if the image on the Shroud is the result of radiation from Jesus' body at His resurrection, then it is possible (if not probable) that that radiation increased the carbon-14 level for both the Shroud (Phillips, T.J., "Shroud Irradiated With Neutrons?," Nature, Vol. 337, 16 February, 1989, p.594) and any pollen which was on the Shroud. Therefore, if the pollen from plants which were native to Israel had a radiocarbon date that was younger than the pollen from the Turkey plants, then that would be strong evidence for the image on the Shroud being the result of Jesus' resurrection. On the other hand, if the Israel pollen does not show a such an anomalously younger radiocarbon date, then that would be evidence against the radiation scorch theory, or at least against the radiation being nuclear and a contribution to the Shroud's claimed 14th century radiocarbon date.

Clear protocols should be drawn up which, as far as possible, avoid mistakes of the past and seek to anticipate future mistakes and to counter all reasonable objections.

Control of the entire process must be completely in the hands of the Shroud pro-authenticity community. Since ASSIST is pro-authenticity and is the legal owner of the Frei Shroud pollen collection, it is assumed that ASSIST will, directly or indirectly, coordinate and control any radiocarbon-dating of that pollen.

Rather than let universities, with their perceived anti-supernaturalistic bias, carry out the tests, independent, private radiocarbon dating laboratories should be contracted, or a purely commercial basis to carry out the work. The carbon-dating of the Shroud's pollen should be blind experiments (as the 1988 dating of the Shroud's linen was supposed to be but was not), in that the testing laboratories should not know which pollens were from the Shroud and which were control pollens of the same species.

What if the pollen's radiocarbon-date is also 14th century?
If the Shroud really did originate in the 14th century, then it would be better to know that. So if the radiocarbon-date of the pollen from the Shroud also turned out to be 14th century, then that would support the forgery theory, that, in the words the late Oxford nuclear physicist Professor Edward Hall who pioneered the AMS radiocarbon method and whose laboratory was one of the three which carried out the 1988 dating of the Shroud, "Someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it."

However, even that would not prove that the Shroud was a forgery. There is one very good reason why, if the Shroud really is the burial sheet of Jesus Christ, that both the linen and the pollen on it, would have a younger radiocarbon age than its actual chronological age. Which is, that then the Shroud and its pollen would have been stored for many centuries in castles made of granite. In which case, as per this Wikipedia article below that granite is a "source of radiation " containing "around 10 to 20 parts per million of uranium," and in "buildings constructed primarily from natural granite, it is possible to be exposed to approximately 200 mrems per year" not to mention that cellars and basements within "uraniferous granites can become a trap for radon gas":

"Granite is a normal, geological, source of radiation in the natural environment. Granite has around 10 to 20 parts per million of uranium. By contrast, black granite (typically actually a tonalite, gabbro or diorite) has 1 to 5ppm uranium, and limestones and sedimentary rocks usually equally low. Many large granite plutons are the sources for palaeochannel-hosted or roll front uranium ore deposits, where the uranium washes into the sediments from the granite uplands and associated, often highly radioactive, pegmatites. In buildings constructed primarily from natural granite, it is possible to be exposed to approximately 200 mrems per year. Granite could be considered a potential natural radiological hazard as, for instance, villages located over granite may be susceptible to higher doses of radiation than other communites [sic]. Cellars and basements sunk into soils formed over or from particularly uraniferous granites can become a trap for radon gas, which is heavier than air. However, in the majority of cases, although granite is a significant source of natural radiation as compared to other rocks it is not often an acute health threat or significant risk factor." ("Granite: Natural Radiation," Wikipedia, 22 May 2007).

So, even if the pollen on the Shroud returned a 14th century radiocarbon date, when considering the very strong historical evidence for the Shroud going all the way back to the 1st century, and given the failure of all alternative forgery theories, if would still be rational to maintain that the Shroud was the 1st century burial sheet of Christ, albeit with an anomalously young radiocarbon age. After all, why would a forger go to so much trouble in the 14th century, as to, amongst many other things, use a linen cloth that had been "exposed to open air in the areas of both Turkey and Istanbul to ensure the proper pollen spread" when "the existence of pollen would not be discovered for at least another six hundred years," in an age when such "relics were forged frequently with no such sensitivity to detail" including "notoriously poor copies" of the Shroud itself that "were held in esteem" (Stevenson, K.E. & Habermas, G.R., "The Shroud and the Controversy," Thomas Nelson: Nashville TN, 1990, pp.77-78. My emphasis). But if the pollen from the Shroud returned dates markedly different from the 14th century, then that would be strong evidence against the 14th century radiocarbon date of the Shroud.

