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Is Shakespeare's Skull Missing Or No?


In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet famously holds up a skull, and for a couple of hundred years, a story has gone around that Shakespeare's own skull is missing from his tomb at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Tomorrow night, Britain's Channel 4 airs a documentary claiming to have confirmed that the skull is missing, though there are still plenty of skeptics. We reached the archaeologist who led the investigation, Kevin Colls. Good morning.

KEVIN COLLS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You, an archaeologist, went to Trinity Church, where his tomb is, and - what - proposed to them that you actually do a search?

COLLS: Holy Trinity has had hundreds of requests from archaeologists and historians and crazy people, all wanting to go and dig a hole in the floor of their church. The church has always said no to those requests. It was the vicar who came to me to say, what sort of archaeology could be done on that site?

MONTAGNE: And so you ended up using ground penetrating radar to look into his tomb.

COLLS: Yes, absolutely. We were very relieved when the data did start coming back because it definitely confirmed that beneath the tombstone of William Shakespeare was in fact a grave. Then, what we found is that half of his grave is undisturbed. And then the head end, so where his skull would have been, there is voids.

MONTAGNE: Why would somebody - and this would have been back in the late 1700s, that's the theory - why would somebody have stolen Shakespeare's skull?

COLLS: In that period towards the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, the theft of skulls was quite a big thing actually for a number of reasons. One was for medical research to try and work out why the people who were famous and if there's any way they can figure out why that was the case. The second is, unfortunately, for financial gain. And I think that's the case here because of a bet saying that 300 pounds will be given to anyone who finds William Shakespeare's skull and survives the curse that is supposedly on his tombstone at Holy Trinity.

MONTAGNE: This is what they would be seeing as they approached the tomb. This is Shakespeare's epitaph really. (Reading) 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.

That's a little farewell, I'd say.

COLLS: (Laughter) Yes, yes.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

COLLS: No problem, anytime. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Colls is an archaeologist at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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