Discoveries: Flower evidence links Turin Shroud to the Holy Land

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The Turin Shroud, which devotees believe was wound around the crucified body of Jesus two millennia ago, began its travels in Jerusalem, according to a new study.

Eric Silver follows the latest twist on the detective trail.

Avinoam Danin's investigation of photo images and pollen grains taken from the ancient, discoloured linen pinpoints the holy city and the Judean wilderness to its east as the place where wild flowers garlanding the shadowy head of Christ were picked.

"This assemblage of plants could only have come from the vicinity of Jerusalem," the 58-year-old Hebrew University professor told The Independent yesterday. "And they were fresh when they were placed in the shroud."

If this is so, it undermines two sceptical theories published in the past year: that a medieval male model was daubed with red paint of a kind commonly used in Italy, then wrapped in the sheet to create the image of a crucified corpse; or that it was the shroud of Jacques de Molay, last grand master of the Knights Templar, who was crucified in 1307 in a parody of his faith by the Paris inquisition, jealous of the crusading order's wealth and power.

Last April, the shroud was saved from a fire which ravaged Turin Cathedral, where it had been housed in reverent disputation for four centuries. The linen measures 4ft 5ins by 4ft 8ins. It is printed with the bloodstained front and back images of a long-haired man, just under 6ft tall, who had been nailed by the hands and feet, scourged and stabbed in the side, exactly as described in the New Testament account of the execution of Jesus. There are even signs of head wounds that could have been inflicted by a crown of thorns.

Pollen grains and traces of plants, especially around the head, were discovered by Max Frei, a Swiss forensic scientist, who examined the shroud in 1973 and 1978. He identified 25 species among the hundreds of pollen grains he had taken from the linen, but died in 1982 before completing his research.

Three years later, Alan Whanger, a retired American doctor and photography buff, identified 28 species native to the Holy Land after enhancing faint images on a 1931 photograph of the shroud. They included rock roses, crown chrysanthemums and a bouquet of bean capers. Dr Whanger called in Professor Danin, an expert on the botany of the Near East, and they cross- checked their information.

Writing in the latest issue of the Israeli geographical magazine, Eretz, Professor Danin reported that a bouquet of rock roses seen in the enhanced photographs on the right cheek of the human figure coincided with pollen found by Max Frei long before anyone had discovered images of the plant on the shroud.

Using a database of plant distribution, the Israeli scholar located 27 of the shroud's 28 species in the Jerusalem area. But the modest bean caper (zygophyllum dumosum), noted by both Mr Frei and Dr Whanger, was the clincher.

The bean caper grows only in Israel, Jordan and the Sinai desert. Professor Danin can even tell when it was picked. "The fact that the images of winter leaves appear on the shroud together with the previous year's petioles [a stalk joining leaf to stem] indicates that the plant was picked in spring," he wrote.

In conversation, the professor goes further. "Another kind of caper found on the shroud," he said, "was picked at about 2pm in the Judean wilderness. In spring this caper starts to open at 12 noon and continues growing until 5pm. If you cut it, it stays frozen in the same form."

QED. But what the Danin study cannot do is date the shroud. Carbon testing of the linen in 1988 suggested that it was made in the 13th or 14th century, but this is challenged by the Archbishop of Turin and other shroud advocates, who argue that the chemistry might have been changed by an earlier fire in 1532, or that the specimens examined were parts of a repair job. The debate continues.