Did thieves steal Shakespeare's skull?
The first archaeological study of the playwright’s grave in England found that his skull appears to be missing.
The findings of a new investigation of William Shakespeare’s grave in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in England support claims made more than a century ago about the contents of the grave. Or the lack of contents, specifically.
After the first archaeological study of the playwright’s grave at Holy Trinity Church, 400 years after his death, researchers say they believe his skull is missing. They determined this by using ground-penetrating radar to scan the contents of the grave.
A magazine called The Argosy first claimed in 1879 that the writer’s skull had been stolen nearly a century before, when grave robbing was common, though that claim was and continues to be dismissed by some. According to Reuters, skulls were collectible items because genius was expected to be observable in the remains of the deceased. Shakespeare’s own character, Hamlet, in a famous scene holds the skull of a friend while he muses on death, as Reuters points out.
"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,” archaeologist Kevin Colls of Staffordshire University, who conducted the radar analysis with geophysicist Erica Utsi, told the BBC.
"It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all," he said.
So where is Shakespeare’s skull?
Nobody knows for sure. Rumors had it that his skull was hidden nearby in a sealed crypt at St. Leonard's church, in the village of Beoley. But a forensic analysis showed that the skull there belonged to woman who was in her 70s when she died.
"Our research will continue – we're going to try and do as much as we can to locate it," Dr. Colls told the BBC. "Because we had two possible locations – Holy Trinity and St Leonard's in Beoley – and we've ruled out those, we now need to look through documents again to help us find where it could be,” he said.
According to church records, Shakespeare was buried in his hometown church, Holy Trinity, 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of London, on April 25, 1616, two days after he died at 52. His wife, Anne Hathaway, daughter and son-in-law were later buried alongside him, reports The Washington Post.
The archaeological analysis showed that the family members do not lie in a single vault, but rather in shallow graves in the church chancel. The radar didn’t pick up traces of nails or other metal, which suggests the family members were buried in cloth shrouds, not in coffins.
The new findings have opened the door to new speculations about the fate of the famous writer’s skull.
An expert on Renaissance burial customs, Chris Laoutaris, of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, says it is possible that the writer’s skull is in a relative's tomb.
"Of course, it's possible that his head was looted in 1794, as the Argosy Magazine had claimed somewhat controversially in 1879," he told the BBC.
"But then another question occurred to me: what if Shakespeare's skull was disinterred not long after his burial and reburied with another family member or loved one?” he said.
Holy Trinity’s vicar, Patrick Taylor, is among those who is not convinced that the skull is missing from the grave in the first place. Either way, he told the Post, there are no plans to disturb the grave to find out for certain.
“We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone,” he said to the Post.
Shakespeare’s life, work, and death have been shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years. Some believe it should stay that way.
"It is my personal feeling that he should be left alone now,” John Hogg, a Statford tour guide, told the BBC.
"He's laid there for 400 years. It's time to allow the mystery to remain just that," said Mr. Hogg.