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Famously, the grave of William Shakespeare is marked with an ominous entreaty carved on his stone that warns against disturbing his bones, declaring a curse on anyone that disturbs the dust enclosed here. Respecting Shakespeare’s wishes has meant that it was impossible to excavate the grave of the bard and explore questions like how he was buried, or even to confirm longstanding rumors about Shakespeare’s grave, including the idea that his skull was stolen by grave robbers in the 18th century. Impossible that is, until modern technology came up with a way to scan the graves digitally and explore the insides without disturbing any dust. That’s exactly the project a team of archaeologists from Staffordshire University embarked upon in 2016 when they went to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon, England, and applied a combination of radar technology and digital scans to take a look inside the grave of William Shakespeare, which was turned into a major documentary project for Channel 4 called Shakespeare’s Tomb. Our guest this week, Kevin Colls, was the lead archaeologist on that project, and he’s here to share with us what lies beneath the stones of Shakespeare’s final resting place. 

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Kevin Colls is an Associate Professor of Archaeology working for the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University. He has directed and published archaeological projects throughout the United Kingdom and Europe and holds over 20 years’ experience in professional archaeology. In addition, he holds academic duties and teaches on a number of undergraduate and postgraduate modules across the University including forensic archaeology, a residential summer school in archaeology, conflict and genocide studies, and practical archaeology. Kevin specializes in advanced archaeological field techniques including geophysical survey, urban archaeology, forensic archaeology and the archaeology of islands. His project portfolio includes major archaeological excavations in many of the UK’s urban centres, archaeological survey and remote sensing on Scottish Islands, and rural archaeological surveys in central Greece, Poland and Serbia Of his current and recent projects, the highest profile is the prestigious ‘Finding Shakespeare’ Project. This globally important research project focuses upon novel and innovative archaeological techniques to uncover new evidence of the life of William Shakespeare. This includes the excavation of the final residence of William Shakespeare (called New Place; the house in which the Bard passed away), and the first archaeological investigation of Shakespeare’s Tomb using a wide range of advanced non-invasive survey methods. This and other projects have led to several high profile appearances on television programmes for the BBC (Digging for Britain BBC2, and BBC Alba in Scotland), Channel 4 (Shakespeare’s Tomb), Channel 5 (Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine) and an hour long Time Team special in 2012 (Channel 4). See a complete list of Kevin Colls' publications, inlcuding more on Shakespeare's Grave, at his staff page here. 

 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Kevin Colls about :

  • When you scanned the graves, was Shakespeare inside? 

  • By the time Shakespeare died, coffins had come into fashion for England, but some suggest Shakespeare would have been more old school about his funeral arrangements. Kevin, based on what you found, can you tell us if Shakespeare is buried in a shroud or in a coffin?
  • There’s a longstanding rumor, considered a discredited idea by many today,  that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen in 1794 by grave robbers. Kevin, did your scans upend this rumor? Was Shakespeare’s skull in his grave?


… and more!

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Here lie I down, and measure out my grave.
Adam

As You Like It (II.6)

GPR operator Erica Carrick Utsi (EMC Radar Consulting #GPR) scanning the grave of William Shakespeare inside Holy Trinity Church. You will see the tape on the floor mapping out where to scan, and the machine she is pushing that looks like a small lawn mower is a ground penetrating radar. As it goes across the ground it sends out a signal, and when the signal bounces back off the various surfaces below the ground, it creates a digital image the archaeologists can analyze to understand what is there without digging anything up. Photo provided by Kevin Colls. Used with permission.

Ground Penetrating Radar

When I think of radar technology, I think of naval ships scanning for incoming boats or even x-rays like when you go to the doctor, but Kevin explains that the technology they used to scan Shakespeare's grave was one relied upon by archaeologists the world over to access hard to reach artifacts:

Ground penetrating radar, close to sonar which uses sound waves, the ground penetrating radar uses radio waves. Same principle different physics. Ground penetrating radar, zaps through the ground radio waves bounce back to a receiver that’son the top of the ground. The sygnal changes based on the material it hits in the ground. Coffin gives a different signal from a grocery shop items, for example. Cannot see everything like an x-ray. 

