Born to a glover in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, William Shakespeare went on to become one of the greatest writers in the English language. Penning poems, sonnets, and plays, his work is widely celebrated for their reflections on the human condition and exploration of universal themes. So influential has he been, that his works have even shaped the English language, adding to it over 1,700 new words. But there is a slightly more sinister side to the life – or death – of Shakespeare. It seems that someone has stolen his skull.
In 1879, there was a newspaper report that tomb robbers had dug up the head of Shakespeare from his shallow grave in 1794 and made off with his skull as a trophy, but for a long time this story has been widely dismissed and regarded as a myth. It now seems that there may have been more truth in the story than anyone had given it credit for, as after the first archaeological investigation of the Bard's grave – which is found in Holy Trinity church in Stratford – they’ve found evidence that suggests he might actually be missing his noggin.
The unmarked grave of William Shakespeare in the Holy Trinity church, Stratford. David Merret/Flickr CC BY 2.0
The researchers did not want to disturb the grave, which is unmarked except for an unsettling inscription which reads: “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.” To get around this, they used ground penetrating radar (GPR) to peer beneath the stones and get a better idea of how he was buried. The grave is shallow at just 0.9 meters (3 feet) deep, allowing the scientists to see that he wasn’t interred in a coffin, instead just covered in a simple shroud. But they also shed light on the tomb robbers myth.
“We have Shakespeare's burial with an odd disturbance at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone's come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare,” says Kevin Colls, one of the archaeologists from Stafford University who carried out the examination. “It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all.” Convincing, yes, but not conclusive. Colls admits that this cannot 100 percent confirm the myth, but that it’s enough to sway him.
The research was carried out as part of a TV program (broadcast in the U.K. at 8pm GMT, March 26, on Channel 4) in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Despite being considered one of the greatest writers of all time, with his works having been translated into over 80 languages – even Klingon – there are still many things about Shakespeare and his life that have remained shrouded in mystery, from where he was educated to his “lost years.” This research could at least lay one myth to rest.