Using Pollen for Good, not Evil: A Recent Forensic Study

John G. Jones, Ph.D.

Earlier in my career, I was approached by the conservation laboratory in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; the lab had been hired to conserve a telescope and they wanted my input. The telescope had belonged to Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). The owner of the scope, Meriwether Lewis’ descendant, was certain that it was his ancestor’s scope but they were unclear whether or not this was THE scope that had accompanied the pioneers on their epic journey. During the cleaning of the telescope, they encountered residues preserved in the eyepiece consolidated by copper salts – dust preserved by the corrosion product, and would I be willing to take a look at the material, searching specifically for pollen that might demonstrate a connection with the Pacific Northwest. I received a vial containing a tiny amount of material removed from the screw-threads and eyepiece of the scope.
Recognizing that we had very little material to work with, and only one shot at this analysis, I opted to analyze the entire sample in a non-destructive manner. I carefully placed the “dust” on a microscope slide and under high power, began the task of identifying everything on the slide.

Animal tissue (sharkskin)
Volcanic ash (1)
Grass phytolith (1)
Flax fibers
Cotton fibers
Unidentified hair (1)
Sycamore (Platanus) pollen grain (1)
Eyelash (1)

I called the director with my findings, and he addressed each item. The soot was blacking from the interior of the scope. The animal tissue was from the tanned sharkskin tube in which the scope was contained. The volcanic ash was interesting, but could have been introduced into the eyepiece virtually anywhere. The grass phytolith was a non-diagnostic bilobate form produced in pretty much every grass in the world – that wasn’t going to help us. Flax fiber was easy – that came from a linen wrap that encased the telescope within the shark-leather tube. The cotton came from a Q-tip that was used in an ill-conceived cleaning effort in the late 1920s. The unidentified hair was of little value. Erosion had muddled the surface of the (very tiny) hair fragment; we were sure it was not human, but it could have originated on anything from a kitten to a sasquatch. The range of sycamore trees is pretty widespread, but they favor the eastern US, as well as some locations in California and other rare locations in the west. However, sycamore trees were not found along the path of Lewis and Clark’s fateful journey. I told the director about the eyelash and he reminded me that it was an eyepiece after all, and that an eyelash might be expected. I told him it was bright red in color. Silence on the phone. He then asked me if I was aware that Meriwether Lewis, like William Clark and Thomas Jefferson, had bright red hair?
Although we couldn’t find any connection with the northwestern journey, it was nonetheless enlightening.