The Face of Yorick


Forensics Seeks to Unlock Skull's Secrets


By Catherine Duval

Since the discovery of prince Hamlet’s burial chamber in 1920, the extra skull found with the prince’s body has entranced the modern world. Tucked away with the prince’s grave goods: his buckler, rapier, dagger, bracelets, and a gilded link of bronze, lay a 23cm long skull with a mandible still intact. The owner of the extra skull has been the subject of hot debate ever since. Who was the owner of the skull? What was its significance for the prince?

According to Hannalore Kjaer, Denmark’s Prime Conservator of Antiquities, the extra skull in prince Hamlet’s grave is surprisingly not too strange. The presence of random unidentified limbs is typical of old Scandinavian burials. The scene of the grave is reminiscent of Ahmad idn Fadlan’s account of a Viking ship burial from the 10th century. But there is a twist says Hannalore Kjaer, Hamlet’s burial does not appear to be conducted by his own Danish people, but instead by invading Norwegians. It was customary for Danish royalty to be cremated on a pyre, yet Hamlet’s grave demonstrates a drastic shift in favor for ground burial. Hamlet’s body has been laid in a grave field near Elsinore, next to the grave of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, both of whom were not cremated.

Hannalore Kjaer’s theory corresponds to historical records that point to a period of political upheaval in Denmark in the middle of the 14th century. It was during this period that the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras came to be seated on the throne of Denmark. The fall of the Danish monarchy has been shrouded in mystery and has even found its way into folklore in the form of The Last Play, a legend that tells of the last play performed at the Royal Court of Elsinore. Some historians believe Fortinbras assassinated the entire Danish royal family in retribution for the death of his father, who was killed in battle by the Danish King Old Hamlet. Other historians believe the murderer is simply The Black Death. The presence of bubonic plague may explain prince Hamlet’s reported period of madness prior to his death. Much is left to speculation, but there is little doubt that some sudden event brought an end to the Danish royal family. What that event was exactly, is what historians have dubbed the Elsinore question.  

 The Mystery Skull

The Mystery Skull

 Yorick as a Jester

Yorick as a Jester

The Mystery Skull

At the heart of the Elsinore Question lies another question, one that may help unravel the past: who is the unidentified skull from Hamlet’s grave? Archaeologists and amateur sleuths have long debated three prime candidates. The first is Old King Hamlet (prince Hamlet’s father); the second is Richard Tarlton, an English actor of the Elizabethan theatre; and the third is Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest.

Hannalore Kjaer explains why the identification of the skull has been so difficult: “The grave field where Hamlet is buried has been the target of numerous grave robberies through the years. Hamlet’s chamber alone displays damage from multiple robberies - the semi-precious gems in the bracelets have long been clawed out. The unidentified skull also shows evidence of being exhumed from another grave, before being in Hamlet’s.” Could the skull have been placed in Hamlet’s grave for some unaccountable reason? Or did the Norwegians follow a Viking burial ritual that we now do not understand? The fact that the skull originated from another grave supports the theory that it may have belonged to Old King Hamlet, whose own grave and body has yet to be found. On the other hand, Edmund Campion and Richard Tarton may also be cast as stronger candidates since they lived long after Hamlet’s death.

“When I first saw it, I was quietly perplexed,” says Hannalore Kjaer about the first time she saw reconstruction paintings of the skull. The paintings were produced after careful examination at the TNAP Museum Research Center. The delicate skull was carried to a CT machine where 1,500 digital x-rays were created in order to 3-D print a more robust replica. The process registered the skull’s intricate details to help a team of specialists in forensics and anatomy to unearth its secrets.

"When I first saw it, I was quietly perplexed."


Did the owner of the skull die from a strike to the head or neck? There was no trauma says researchers. The cranium and occipital is intact with no rupture or fracture. The skull has been worn down heavily over the years, particularly at the underside of the zygomatic arch, the maxilla, and the upper mandible, but the damage is consistent with natural weathering. It is from this weathering that researchers have determined that the skull has spent a period of time out from its original grave. The lack of unnatural damage is important says Hannalore Kjaer because it rules out Edmund Campion. Edmund Campion was a Roman Catholic Jesuit, who in November 20, 1581, was brutally quartered and beheaded by priest hunters of Anglican England. His body parts were sent in different directions across Europe and it was long thought that the head arrived on the shores of Denmark.

Researchers next turned their attention to Richard Tarlton, a famous actor and clown of the Elizabethan theatre. There were rumors Tarlton was buried in the grounds of his family home, the Drayton Manor House, in Hanwell. It was by chance that the Drayton Manor House, among many others, were unearthed by the Martian invasion in 1899 during the War of the Worlds. During London’s reconstruction of Malden, Coombe, and Hanwell, thousands of skeletal remains underwent a lengthy process of identification; among these was what was believed to be the remains of Richard Tarlton. In February 2015, researchers brought the remains to the TNAF Research Center. It was concluded that the remains did in fact belong to Richard Tarlton, decisively ruling him out as a candidate.

The Last Candidate

Archaeologists were quick to decide that the remaining candidate the Old King Hamlet was the owner of the skull, and that his skull must have been dug up to be used as part of a ritualistic performance at his son’s funeral. The maturity of the skull’s teeth confirms that Old King Hamlet was around 60 years old, making him around 30 years older than Hamlet. It seemed a closed case, except there was one problem: the poor condition of the skull’s teeth. The state of the teeth strongly suggest the owner of the skull was of a lower social class, maybe a serf, a servant, or even a slave. Hannalore Kjaer’s strange gut reaction to the reconstructed paintings confirmed the problem. For her, “the face just did not fit a king” and she began to dig deep into the Sphinx Library records for an answer, emerging months later with a fourth candidate. She pieced together fragments of obscure text from the Fortinbras Files, a collection of records written by an unknown historian, who had attempted to translate older texts. What Hannalore Kjaer found, may be the first hand written texts of Fortinbras himself.

Through the Translate the World Project, the texts were skillfully translated into new and startling versions. The texts revealed a jester in the court of Elsinore named Yorick (Scandinavian Erick or Jorg) who took care of prince Hamlet when he was a boy. Years after Yorick’s death, his body was unearthed in order to make burial space, and his skull fell into the hands of Hamlet. According to a gravedigger’s witness account, Hamlet recognized the skull and had kept it. The text makes no mention of whether it was the Danes or the Norwegians who organized Hamlet's funeral, but it was there that Yorick's skull was buried with Hamlet’s body. What is Yorick's significance to Hamlet? That is a question that keeps Hannalore Kjaer up at night. She says that when we find the answer, we will be able to unravel the Elsinore Question entirely.