The Future of History

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Shakespeare's Skull: The Eyebrow Test

This is a still from the Channel Four documentary, Shakespeare's Tomb.  Dr Caroline Wilkinson is analysing the laser scan made of the rogue skull in the ossuary at Beoley church.  What she's saying is this:

"In male skulls you tend to see a bulge just where the eyebrows sit, and you can see on this skull that we don't have a bulge of bone."

Ergo, we hear, the skull is probably female.

And, yes, Dr Wilkinson has a point: the skull really doesn't show much in the way of eyebrow bulges:

One might even suggest that the right eyebrow ridge (the one she's pointing to on the laser scan) looks somewhat damaged.  An earlier photo of the skull shows this quite clearly:

So we're agreed.  Eyebrow bulges not much to write home about.  But what's interesting is that, in the TV documentary, Dr Wilkinson had just been shown lining up the laser scan of the skull with two of the most familiar images of Shakespeare, the Droeshout engraving and the Chandos portrait.  Let's look first at the Droeshout:

Well, that's odd.  No real eyebrow bulges there, and especially not in the area indicated by Dr Wilkinson on the laser scan of the skull.  What about the Chandos, then?

Hmmnn.  You know what?  There aren't really any eyebrow bulges there, either.  And what's so strange about this is that Dr Wilkinson had been looking at both of the above images, apparently, before she told Kevin Colls and Dr Helen Castor that the absence of eyebrow bulges on the skull suggested that the skull might be female.

Funny, though, that she didn't think to mention the comparable absence of eyebrow bulges in the most famous images of Shakespeare, given that she'd just been looking at them.  Surely she can't imagine that the face in the Droeshout and the Chandos is female?

Okay.  Let's try some others.  How about that fond favourite of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Cobbe portrait:

Well, whaddya know?  A remarkable lack of eyebrow bulges.  And what about the latest contender in the world of Shakespeare portraiture, the Wadlow?

Nope.  Same again - no visible bulging in the eyebrow area.  The Wadlow, of course, is interesting because it helped me to propose the theory that Shakespeare had a condition known as eyebrow ptosis (which he passed on to his illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant).  I came to that theory by way of the Beoley skull and the observation, made by a research student in forensic archaeology and biological anthropology, that the left eyebrow of the skull appears "bumpier" than the right, probably because the fatty deposits of the eyebrow were missing.  They had, it would seem, slipped.  As can be seen in the Wadlow.  That's eyebrow ptosis.

The Wadlow also shows a scar, immediately above the left eyebrow, which also shows up in the same place on the skull.

Now, either all of these portraits are actually of females, or the skull isn't necessarily female at all.  That, or portrait artists didn't understand eyebrows when the above portraits were made.  So let's look at this another way.

The above diagram comes from An Anthropological Study of some Portraits of Shakespeare and of Burns by Professor Arthur Keith, Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, who gave his paper on this subject on 20 February 1914.  The outside line of the diagram shows the profile of the Shakespeare effigy in the funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.  The inner image is a drawing of a Bronze Age skull (enlarged 10%).

Look at the outline of the profile of the Shakespeare effigy.  No noticeable eyebrow bulge, is there?  This effigy was looking down on the programme makers when William Shakespeare's grave was being scanned - and yet no one looked up and noticed that the effigy has no significant bulges where the eyebrows sit:

Must be female, then.

Tell you what - just one more (though there are many I could choose from).  Look for the eyebrow bulges:

Now, what's interesting about this one is that we do see, quite clearly, certain features that also visible on the skull - the scar over the left eyebrow, the discoloured and depressed region over the right eyebrow, the damage to the lower edges of the eye sockets, and the loss of fatty deposits about halfway across the left eyebrow, which I described above in connection with the eyebrow ptosis.  What we don't really see is any major eyebrow bulges.  Some fatty deposits, yes, because we can also see where they're missing, but bulges in the bone?  Not many.

And this is where things get a little weird, because the image above is a detail from a 3-D computer reconstruction of the face of the Darmstadt death mask of Shakespeare.  It was made by ... Dr Caroline Wilkinson.

Who apparently had no idea that Shakespeare's eyebrows were remarkably and noticeably not very bulgy.  Even though she had been looking at his portraits and had previously done a facial reconstruction from his death mask.

But then, maybe she did realise that.  And the programme makers didn't want her to mention it.  Maybe careful editing made sure no one got to hear that the skull displays the same characteristics as the Shakespeare portraiture. 

Because let's be clear: in no way was Channel Four's Shakespeare's Tomb the serious scientific investigation it made itself out to be.  That would have left certain people with egg on their faces.

It would also have let the viewers know what they deserved to know.  That the Beoley skull probably isn't an "unknown woman in her seventies" and probably is what Rev C.J. Langston said it was - the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare."


  1. And as I have already said previously, I witnessed the person carrying out the scanning of the Beoley Skull propped up against the left hand wall of the ossuary having great difficulty completely scanning the skull's damaged right side and eyebrow ridge (the one she's pointing to on the laser scan in the TV programme).

    1. Thanks, Paul.

      I looked closely at the scan on the TV and could see that a small part of the right side was missing. You might be interested in the latest blog I've just posted ("The Mind's Construction in the Face"). And, incidentally, please feel free to email me at if you think it might be worth talking things through or setting up a meeting at some point. I really do not believe that we should allow what's happened to go unchallenged or give up on the inquiry.

      With all very best wishes,