Scientists use ground penetrating radar to search the tombs of William Shakespeare and his family as they try to locate his skull.

Scientists use ground penetrating radar to search the tombs of William Shakespeare and his family as they try to locate his skull. Photo: Channel 4, Arrow Media.

In a twist of irony that he himself would probably find comical, William Shakespeare’s skull doesn’t seem to be where we would expect it, which is to say in his tomb.

Buried at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bard lays next to his wife, Anne Hathaway. Four hundred years later, a team of scientists used ground-penetrating radar to scan his grave, and detected interference where the skull should be. That interference implies that the skull isn’t there, but it can’t be proven without exhuming the body, which is unlikely to ever happen.

The disturbance could be from any number of causes, but researchers tend to think the skull is missing because it lines up with a longstanding legend that tomb-robbers broke in and stole the skull in the 18th Century.

Tomb robbing was a far more common crime back then, and some people felt that genius, like Shakespeare’s, would be indicated on the skull. There was also a longstanding belief in the medicinal and even magical power of items like human bones, which lasted into the beginning of the 20th Century.

There is also a legend that his head was buried in a different church, in Worcestershire. The team did visit that church, and there was a skull in a tomb there, but it belonged to a woman who had been in her 70s when she died, so not the Bard.

It seems unlikely that this scan will resolve any questions about Shakespeare’s burial, which lies at the center of numerous myths and mysteries. It is fascinating, and it will likely propel some new arguments, both scholarly and otherwise, about the truth behind the tomb.

It might even spur developments in ground penetrating radar technology, in order to better identify the interference without exhuming the Bard himself.

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