The Future of History

Thursday, 24 March 2016

I've Seen That Face Before

It is with great anticipation that we await the screening of the Channel 4 documentary Shakespeare's Tomb on Saturday evening.  Apparently, said documentary has determined that the Beoley skull is that of an "unknown woman in her seventies" and not William Shakespeare after all.

Obviously, it would be wrong of me to prejudge the documentary without having seen it.  And, for now, we can pass over the multiple similarities between the Beoley skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, which I have published and blogged about ad nauseam.

Instead, allow me to outline one area of concern I have regarding the identification of the skull.

Back in 2012, I was working on the manuscript for my book Who Killed William Shakespeare? in which there was a fair amount of discussion and analysis concerning Shakespeare portraiture, the Beoley skull and the supposed death mask of Shakespeare in Darmstadt.  As well as spending a lot of time studying these images, I also went through the prolonged and costly process of acquiring permissions to reproduce some of those images in my book.

One image I had seen which intrigued me was a computer reconstruction of the face of the subject of the Darmstadt death mask.  This reconstruction had been carried out by Dr Caroline Wilkinson of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.  Dr Wilkinson is the media's go-to person for facial reconstruction from human remains.

I wrote to Dr Wilkinson on 20 August 2012, explaining that I was working on my book about Shakespeare and enquiring about the copyright status of the image she had previously created for a History Channel documentary - the reconstruction of the face from the death mask.  In my letter I mentioned the photographs of the Beoley skull, which I had been studying, and offered to forward them to her.  I also explained that I aimed to follow up the publication of my book with a documentary analysing the skull, the death mask and the portraiture, and rather hoped to be able to call upon her services for any such documentary.

I received no reply.

Who Killed William Shakespeare? was published about a year later.  I had succeeded in negotiating the rights to the death mask reconstruction image through an agency - which made it the most expensive image in my book, by far.  Very quickly, Lion Television, a documentary production company, expressed interest in following up the results of my research into the skull.  However, they would need a little more hard evidence before approaching a broadcaster (the rule of thumb being that documentaries don't tend to film these things until they're pretty sure of what they're going to find).

The producer at Lion TV contacted Dr Wilkinson to ask if it were possible for a 3-D reconstruction of the Beoley skull to be made using 2-D photographic images, and if that could then be compared with the 3-D laser scan image she already had of the Darmstadt death mask.  Dr Wilkinson confirmed that this was theoretically possible, and so she was invited to go ahead with the comparisons and Richard Peach's high-quality photos of the Beoley skull were sent up to Dundee.

We had a bit of a wait after that.  The initial findings were positive - Caroline Wilkinson concluded that there were "superficial similarities" between the skull and the death mask.  However, when she and/or her research students measured the orbits of the eye sockets of the death mask and the skull, they determined that there was no obvious match.

A bit of a blow, that, because it meant that the project with Lion TV ground to a halt.  However, I soon made contact, through a research student in biological anthropology, with a research fellow who showed immediate interest in the skull and the comparisons with the Shakespeare portraiture.

At the same time, I discovered that documentary makers from Arrow Media had very recently visited Beoley church in connection with a documentary on Shakespeare that they were developing.  This is the documentary which is due out this Saturday.

I worked fairly closely with Arrow Media over a period of about a year and a half, although bizarrely I was not invited to present evidence at the church court held to determine whether or not the Beoley skull should be "exhumed" for laboratory analysis - although I had been called in to help them prepare for the hearing.  The programme makers subsequently told me that Dr Caroline Wilkinson would be brought in to carry out a facial reconstruction of the skull based on a laser scan which would be made in the vault at Beoley.

When the development producer for the programme explained that they would want to bring in experts who had no previous connection with the material, and no way of knowing that we were investigating the possibility that the skull was Shakespeare's, to examine the relevant evidence, I felt it necessary to point out that Dr Wilkinson had already seen the photos of the skull in 2013-14, and would recognise them as part of a Shakespeare-related investigation.  The producer thanked me for letting them know and suggested that they might look instead for an expert in the United States who would be in no way prejudiced about the case.

A short while later, the producer assured me that Caroline Wilkinson had not seen the photos.  She had denied all knowledge of them.

Which struck me as odd.  It meant that, either her earlier statement regarding the skull/death mask mismatch was questionable, because she hadn't actually seen the photos of the skull ... or that she was not being entirely frank with the Arrow Media documentary team.

There's a coda to all this: when I finally discovered that I was no longer to play a part in the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary, the recently-appointed director tried to assure me that Beoley and the skull would not be playing a large part in the documentary, that they weren't spending much time on it, and they didn't expect to be able to reveal any results about it.  I raised the question of what Dr Caroline Wilkinson would be doing then, given that it's a long way to travel, all the way to Dundee (correction: Dr Wilkinson is now at Liverpool John Moores University), just to feature a facial reconstruction expert not doing any facial reconstruction.

The line went rather quiet, and then a bit of stammering happened.  Caroline Wilkinson, I was told, wasn't really going to be doing very much at all in the documentary.  Certainly nothing in the nature of a facial reconstruction.

And then the director rang back.  If I wanted to pop over to Beoley, go down into the vault and see the skull (for the first time) during a break in the filming, I would have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  Was I prepared to do that?  And if I did, of course, I would not be allowed to mention Caroline Wilkinson to anybody (those were the director's words).

In the end, I did not sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  I felt that I had been elbowed out of my own story, after I had spent many hours helping the documentary along, and was now being bribed into silence with the offer of a chance to see the skull - the skull which I had spent more than four years studying.