As I emailed the Shroud researcher, "to be quite honest and upfront, even if the radiocarbon date of the pollen turns out to be ... ~14th century), I (and I presume many others like me, perhaps even yourself) would still not necessarily accept that the Shroud was a fake. ... because the problems of forgery alternatives and the evidence that the Shroud goes back to the 6th and even to the 1st century AD, seems to me to be overwhelming. "

That is, the downside risk is minimal for those of us who consider the Shroud to be genuine, but the potential upside is maximal! We have little to lose (since most who consider the Shroud to be a fake no doubt base it on the 1988 radiocarbon 14th century date anyway) but much to gain.

I am writing this proposal to this my blog in order to publicly stake my claim for scientific priority for this line of research, in case no one else has thought of it (or at least stated it publicly). I intend to develop this proposal further in a paper to be submitted to one or more of the Shroud of Turin societies. I would appreciate it if anyone who reads this knows (and can give references) of anyone else who had already proposed that the pollen from the Shroud of Turin be radiocarbon-dated. I would also appreciate any suggestions to improve this proposal. Feedback can be via comments to this post or via email (my email address can be obtained from my home page).

PS: When I wrote above that "the evidence that the Shroud goes back to the 6th and even to the 1st century AD, seems to me to be overwhelming," I had not yet got to that section of Mark Guscin's excellent book, "The Oviedo Cloth" (1998) on the Sudarium of Oviedo, where he points out that "The most striking thing about all the stains" on the Sudarium, "consist of blood and ... pulmonary oedema fluid," which is consistent with death by crucifixion, "is that they coincide exactly with the face of the image on the Turin Shroud" and yet "the sudarium has been in Oviedo since 1075," so that alone "casts a great shadow of doubt over the results of the Shroud's carbon dating" (my emphasis)! As mentioned in part #5 of my Bogus: Shroud of Turin? series, I will in future be posting in that series on, "The Sudarium of Oviedo's matching images of blood, pollen and plants with those on the Shroud."

Stephen E. Jones, BSc. (Biology).

"The Stains The only markings visible to the naked eye on the sudarium are stains, so these should clearly play the central role in studies of the cloth. The main stains consist of one part blood and six parts pulmonary oedema fluid. This is very significant because it ... is the generally accepted opinion that people who were crucified died from asphyxiation: with the body hanging, its weight supported by the wrists nailed to the cross, it was virtually impossible to breathe. .... When a person dies in this way, his lungs are filled with the fluid from the oedema. If the body is moved or jolted, this fluid can come out through the nostrils. It is precisely this kind of stain that forms the central group of stains on the sudarium. ...The most striking thing about all the stains is that they coincide exactly with the face of the image on the Turin Shroud. The first fact that confirms the relationship between the two cloths is that the blood on each belongs to the same group, AB. If the blood or each cloth belonged to a different group, there would be no sense in pursuing the comparative investigation, and little meaning in any further points of coincidence. This test is the starting point for all the others, and the results are positive. Blood of the group AB is also very common in the Middle East and rare in Europe. ... The length of the nose which produced this stain has been calculated at eight centimetres, just over three inches, which is exactly the same as the length of the nose on the Shroud. ... This, however, is not the only point of coincidence between the nasal areas on the two cloths. Both of them, especially the Shroud, contain a high concentration of ground particles and dust in this area. When a man was being led to the place of crucifixion, he had to carry the horizontal bar of the cross, which was probably tied to his outstretched arms and placed across the back of his neck. This meant that whenever he fell, which would have been often after being whipped and with such a weight to carry, he could not protect his face from the impact of the fall. This also explains why this nose was swollen, slightly displaced and bleeding. Perhaps the most obvious fit when the stains on the sudarium are placed over the image of the face on the Shroud, is that are placed over the image of the face on the Shroud, is that of the beard; the match is perfect. This shows that the sudarium, possibly by being gently pressed onto the face, was also used to clean the blood and other fluids that had collected in the beard. Stain number 6 is also evident on all four faces of the sudarium. If stain 13 is placed over the nose of the image on the Shroud, stain 6 is seen to proceed from the right hand side of the man's mouth. This stain is hardly visible on the shroud, but its existence has been confirmed by Dr John Jackson, who is well known for his studies on the Shroud using the VP-8 image analyser. Using the VP-8 and photo-enhancements, Dr Jackson has shown that the same stain is present on the Shroud, and the shape of the stain coincides perfectly with the one on the sudarium. The gap between the blood coming out of the right hand side of the mouth and the stain on the beard is mapped as number 18. This gap closes as the stains get progressively more extensive on faces 1, 2, 3 and 4 while at the same time they are less intense. Stain number 12 corresponds to the eyebrows of the face on the Shroud. As with the beard, this facial hair would have retained blood and this would have produced the stains on the sudarium when it was placed on Jesus' face. There is also blood on the forehead, which forms stain number 10 on the sudarium. ... There are smaller blood stains on the left of the reverse side of the cloth, the side that was in direct contact with Jesus's face. It would seem that this part of the sudarium was in contact with the back of Jesus' head. These stains too coincide with those on the Shroud. The image of the back of the man on the Shroud is covered with wounds from the scourging he received before being crucified. The wounds on the man's back are obviously not reproduced on the sudarium, as this had no contact with it. However, there are thick bloodstains on the nape of the man's neck, showing the depth and extent of the wounds produced by the crown of thorns. This crown was probably not a circle, as traditional Christian art represents, but a kind of cap covering the whole head. The thorns were probably of the species ziziphus vulgaris, a long, hard and sharp thorn which would produce deep and painful wounds. The stains on the back of the man's neck on the Shroud correspond exactly to those on the sudarium ... Dr Alan Whanger has studied the points of coincidence and relationship between the Shroud and hundreds of Byzantine paintings and representations of Christ, even using coins, from the sixth and seventh centuries. This was done using a system called Polarised Image Overlay Technique. ... Dr Whanger applied the same image overlay technique to the sudarium, comparing it to the image and blood stains on the Shroud. Even he was surprised at the results. The frontal stains on the sudarium show seventy points of coincidence with the Shroud, and the rear side shows fifty. The only possible conclusion, according to this highly respected scientist, is that the sudarium covered the same face as the Turin Shroud. If this is so, and taking into account that it is impossible to deny that the sudarium has been in Oviedo since 1075, it casts a great shadow of doubt over the results of the Shroud's carbon dating." (Guscin, M., "The Oviedo Cloth," Lutterworth Press: Cambridge UK, 1998, pp.22-23,27-30,32. Emphasis original)


