A radar scan of William Shakespeare's tomb has discovered signs of tampering with his final resting place that lend credence to a story about his skull being stolen in the 18th century, researchers said.
Archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar on the grave, which is protected by a curse, for a documentary airing on Saturday to mark the 400th anniversary of the famous playwright's death.
"We have Shakespeare's burial with an odd disturbance at the head end," said Kevin Colls, who is heading up the research on the grave site at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, central England, Shakespeare's home town.
"It's very, very convincing to me that his skull isn't at Holy Trinity at all," he said.
According to a story published in 1879, trophy hunters removed the skull in the late 18th century.
The robbers would have defied the inscription on a stone slab above the grave reading: "Bleste be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones".
The grave is only a metre (three feet) below the floor of the church and there is no evidence of metal, indicating that the body of the "Bard" was wrapped in a shroud rather than buried in a coffin, the survey also found.
Shakespeare is buried alongside his wife, Anne Hathaway, and the grave is a place of pilgrimage for the many fans who flock to Stratford every year.
The discovery will feature in a documentary being broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 television as part of commemorations ahead of the April 23 anniversary of Shakespeare's death when there will be a series of performances and a candlelit vigil in the church.
The scan -the first ever carried out- revealed significant repairs to the head-end of the grave.
Local vicar Patrick Taylor said he was unconvinced by the theory that the skull had been taken away but ruled out opening the grave.
"We intend to continue to respect the sanctity of his grave, in accordance with Shakespeare'swishes, and not allow it to be disturbed," he said.
"We shall live with the mystery of not knowing fully what lies beneath the stone."