The Shroud of Turin is not the only religious object that has been studied by palynologists. The Gondar Hanging, believed to be an 18th-century silk tapestry with Ethiopian Christian symbols, was purportedly carried off as booty when the British attacked Ethiopia in the mid-19th century. It was later purchased by George A. Sweny, a British colonel who moved to Canada in the late 1800s. In 1995, the Royal Ontario Museum, the current owner, decided to clean and restore the 17-by-7-foot tapestry.

Museum officials believed that an analysis of the pollen on the Gondar Hanging could shed light on its origins. They asked palynologist David Jarzen, then with the Canadian Museum of Nature, in Ottawa, and now with the Florida Museum of Natural History, in Gainesville, to conduct the study. Working in a sealed, contamination-free room, Jarzen used a sterile vacuum canister to collect pollen trapped on the hanging. Later, when the tapestry was lightly washed with a mild detergent, some of the runoff was saved so Jarzen could examine that for pollen as well.

Jarzen found numerous common pollen types from plants that grow in North Africa, Europe and parts of North America. Since those pollen types could not be identified beyond the genus level, they could not be used to pinpoint where the Gondar Hanging had originated. But Jarzen also recovered olive pollen types in such pristine condition that they could be examined at high resolution and identified down to the species level. One of these was Olea chrysophylla, an olive tree pollen frequently found in the savannah and open woodland regions of Ethiopia.

Jarzen also recovered pollen from waterwillow Justicia, an insect-pollinated plant found in Ethiopia. Waterwillow is a large plant genus, however, and Jarzen was unable to obtain samples of each of the more than 400 species of waterwillow that he would have needed to identify the Gondar samples down to the species level. But, the presence of Justicia identified even just to the generic level is significant as it may represent an Ethiopian source and thereby document the hanging’s origin as African.

The presence of both the olive and waterwillow pollen on the Gondar Hanging, and the fact that neither plant grows in Great Britain or Canada but are both found in Ethiopia, led Jarzen to conclude that the tapestry did indeed originate in Ethiopia.