A team of archeologists at the University of Stratford have concluded that Shakespeare's skull was most likely stolen. The findings of the investigation were announced this weekend, after ground-penetrating radar of the grave appeared to confirm the longstanding rumor of the Bard's missing head.
"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,” lead archaeologist Kevin Colls tells the BBC. "It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all."
The "story" that Colls alludes to was first published by The Argosy magazine in 1879. In an anonymously reported essay, "A Warwickshire Man" recounts the "startling adventure which until now has been as secret as the grave."
In his telling, Frank Chambers, the uncle of a local bartender known only as Mr. M., had endeavored to steal the skull in 1794 in exchange for three hundred pounds. The article claims to present a firsthand account — passed down from Chambers, to Mr. M., to this anonymous author — of the night the skull was stolen. Regardless of the sketchy authorship, the story is a wonderfully whimsical tale of 18th-century England, full of fun asides about the subject's romantic exploits and silly British euphemisms for being drunk ("top-heavy").
But the most interesting part of the story — or the part that's leant it new credibility among some archeologists, at least — concerns the depth of Shakespeare's grave:
It wasn't until last week that archeological analysis showed Shakespeare and his three family members were buried in a shallow grave, seemingly in shrouds of clothes and without a coffin. How, then, did "A Warwickshire Man" know all this back in 1879?
"It is of course possible that the skull was removed before the burial, and what our research has done is open a whole can of worms," admits Colls. "But the fact is that our findings correlate so well with the documented theft in 1879 — particularly the reference to the grave being shallow. If it was going to be made up, the story would be entirely different."
Amazingly, this flippant magazine article, dismissed by so many as farce, managed to get the story right in 1879. But what actually happened to the invaluable skull?
According to the Argosy piece, the gentleman who'd promised a bounty for the skull reneged on the offer, and Chambers' attempts to pass it off on others were refused. One of his potential buyers made Chambers promise that he'd return the prized braincase to its rightful body, which the amateur grave robber agreed to do. But on the day Chambers was supposed to restore the grave, a work-related emergency forced him to delegate the task to a neighbor named Tom, who was apparently quite the drunk.
Here's the essay's clincher:
Though we've finally confirmed that the skull is not interred with the rest of the body, the mystery of its present location endures. As for Frank Chambers, his name has long been lost to history, though — if we're to believe Shakespeare's tombstone — his spirit has been doomed for eternity.
The unmarked grave bears this eerily prophetic rhyme:
"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."