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Beyond Stone & Bone

Digging Shakespeare
by Mark Rose
December 12, 2009

“He had a smaller mind than any English king before him save James the Second. He was wretchedly educated, and his natural taste was of the meanest sort.” Writing back in 1875, Oxford historian J.R. Green didn’t mince words when it came to George III. As evidence supporting his appraisal of the monarch, Green provided this specimen of royal literary criticism, “Was there ever such stuff as Shakspere?” Perhaps the king didn’t appreciate the Bard, but archaeologists do. They also like his stuff.

William_Shakespeare_1609The latest evidence of this is the start of trial excavations at the site of New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon a week or two ago. It was in the home that once stood here that Shakespeare lived his final years and passed away in 1616. The house, built in 1483 with brick–the latest construction material–was knocked down in 1759. The site is currently a landscaped garden, but there’s hope that remains of the house and the Bard’s garbage lie beneath the surface. The tests are being carried out by Birmingham Archaeology on behalf of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which is looking to a larger-scale project there in 2010.

Back in March, Museum of London Archaeology (MoLA) confirmed that remains excavated by it on the site of an old warehouse in London are from The Theatre, where Shakespeare’s earliest plays were performed. Built in 1576, The Theatre was the first playhouse constructed as such. It was taken down in 1597, its timbers eventually re-used in The Globe. Finding the site where Romeo and Juliet premiered is exciting, but MoLA has also excavated at The Globe, The Rose, and Hope, and the museum has just published a major report on the work, The Rose and the Globe—playhouses of Shakespeare’s Bankside, Southwark: excavations 1988-91.

So, Shakespeare and his stuff have been very much on the minds of archaeologists. And the work starting at New Place, what do they expect to find there? An enthusiastic statement on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website maintains that “the prospect of combining two exciting subjects, William Shakespeare and archaeology, certainly has the potential to create a truly intoxicating mixture.” Well, okay! Seriously, depending on what the trials produce, it could be a matter of documenting the foundations of the house or excavating wells or rubbish pits. The Trust seems to envision this as a very public-friendly dig, and that’s always good.

Will there be waterlogged deposits with well-preserved organic remains? Even discarded manuscript bits? The latter seems a bit far-fetched, but not the former. The Museum of London has just put on a display of Shakespearian shoes, including one recovered from the muddy Rose excavations (it has a hole at the toe, apparently cut to give a bunion room to roam). We’ll just have to wait and see what they find at New Place. Maybe they’ll come up the Bard’s own worn out footwear or, as someone commented about this Times article, “an old toothbrush marked ‘WS’ and some biscuits that might possibly have been nibbled by the great man.”

Good luck to them.

The opening quotation is from J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People (1875).

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One comment for "Digging Shakespeare"

  • Reply posted by Padraic (December 17, 2009, 6:20 am):

    Maybe evidence will surface to prove that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Many people doubt it. US Supreme Court justice JP Stevens is one. His candidate is Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. “The Truth Will Out” by James & Rubinstein pursuaded me that Henry Neville is a more likely author. Yet another controversy that archaeology could resolve.


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