Archaeologists who scanned the grave of William Shakespeare say they have made a head-scratching discovery. His skull appears to be missing.
Researchers used ground-penetrating radar to explore the playwright's tomb. The tomb is in Stratford-upon-Avon's Holy Trinity Church. Staffordshire University archaeologist Kevin Colls led the study. He said they found "an odd disturbance at the head end." They also found evidence of repairs some time after the original burial.
He said the finding supports a claim first made in 1879. This claim has long been dismissed as myth. The claim is that the Bard's skull was stolen by grave robbers in the 18th century.
"It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all," Colls said.
Church records say Shakespeare was buried in his hometown church. The church is 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of London. Records say he was buried on April 25, 1616. That was two days after his death. He was 52 years old. His wife, Anne Hathaway, daughter and son-in-law were later buried alongside him.
Colls and geophysicist Erica Utsi found that the family members lie in shallow graves in the church chancel. They are not in a single vault. There are no traces of nails or other metal. This suggests they may have been buried in cloth shrouds rather than coffins.
Colls said the findings, which were featured in a documentary airing Saturday on Britain's Channel 4 television, would "undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories" - but some Shakespeare scholars remained skeptical.
Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, said the grave-robbing claim was first made in an 1879 short story.
"It's striking the piece of fiction imagines Shakespeare being buried quite shallow, and it turns out he was buried quite shallow," he said Thursday. "But it is still a piece of fiction."
A skull takes a starring role in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," in which the Danish prince addresses the bony cranium of a man he once knew: "Alas, poor Yorick!"
But Dobson said it would have been unusual for anyone to want a writer's skull at the time of the alleged theft.
"There wasn't a huge fashion for robbing literary graves in the 18th century," he said.
Holy Trinity's vicar, Patrick Taylor, said he was not convinced there is "sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken." And he said there are no plans to disturb the grave to find out for sure.
"We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone," he said.
That may be a wise decision in light of the warning inscribed on Shakespeare's gravestone:
"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."