Scientists: Shakespeare’s Skull Likely Stolen, Whereabouts Remain Unknown

Shakespeare’s skull was probably stolen, according to scientists studying the grave. Was it used in a production of Hamlet, as a macabre tribute to the playwright? That much of the mystery remains, along with the current whereabouts of the skull. In any case, stealing body parts from graves wasn’t actually that rare for many years after Shakespeare’s death, and similar incidents have happened to other people of historical significance.

The rumor about Shakespeare’s skull has persisted since at least the 18th century according to CNN. What’s new is that now archaeologists have evidence that the tale is true.

Alas, poor Shakespeare. Ironically, one of the most iconic moments in Hamlet is a monologue with Yoricks skull, which was stolen by grave robbers. [Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images]
Alas, poor Shakespeare. Ironically, one of the most iconic moments in Hamlet is a monologue with Yoricks skull, which was stolen by grave robbers. [Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images]

Researchers used radar scanners to investigate William Shakespeare’s tomb in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. The scans show something is missing where the skull should be, and according to head archaeologist Kevin Colls, the area seemed oddly disturbed.

“We came across this very odd, strange thing at the head end. It was very obvious, within all the data we were getting, that there was something different going on at that particular spot. We have concluded it is signs of disturbance, of material being dug out and put back again.”

The Guardian reports that there was a “very strange brick structure” that cut across the skull section of the grave. Foreign material was also detected, suggesting a repair was made at one point. The researchers concluded that Shakespeare’s skull probably was stolen after putting together the new evidence.

So why don’t researchers just open the tomb and look for themselves?

The archaeologists face some restrictions when it comes to Shakespeare’s grave. The playwright gave explicit instructions that his grave was not to be disturbed.

The full inscription on the grave. Apparently, someone did not read this carefully. [Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images]

On the tomb itself it says, “blessed be the man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.”

The tomb is also unmarked, another tactic to elude grave robbers. Shakespeare had good reason to be worried, as Colls explained.

“Grave-robbing was a big thing in the 17th and 18th century. People wanted the skull of famous people so they could potentially analyse it and see what made them a genius. It is no surprise to me that Shakespeare’s remains were a target.”

Francisco Goya, Beethoven, and even Mozart were also victims of skull theft, long after they were dead, of course. The researchers also studied the skull of someone in a nearby grave, believed to be Shakespeare’s, but found out it was from a woman in her 70s.

Although the scientists believe the skull has likely been stolen, they concede that they don’t have enough evidence to say for sure. And, according to the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Reverend Patrick Taylor, without more advanced technology or less respect for graves, no one will ever truly know.

“We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare’s wishes, and not allow it to be disturbed. We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone.”

Taylor believes the archaeologists are jumping to conclusions and does not believe the skull was stolen. The researchers might be giving credence to one rumor about Shakespeare, but they’re disproving several others. The team concluded that the famous playwright was not buried vertically; nor was he buried 17 feet underground. Another rumor said he was buried in a family tomb; that too was disproven.

Other than one most likely stolen skull, Shakespeare’s grave is a simple, shallow tomb, according to researchers — one that’s visited by hundreds of visitors every year. On Saturday, March 26th, British Channel 4’s documentary Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb, will reveal the full details of the archaeological study.

[Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]