William Shakespeare tomb 'may be missing his skull'
An underground survey of William Shakespeare's final resting place has led experts to conclude the Bard's grave may be missing his skull.
Archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar were able to look beneath the surface of what is widely thought to be the playwright's tomb - but discovered "an odd disturbance at the head end".
Kevin Colls, who led the study at the grave site in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, said the discovery chimes with a century-old story claiming that the skull had been stolen by trophy hunters in 1794.
The survey findings feature in a Channel 4 documentary airing on Saturday and coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.
Mr Colls, archaeological project manager at Staffordshire University, said: "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.
"It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all."
The grave's custodians allowed the world-first survey because it could be carried out without disturbing the grave.
A worn tombstone inside the church marks the place where Shakespeare is thought to rest, bearing the inscription: "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."
Following the survey, carried out by geophysicist Erica Utsi, Mr Colls has concluded that evidence of a significant repair at the head-end of the grave may have been needed to correct the sinking floor, which in turn was triggered by an historic disturbance - possibly grave robbers.
He added that the results lend credence to a story first published in 1879, widely dismissed as a fiction, that trophy hunters removed the tomb's skull in the late 18th century.
The radar survey also found that Shakespeare, his wife Anne Hathaway and other family members whose tomb markers lie alongside were not buried in a single vault deep underground but were laid to rest in shallow graves in the chancel.
Both Shakespeare's and his spouse's graves are less than a metre deep.
Furthermore, there was no evidence of any metal in the resting places, which experts have claimed may indicate the bodies were wrapped in shrouds and placed in the ground rather than interred in coffins.
Following on from the tomb study, researchers were also granted access to a skull in St Leonard's Church in the Worcestershire village of Beoley, 17 miles from Stratford, which is said to have been that of the playwright.
A detailed laser scan allowed experts to carry out a forensic anthropological analysis revealing that the Beoley Skull was in fact that of an unknown female aged in her 70s, when she died.
Mr Colls said: "It was a great honour to be the first researcher to be given permission to undertake non-invasive archaeological investigations at the grave of William Shakespeare.
"With projects such as this, you never really know what you might find, and of course there are so many contradictory myths and legends about the tomb of the Bard."
"The amazing project team, using state of the art equipment, has produced astonishing results which are much better than I dared hope for, and these results will undoubtedly spark discussion, scholarly debate and controversial theories for years to come.
"Even now, thinking of the findings sends shivers down my spine.'
However, the local vicar said he remained unconvinced of Mr Colls's theory regarding the Bard's skull.
Patrick Taylor, of Holy Trinity in Stratford, said: "Holy Trinity Church were pleased to be able to cooperate with this non-intrusive research into Shakespeare's grave. We now know much more about how Shakespeare was buried and the structure that lies underneath his ledger (grave) stone.
"We are not convinced, however, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken.
"We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare's wishes, and not allow it to be disturbed."
He added: "We shall have to live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone."
The study, carried out by Staffordshire University and production company Arrow Media, was permitted by Holy Trinity Church and the Diocese of Coventry.
Coincidentally, Hamlet - in which the play's namesake addresses the skull of old acquaintance "poor Yorick" - is currently playing at Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Company theatre.
Secret History: Shakespeare's Tomb, presented by historian Dr Helen Castor, airs on Channel 4 at 8pm on Saturday.