When it comes to interpreting the scans produced by this ground penetrating radar, Kevin explains that being able to tell what you've actually found comes with experience.

“[We have special] software programs that the data can be run through to do clever mathematics to produce an image that can be analyzed. Nothing simple. The only way to read the information is if you have done radar surveys long enough to interpret the wiggly lines on the data images.”

To see full information on these scans (And even pictures of the scans themselves), here are some links to some of Kevin's publications, as well as some media publications like the documentary Shakespeare's Tomb from the BBC.

Colls, K. (2017) The Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave. Current Archaeology, 325. pp. 36-39. ISSN 0011-3212

Colls, K. and Utsi, E. (2017) The GPR investigation of the Shakespeare family graves. Archaeological Prospection, 2017. pp. 1-18. ISSN 1075-2196

Mitchell, W. and Colls, K. (2016) Ancient beginnings: the site of New Place from the prehistoric to the early medieval period. In: Finding Shakespeare’s New Place: An Archaeological Biography. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK. ISBN 1526106493

Mitchell, W. and Colls, K. (2016) The origins of New Place: Hugh Clopton’s ‘grete house’ of c.1483. In: Finding Shakespeare’s New Place: An Archaeological Biography. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK. ISBN 1526106493

Edmonton, P. Colls, K. and Mitchell, W. (2016) Finding Shakespeare’s New Place. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Images available on Staffordshire University Website here

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One of the digital scans of the graves beneath the high altar inside Holy Trinity Church with William Shakespeare's grave highlighted in green. Scan was retrieved by Staffordshire University. Photo by Kevin Colls. Used by permission.

Shakespeare Inside the Grave

One of the main objectives of this exploration was to answer questions about Shakespeare's grave, including the question of whether Shakespeare's body was actually there inside the grave, that notably does not feature William Shakespeare's name. (Leading some to assume that he was not buried there). Kevin outlines the purpose of the dig and their approach to this question:

[We] went there with a plan. First was to identify what was beneath the tombstone. Holy trinity church, supposedly where Shakespeare is buried, but his name isn’t there–it is just a curse. Should be his burial place, but no one knew for certain. THey were there to determine this. Cannot archaeological dig it up in a proper excavation, no permission to do that, and that was the key element to offering the non invasive method, key for the church to grant permission. 40-50 yars turned down requests, but because it was non-invasive, not going to create any damage, and answer the major questions, it was a good fit. 

Now, when it comes to answering the question of whether it was Shakespeare inside the grave, Kevin outlines a few limitations with the technology itself. 


Tech cannot see bone itself. There’s a physics point to this–imagine a fossil, why dinosaurs are hard to excavate is because they become rock, takes on the characteristics of what is is buried in. Many years, dinosaurs become rock. So because of that, it is very hard for ground penetrating radar to differentiate between bone and what it is buried in. In a sense, radar cannot answer that. Was it a grave first–yes, it was a grave. A unique grave. On top of that, the documentary evidence that points to him being buried there.

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Scan of the graves beneath the high altar at Holy Trinity Church. This set of scans identifies the location of the graves in relation to the High Altar, as well as drawing a comparison of William Shakespeare's grave (here marked “WS”), with the graves immediately surrounding it. From left to right you have Anne Hathaway (AH), William Shakespeare (WS), John Hall (JH, Shakespeare's Son in Law), and Susannah Hall (SH). You can see that Shakespeare's grave is noticeably shorter than the others in proximity to it. Photo by Kevin Colls. Used by permission.