I raise these matters here because I believe they are germane to the issue of the skull and the (provisional?) identification of the skull as that of an "unknown woman in her seventies".  Presumably, that is based on the opinion of an expert who had already seen and passed judgement on the photos of the skull, and whom I was asked not to talk about.

No other evidence was considered - including the rather extensive body of evidence which I have marshalled over the past four years, and which I have published and talked about in illustrated lectures.

Is it just me, or does something seem not-quite-right about all this?

(PS: viewers of the programme would have seen Dr Wilkinson offer opinions about possible age and gender of skull, only to have those magically transformed ON SCREEN into incontrovertible statements of fact by a historian.  That's not how science works - or history, for that matter.  Worse, a genuine investigation with abundant research already on its side has now been set back by an irresponsible and woefully inaccurate documentary, though hopefully not irremediably.  Ed.)


  1. First, choose your conclusion. Then, from the evidence available, select that which supports your preferred conclusion and discard the rest. This may not be what is happening, but it smells a bit off.

  2. These documentary people and their associates are liars and rats. Best luck to you Simon.

  3. Today's Weekend Mail has a double page spread on tonight's 'Shakespeare's Tomb' and all is revealed, so it's hardly worth watching the programme. Yesterday, we had a meeting at Beoley Church to discuss how Arrow Media and Staffs University had handled the Beoley part of the programme (9 minutes in the 60 minute programme) and the general conclusion was that they had not handles it very well, providing no advanced information on the outcome of the scanning of the Beoley Skull (as they had promised). We, the church DCC, were left to find out like everyone else via the media leaks over the last week, what were the results from the scanning of our 'lone' skull. Tonight, they will say that ''in all probability this is the skull of a seventy year old women.'' That's not really good enough. Until there is a DNA test of the Beoley skull we will not know for certain whether it is Shakespeare or not. Added to this, Arrow Media have still not paid St Leonard's Church the filming fee of £500, despite the filming being back in 2015. I spent 8 hours in the Sheldon crypt during the day's filming to ensure that the 'Shakespeare' skull was not moved, so I find this all despicable and disappointing! But that's TV companies for you - typical in my experience of Channel 4.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thank you for your comment. I was shocked and saddened to read it (and there was me thinking that I was the one feeling hard done by!)

      My personal sense is that things were going pretty well when Anna Davies (Development Producer, Arrow Media) was running things, but went downhill fast when she stepped aside and the production team took over. I may be wrong, but I think their approach was to cosy up to the usual suspects (fellow media types, etc.) and let everyone else down.

      I've been working in Stratford today, and have yet to catch the documentary, but from what I can gather it has been a bit of a damp squib. I only hope that they haven't prejudiced this investigation for the future - as you rightly say, DNA testing is what we need to establish whether or not the skull is Shakespeare's, and I stand by my research (which, as you know, was not featured in the programme at all) in stating that I still fell it might be the Bard's.

      Let's not give up hope, though, and maybe we can make genuine progress, after this unfortunate hitch.

      Hoping to meet you in person someday at Beoley.

      Kindest regards,


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  5. Having viewed the documentary last night I feel it was a 'mixed bag'. It was certainly positive so far as the evidence suggests that the grave has been disturbed at the head end and even more impressive was the fact that the grave was only three feet deep perfectly tying in with the Beoley story. I was pleasantly surprised at how this was presented, but that said, from the GPR they could hardly cover that up or from the look of it, lead the GPR expert into any conclusions other than her own. I do wonder if they were fully expecting to find nothing with the GPR and probably had not accounted for finding evidence to back the skull story up.
    This though, is where I believe the fair and accurate approach ceased. I think we have to remain open minded and accept that there is a chance that the Beoley skull is not Shakespeare's, but from simon's research and comparisons with pictures of The Bard we also have to take it very seriously. I really did feel that the expert on the skull was airing on the side of caution regarding age and sex. But the presenter seems to me to too quickly jump on the fact it was being suggested it could be a lady at about 70! In fact rather than being disappointed she seemed to me to be rather happy at that conclusion, that in fact she made. I would be very interested to know if experts in such things could let us know if a smaller male with slight maybe even feminine features could possibly have a skull like this? I know this sounds like we are clutching at straws, but the evidence for the skull was hardly conclusive, the evidence that the skull may have been taken was pretty conclusive and the 'Wadlow' portrait suggests a male of slight build with slightly feminine features. So no, case not closed, but I fear access to the skull in future will be all but impossible. Regards. Steve Wadlow.

  6. As an unrelated osteoarchaeologist / biological anthropologist tweeted during the programme:

    "I'm intrigued #ShakespearesTomb - how did you come to the conclusion it was a 70yr old woman? Magic new ageing techniques?"

    But the way Helen Castor seemed to pounce on Caroline Wilkinson's suggestions and then kind of force her into stating that these cautious, provisional suggestions were incontrovertible and absolute, was absolutely astonishing!!

    And why oh why was Paul Edmondson in the programme? He and Stanley Wells did more than anyone really to help prevent Arrow Media / Uni of Staffs get hold of the skull. Then, lo an behold, he crops up in the doc as the voice of authority on all things Shakespeare.

    I call stitch-up.


  7. One thing that last night's programme did prove was that Shakspere's grave was a shallow one, only three feet deep. According to Sidney Lee, et al, he was buried seventeen feet down!


    Peter Zenner

    1. Indeed. And in Rev C.J. Langston's tale of "How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen" (1879), the grave-robbers only had to delve in as far as their armpits before they pulled out Shakespeare's skull. Seems Langston was right, after all