What was once discarded as a myth or an urban legend may actually be true – geophysical studies seem to indicate that Shakespeare’s head may be missing from the grave, possibly stolen by graverobbers in the 19th century.
The bard is buried in the beautiful Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare was buried in his home-town church, 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of London in 1616. His wife, Anne Hathaway, daughter and son-in-law were later buried alongside him. Archaeologist Kevin Colls and geophysicist Erica Utsi scanned the graves with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), a technique that sends electromagnetic pulses to image the subsurface.
They found that Shakespeare and his family are buried in shallow graves in the church chancel, rather than in a single vault. There are also no indications of metal in their graves, which indicates they were buried in cloth shrouds instead of coffins. They also found indication that the bard’s head might be missing from the grave. Colls said the findings, which feature in a documentary airing Saturday 26 March on Britain’s Channel 4 television, would “undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories”:
“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. It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”
Strikingly, the claim of the head’s theft was made in a short story in 1879 – but was dismissed as fiction. Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham is still not convinced, arguing that no one would want a writer’s head in the 19th century.
“It’s striking the piece of fiction imagines Shakespeare being buried quite shallow, and it turns out he was buried quite shallow,” he said Thursday. “But it is still a piece of fiction.”
In the meantime, we’ll just have to live with the mystery. The grave won’t be disturbed in the future, which seems especially wise considering the warning inscribed on Shakespeare’s gravestone:
“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.”