Radar Scan Stokes Mystery Over Shakespeare's 'Missing' Skull

Signs of tampering with the Bard's final resting place lend credence to a story about his skull being stolen in the 18th century.

A radar scan of William Shakespeare's tomb has discovered signs of tampering with his final resting place that lend credence to a story about his skull being stolen in the 18th century, researchers say.

Archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar on the grave, which is protected by a curse, for a documentary airing on Saturday to mark the 400th anniversary of the famous playwright's death.

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"We have Shakespeare's burial with an odd disturbance at the head end," said Kevin Colls, who is heading up the research on the grave site at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, central England, Shakespeare's home town.

"It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all," he said.

According to a story published in 1879, trophy hunters removed the skull in the late 18th century.

The robbers would have defied the inscription on a stone slab above the grave reading: "Bleste be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."

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The grave is only a metre (three feet) below the floor of the church and there is no evidence of metal, indicating that the body of the "Bard" was wrapped in a shroud rather than buried in a coffin, the survey also found.

Shakespeare is buried alongside his wife, Anne Hathaway, and the grave is a place of pilgrimage for the many fans who flock to Stratford every year.

The discovery will feature in a documentary being broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 television as part of commemorations ahead of the April 23 anniversary of Shakespeare's death when there will be a series of performances and a candlelit vigil in the church.

The scan - the first ever carried out - revealed significant repairs to the head-end of the grave.

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Local vicar Patrick Taylor said he was unconvinced by the theory that the skull had been taken away but ruled out opening the grave.

"We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare's wishes, and not allow it to be disturbed," he said.

"We shall live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone."

Holy Trinity Church is famed for being the church where William Shakespeare was both baptized and buried.

Experts disagree about which of Shakespeare's portraits are real or fake. There is no definitive portrait of the Bard painted in his lifetime. Only two likenesses, both posthumous, are widely accepted as authentic: a bust on his tomb in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church (right), restored and repainted several times, and the Droeshout engraving, used as a frontispiece to the Folio edition of his plays in 1623 (left).

In 2006, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, claimed amid some controversy that four images of Shakespeare were the true likeness. The portraits were the Chandos portrait (top left), the Darmstadt Shakespeare death mask (top right), what she called the original Flower portraits (bottom left) and the Davenant bust (bottom right).

According to the German academic, the other two portraits help reconstruct different stages of Shakespeare's life and diseases. One dates from his youth, the second from his old age. Possibly painted around 1594, when the poet was about 30 years old, this portrait depicts Shakespeare as a relatively young man exuding self-confidence and a triumphant smile. At that time, Shakespeare had reached the first height of his unparalleled literary career.

The portrait hung in the bedchamber of Prince Franz (1740-1817), in the Gothic House of the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm. Seized in 1945 by the Soviet army, it has been lost ever since. Only a high-quality, monochrome photograph from 1936 remains. Records show the portrait was given to Prince Franz in 1763-64 as a gift by Thomas Hart, a distant relative of Shakespeare.

The other portrait represents the Bard as an affluent, older gentleman living in retirement. He sits on an elaborately-carved chair, holding a book in his left hand and resting his right hand on the head of an adoring dog, sitting to his right. According to the German researcher, this painting shows for the first time the whole person of Shakespeare.

While careful examination of the image has even determined the breed of the dog, which, according to the London veterinary Bruce Fogle, appears to be a Lurcher, (a cross between a Greyhound and a working dog) nothing is known about the provenance and history of the portrait. Hammerschmidt-Hummel found the portrait in a rare, richly illustrated edition of James Boaden's work of 1824. Called an "Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints, which ...have been offered to the Public as Portraits of Shakespeare," the book displayed the portrait as an engraving.

All the details in the image suggest Shakespeare had his portrait made at his Stratford residence New Place at the the age of about 50, presumably for the last time -- about two years before his death.

The tests for authenticity on the new portraits brought to light a series of facial marks and idiosyncrasies that correspond to those found on all the other Shakespeare likenesses. In particular, the two newly found pictures show a growth on the upper left eyelid and swellings in the nasal corner of the left eye, which seem to represent different stages of a disease and are present in all portraits used for comparison. Moreover, a montage of the Wörlitz and Boaden portraits with the Droeshout engraving shows "astounding correspondences and agreements." Hammerschmidt-Hummel said. "Such precise correlations can only occur when the persons depicted and compared are identical," she said.