The Future of History

Monday, 4 April 2016

The Mind's Construction in the Face

In a phone conversation on Thursday 26 November 2015, the director of the Channel Four documentary Shakespeare's Tomb tried very hard to assure me that the programme would not be spending very much time at Beoley, was not terribly interested in the skull, and didn't expect to discover much about the mysterious "veritable skull of William Shakespeare."

The director seemed startled when I mentioned Dr Caroline Wilkinson, who I already knew was involved.  No, I was told, Caroline Wilkinson probably wasn't going to be doing much with the skull - at most, maybe coming up with some thoughts about possible age and gender - and she almost certainly wouldn't be doing any sort of facial reconstruction from the skull or anything like that at all.

I'm still at a loss to explain why the director told me all that, unless it was to throw me off the scent.  Given that I had only just been made aware of the fact that I was no longer involved with the documentary, I can imagine that she was trying to mollify my (i.e. "No, don't worry, we won't be doing anything that directly concerns you and your work") or, to put it another way, I was being fobbed off and kept in the dark.

Anyway, surprise-surprise, Dr Wilkinson did do something of a facial reconstruction from the skull after all.  Maybe she had a bit of time on her hands, I don't know, or maybe that was the plan all along but the director didn't want me to know about it.  The image above is partly that of Dr Wilkinson's reconstruction, made under the apprehension that the skull is that of an "unknown woman in her seventies".  Obviously, for copyright reasons, I haven't reproduced the whole image.

Something about the eyes in the reconstruction reminded me of an early 17th-century portrait in the royal collection.  This portrait of an unknown man was flagged up by Lee Durkee on his fascinating Lost Shakespeare Portraits blog.  Lee Durkee knows his stuff, and when he suggests that the "unknown man" in the portrait might be Shakespeare, I'm inclined to think he might be onto something.

So the image of an "unknown female" you see at the top of the blog has been merged with the features of the "unknown man" from the portrait in the royal collection.  Look closely: it's difficult to see where the "unknown man" ends and the "unknown female" begins.

Now to the reproduction image proper.  For some bizarre reason, the forehead reproduced from the skull has been blurred.  This has the effect of focusing attention on the central features of the face - eyes, nose and mouth.  It is unfortunate, because (as those who follow my work will know) many of the identifying features of the skull which also show up, with a remarkable degree of consistency, in the Shakespeare portraiture, are to be found on the forehead.  Which, in the image taken from the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary, has been blurred.

Moreover, the forehead is one of the best-preserved parts of the skull.  It is pretty much intact.  The face of the skull has been smashed to bits (much of that damage, I believe, done at around the time of death).  Which means that much of what we see most clearly of the face in the reconstruction is not actually taken from the skull, because those parts don't actually exist.  Where it is most in focus, then, the reconstruction is based on a reconstruction.

You have a laser scan of a damaged skull, onto which have been projected (we must assume) the missing parts of the structure (cheekbones, maxilla, lower jaw).  In other words, the facial reconstruction shown in the programme is based on another reconstruction - the conjectural reconstruction of the missing parts of the skull - which is itself based, not on the original skull, but on a laser scan thereof.

Complicated, isn't it?  But the point to be made here is that those parts of the skull which do exist, and which we ought to be able to see very clearly in the facial reconstruction, have been largely blurred, while those parts of the skull which don't exist, and therefore had to be speculatively reconstructed, have been rendered rather clearly.

Odd, hunh?  Even so, the image yields some interesting surprises.  Let me concentrate on the left eye, temple and forehead as shown in the facial reconstruction (part of which is blurred) for the Channel Four programme:

Let's start with the forehead.  Blurred though it is - so as not to give the game away - some features can still be made out.  Looking up from the outside half of the eye, it is quite clear that there are a couple of grooves or indentations, running down from the hairline, with something resembling a raised area in between.

I've blogged about this feature before: in Call ye Midwife I suggested that, along with a defining depression high up in the forehead, just left of centre, they were the result of the rushed and insanitary midwifery practices of the day, while in Shakespeare's Face (3) I used them as part of my evidence to indicate that the somewhat controversial Cobbe portrait is indeed of William Shakespeare.

