For more than 100 years, rumors have abounded that William Shakespeare’s skull might have been stolen from his grave at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
But no evidence ever turned up to substantiate the rumors – until now. A team of archeologists from Staffordshire University peered into Shakespeare’s grave, using modern radar technology, and they say they’re reasonably confident the famed playwright’s skull is indeed no longer interred with the rest of his body.
The team, led by archeologist Kevin Colls, began their work by sifting through archives for possible records of grave disturbances or evidence that Shakespeare’s entire body might have been buried elsewhere, like a family crypt.
But the results of that search proved inconclusive, so Colls turned to radar imaging. After initial resistance from holy Trinity Church, the imaging began in 2014, bouncing radio waves off the contents beneath the grave to produce a topographical image.
To confirm what they were seeing looked abnormal, the researchers performed radar imaging on other graves at the same site too. The bottom half of Shakespeare’s grave looked just like the others, complete with air pockets symptomatic of the grave’s sinking over time. But the top half looked completely different – a clear indication to the team that contents from the grave had been removed and put back in place.
The results of their research will be broadcast this weekend in a documentary produced with the BBC.
But who stole Shakespeare’s skull? The researchers have a guess. In the late 1800s, a magazine article appeared detailing a 1794 grave robbery by a doctor named Frank Chambers, who made off with the playwright’s skull.
The tone of the article sounded flippant, which caused the researchers and many before them to dismiss the story it recounted. But as the team looked closer, details of the story checked out. They researched the names of Chambers’s supposed accomplices, the inns they checked into before and after the theft, and the depth to which they dug. Everything appeared correct.
"If the grave-robbing account is a made-up story," Colls told the New York Times, "then it’s unbelievably accurate in all its details."
As for why a doctor would want the skull of a legendary genius, there is another easy answer. The late 1700s saw the rise of phrenology, a pseudoscientific quest for clues of intelligence in the size and shape of people’s heads.