Shakespeare's Grave is Unique

For years, scholars have wondered and debated how, exactly, Shakespeare would have been buried. The tradition at the time of his death was for people to be buried in coffins, but there was a long standing theory that Shakespeare may have been more old-school in his opinion about how to be buried (as well as not in control of what is done to his body after death) leading some to think he may have had a shroud instead. Kevin says that with their project, they were intentionally exploring two longstanding theories about Shakespeare's grave and burial and the technology was able to shed light on those:

[There are] Two ideas:

  1. Shakespeare buried at this location, but 17 feet beneath the ground. A small bus upside down and burning it—extremely deep. Some documentary evidence promotes this theory.
  2. Other documentary evidence suggests he was buried in an underground family tomb–that there was a Shakespeare family tomb beneath the church as a kind of vault or family tomb. 

Radar identified that both of these theories are completely incorrect. The grave underneath the stone was only 3 feet deep, no sign of a link between William’s grave and any of the graves of the other Shakespeare’s buried at this same place in the church. His wife, Anne, has a tombstone buried to his side, and they all had their own grave individually. 

When it came to identifying whether Shakespeare was buried in a shroud or in a coffin, evidence from Shakespeare's life at then time of his death would suggest he may have had a coffin due to the higher status of coffins at the time. However, the scans performed by Kevin's team reveal that 


“…from his status you’d expect a lavish funeral with a coffin, but he wasn’t buried in a  coffin at all–he was buried in just a wrapping and the memorial on the wall at Holy Trinity, that wasn’t funded by the Shakespeare family, it was funded through friends on his. He wasn’t buried as you would expect a rich gentleman to be buried at the time. The one thing that coffins leave behind in the ground, as the wood degrades away, but what you are left with is a bunch of coffin nails, and the one thing GPR does very well is to identify buried metal (very strong signal) and none of the Shakespeare family members had any nails or metal of any kind in the graves with them. Compared to other graves closeby which were buried in coffins and that data was visible. Confirms no coffin.”

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Kevin Colls kneeling above the grave of William Shakespeare inside Holy Trinity Church. Photo by Kevin Colls. Used by permission.

Exploring Shakespeare's Skull

There’s a longstanding rumor, considered a discredited idea by many today,  that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen in 1794 by grave robbers. Kevin's research shows that Shakespeare's grave was, in fact, disturbed after his passing. The disturbance evidence, plus the dimensions of the grave, alongside published reports about Shakespeare's grave that seem to corroborate the evidence, all point towards that story being plausible. Kevin explains, 

“Published end of the 19th century, [and] written in old english language, of the time period. This story (and many scholars took it for pure fiction) recounts what occurred hundreds of years earlier, in 1794, when grave robbers broke into Holy Trinity and took the skull of Shakespeare. Turned into gothic fiction by today. But what stood out to their research, is that there is evidence that lots of people can be named, lots of places and place names, public houses, pubs, hotels, and places where they stayed on their journey. They are trackable. Trying to disprove the stories research–what they found is that none of it could be disproven. All the places, people, hotels, etc were all in existence. They couldn’t disprove the story. If it is fiction, it is very well researched. 

Secondly, they had their survey. Their survey demonstrated a shallow grave, three feet beneath the church, and found evidence for disturbed ground in the grave. They went back and looked at the grave robbing story, described the story itself, they broke in, lifted the tombstone, excavated through the ground, to a depth of three feet–direct quote–and took the skull away. 1894 when article was published, common belief at that time was that he was buried in one of the twooptions shown above, so someone writing this article in the late 19th century, they would have no common,ly held information to describe it as 3 feet, so you’d expect them to say something else about the tomb if they were making it up. 

There was another article published to suggest where Shakespeare's skull ended up. Second story suggests skull was taken back to the church by one of the robbers who took it originally, and he broke the tombstone trying to put it back. And that’s interesting because the tombstone is shorter than it should be. And this robber took the skull to a crypt in a nearby town, someone completely different town. So mythology suggests that the skull should be somewhere else. They went to the crypt where it was supposed to be placed, scanned the digital model of the skull and did facial reconstruction on it. Female, 77 years old. Not Shakespeare.

So, once again, it seems that we all need to search our attics (and family crypts) because it seems that the skull of William Shakespeare may, indeed, still be out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. 

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Books & Resources Kevin Colls Recommends

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