Basically, that double groove running down the left side of the forehead is a fairly consistent feature of the Shakespeare portraiture.  And, let's remember, it's there on the skull - one of the remaining parts of the skull - from which Dr Wilkinson made her reconstruction.

Moving down a bit, there seems to be evidence of a scar running across the top of the left eyebrow.  I examined this in my 2014 paper for Goldsmiths University, The Faces of Shakespeare.  Again, the skull concurs with the portraiture, the scar being especially visible on the Wadlow portrait.

The outside of the left eye shows what appear to be two lines descending to meet in a sort of V-shape immediately to the left of the eye.  I have written about this extensively, describing and illustrating this feature in Who Killed William Shakespeare? and elsewhere.  It is another defining feature of Shakespeare portraiture and is caused by the breakage of the end of the facial bone and the lower edge of the orbit showing through the skin.  The crease which comes round from the left, just under the eye, in the reconstruction is also a feature of Shakespeare portraiture, clearly visible in the Droeshout engraving (First Folio, 1623) and the Chandos portrait (National Portrait Gallery).

The damage to the lower part of the eye socket shows up both in the Shakespeare portraiture (often as a faint, thin, bluish or greyish line, as in the Wadlow portrait) and is replicated in the facial reconstruction as a sort of puffy, saggy, bags-under-the-eyes look.  Indeed, a forensic archaeologist and biological anthropologist who studied the photos of the skull told me that the "guttering" at the bottom of the eye sockets would produce just such a look in the portraits.

Just inside the eye, alongside the nose, there is shading and a minor blemish, consistent with the portraits (the Cobbe shows this as a sort of bluish tinge with what a friend, who has seen the Cobbe portrait at Hatchlands Park in Surrey, described as a "slight boil or deformity on the nose side of the left eye orbit").  This is where a pointed instrument, a stabbing weapon such a poignard, was jabbed into the eye socket, puncturing the inner medial wall of the left eye.  This forced the eyeball forwards, and slightly to the left, as we see in the death mask and the "wall-eyed" look of the portraits.  The death mask shows the scar made by this weapon.  The portraits, and the facial reconstruction, reflect the damage that was done to the inner eye socket by this stabbing weapon (for more on this, see my paper for Goldsmiths and my Historical Honey article, Shakespeare and the Dragonfly.)

Finally, the cheek.  First of all, there appears to be something of a swelling, a raised area, where the (missing) cheekbone should be - and curiously enough, something very similar appears in much the same place on Dr Wilkinson's facial reconstruction of the Darmstadt death mask (Shakespeare, again). 

Look more closely at the facial reconstruction and you'll see a thin line meandering slightly as it runs down the left cheek, from just beneath the eye to just to the side of the mouth.  That really is a giveaway: you'll find it in the portraits, too, especially the Chandos, where I first noticed it - a thin grey slightly wavy line running own the left cheek, with another, fainter but similar, immediately to the left of it.

That's the outline of the broken maxilla (upper jaw).

So - even though they did their best to misinterpret certain features of the skull and to obscure the others, the facial reconstruction which Dr Wilkinson apparently wasn't going to do but then went ahead and did anyway does, in fact, confirm that the Beoley skull matches the portraiture of William Shakespeare.

How much longer, I ask you, must we allow the cover-up to go unchallenged and the world to remain in the dark about the true identity of the owner of the Beoley skull?


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  2. I did some research and identified that Sussana Hall, Shakespeare's daughter's bones were moved to the charnel-house in 1701 (Adams, 1919). After 2 centuries of 'Chinese Whispers' about the bones of Shakespeare's family, it would be understandable if there was confusion about whose bones they actually were. One would assume if Susanna Hall shared the same DNA as William Shakespeare, that there would be a family resemblance.

    Unfortunately I have been unable to find a 'reliable' image of Sussana Hall and therefore cannot compare the face which your computer has generated with a historical image.

    Adams, J. (1919). Studies in Philology, Volume 16, Number 4. p291