The Skeptical Inquirer

Pollens on the 'shroud': a study in deception. (Shroud of Turin)

The Shroud of Turin has been shown to be an artistic forgery, but a small group of enthusiasts still cite the supposed presence of Palestinian pollen as a major counter-argument. It now appears that the pollen study was an exercise either in self-deception or outright scientific fraud.

Despite its exposure as an artistic forgery, the Shroud of Turin (which bears the front and back images of an apparently crucified man) is still promoted as the burial cloth of Jesus by a small, but vocal, group of religious enthusiasts, including a few scientists. They continue to cite the "presence of Palestinian pollen grains on the Holy Shroud" (De Vincenzo 1993) as a major counterargument to the carbon-14 test results, which indicated the cloth was of medieval manufacture (Damon et al. 1989; Nickell 1989, 1991). Unfortunately, it now appears that the pollen study was an exercise in deception--self-deception, at best, if not outright scientific fraud.

The analysis was conducted by a Swiss criminologist named Max Frei-Sulzer (1913-1983). Frei once taught an evening course in microscopical techniques in the Zurich University extension system; subsequently he was asked to create a crime laboratory for the local police, which he began in 1950 (Palenik 1982). In 1973, as a consultant to a shroud commission Frei was granted permission to take samples from the cloth. This involved pressing small strips of sticky tape onto the cloth's surface, then peeling them off--coated with surface debris--and sticking them on microscope slides.

During the next two years, between jobs as a freelance criminologist, Frei microscopically examined his tapes and in March 1976 issued a report, claiming he had found certain pollens that "could only have originated from plants that grew exclusively in Palestine at the time of Christ." Frei was also quoted as asserting: "I can state with certainty that the Turin shroud dates from the time of Christ." (Humber 1978: 196; Wilcox 1977:167). Apparently, however, he was either "misquoted" or withdrew this rash statement, because shroud researcher Ian Wilson (1979:80) soon insisted, "Frei makes no such claims," describing him as a "cautious individual."

Subsequently, Frei had also claimed, according to wire-service reports, that "he found traces of ointment made from a type of aloe that grows only on the island of Socotra, off the coast of South Yemen. Ancient texts refer to the ointment as having been applied to corpses before burial, Frei said." These alleged findings--consistent with the reference to aloes in the Gospel of John (19:39)--were presented to the Archbishop of Turin just in time to make 1981 Easter news (Dart 1981).

Earlier, Frei had also claimed to have found pollens on the shroud that were characteristic of two other non-European regions, including Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and the area of the Anatolian steppe that includes Urfa (Edessa, in ancient times)--both in Turkey (Frei-Sulzer 1979). …

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