M.r Lemony Fresh said...

i LOVE It! I was looking for something like this. I read the articles about the idea of Da Vinci forging the the shroud and all but lost hope for the existence of one of god's miracles. This article gave me a real kick. It was quite refreshing to see someone reinforced a christian belief through the use of convincing language and scientific and historical evidence, in a world where just about every scientist has his 2 cents about Christianity. Thanks for going to the trouble of writing it, and rest assured, it's made it's mark upon someone :)
Please don't hesitate to spread it around.

Stephen E. Jones said...


>I was looking for something like this.

My proposal was based on misleading information by a US Geological Service web page. It is not possible at present to carbon-date single pollen grains. However, with advances in carbon-dating it may eventually be possible to date very small quantities of pollen grains. I believe this test is inevitable, given that it would be the only way to check on the radiocarbon dating of the linen. Even a new carbon-dating of the linen might be inconclusive due of the problems of dating old linen and also if Jesus was resurrected through it, the change of state of His body may have generated a neutron flux which would create extra carbon-14 making the linen appear younger than it actually is.

>I read the articles about the idea of Da Vinci forging the the shroud and all but lost hope for the existence of one of god's miracles.

Da Vinci lived a century after the Shroud's first appearance in France in 1357. So the theory requires that the Shroud today is not the one that appeared in France in 1357.

But even Da Vinci could not have forged the Shroud. And even if he could, why would he, given that he would have been guilty of a major crime in 15-16th century Italy that involved too many conspirators for it to be kept quiet. The theory also requires no one to notice that the Shroud had changed markedly (otherwise why do it?), but there is a continuous record of the Shroud being exhibited through Da Vinci's lifetime. See my "Leonardo da Vinci 'faked Turin Shroud and used his own features as the face of Jesus'."

>This article gave me a real kick. It was quite refreshing to see someone reinforced a christian belief through the use of convincing language and scientific and historical evidence, in a world where just about every scientist has his 2 cents about Christianity. Thanks for going to the trouble of writing it, and rest assured, it's made it's mark upon someone :)

Thanks for your encouraging feedback. The evidence that the Shroud of Turin is the very burial sheet of Jesus, imprinted with His crucified and resurrected body is overwhelming. See my series "Re: There is compelling evidence it is the burial cloth of Christ, or a man crucified during that time" and my earlier series, "Bogus: Shroud of Turin?"

Stephen E. Jones