To toke or not to toke... Will Shakespeare's bones tell us? (Uh, no.)

This is the kind of article I'd expect from the Daily Mail.  They're sure to carry it soon if they haven't yet, but I saw this over at Fox News:  "Did Shakespeare Smoke Weed?  Let's Dig Him Up and Find Out."  And it's quickly spreading to other news media.  Oh jeez.

"Heh, this is sonnet number 420." - Shakespeare
About a decade ago, forensic scientists in South Africa analyzed the residue from a couple dozen 17th century clay pipes unearthed in the garden at Shakespeare's home in England (Thackeray et al. 2001).  They claim to have found traces of tobacco, cannabis, and cocaine.  The latter assertion is the most difficult to buy, since cocaine comes from the New World plant coca and is assumed not to have been made in the Old World until well into the 19th century.  Hemp, of course, was used in Elizabethan England, mostly as a fabric.  The researchers also found traces of myristic acid (from nutmeg, possibly a hallucinogen), and quinoline (which contains quinine, long used to treat malaria).  A palaeontologist named Francis Thackeray initated the pipe study and stirred up quite a controversy by suggesting that Shakespeare did all kinds of drugs.

Well, Thackeray is back.  He's now the director for the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witwatersrand and claims to have asked the Church of England for permission to probe Shakespeare's grave, make scans, and analyze the results.  So, how does he think this will show that Shakespeare smoked pot?

First, they have to find his grave.  People are pretty sure where Shakespeare was buried. Reportedly, he was afraid he'd be exhumed, so his tombstone reads: "Blessed be the man that spares these stones / And cursed be he that moves my bones." But hey, it was the 17th century, so who knows who's buried in the grave? Thackeray and his team plan to do a DNA test on the body, as well as of Shakespeare's wife and sister, who were buried nearby, to confirm identification.

Second, they want to figure out cause of death as well as his health during life.  Thackeray plans (here I'm reading between the lines, since the news reports are un-technical versions for the public) to look at "growth lines in the teeth" which may mean looking for enamel hypoplasias or may mean something more technical, like looking at enamel prisms, striae of Retzius, or perikymata.  OK, that's all well and good and will give us a general overview of the Bard's health during childhood, but where does pot come in?

Tooth wear from clay pipe use, 17th
century America (Credit: Smithsonian)
As far as I can tell, Thackeray's plan is to look for any evidence of extramasticatory wear on the teeth [see update below*]: that is, if there are grooves or indentations in the enamel of Shakespeare's teeth from tightly clenching a pipe.  That's it.  He's looking for evidence that Shakespeare smoked a pipe.  Which he likely did.  There's absolutely nothing tying the pipe use with cannabis use - and the evidence for cannabis within the pipe is tenuous at best. I don't care if Shakespeare smoked weed - there seems to be some evidence in his sonnets that he did - but I do care when people dig up skeletons for no good reason.

Thackeray is quoted all over the place as crowing about his "incredible techniques" and "nondestructive analysis."  Looking at tooth wear is nondestructive, but DNA analysis is most certainly destructive.  DNA is indeed an incredible technique, but there is no magical test that will tell if Shakespeare smoked pot.  We have some circumstantial evidence at best - and that evidence is, let's face it, no more convincing than the evidence we already have.  What's next?  Does Thackeray want to examine Shakespeare's phalanges for callouses, to prove he wrote all his plays and sonnets?

As usual, some researcher, bored or in need of an ego-boost, wants to dig up someone famous for shits and giggles [see update below^].  Really, this is bad science.  Thackeray's plan will in no way answer his question.  According to Fox News anyway, the Church of England claims not to have received a request from Thackeray.  Which begs the question: is Thackery full of crap, did the news media get something wrong, or is the Church denying it?

Whatever it is, I hope this goes away and doesn't become like the Mona Lisa case.

UPDATE (6/27/11) - * Seems Thackeray was misunderstood by Fox News, and I trusted that Fox had reported the news correctly. Good to know they're actually a worse source of news on this subject than the Daily Mail.  Anyway, as Thackeray mentioned to LiveScience today, his plan is to test hair or nails (if found) for evidence that the Bard smoked weed.  The part about wear on the teeth was indeed said in reference to pipe smoking, not specifically as a way to link pipe smoking and cannabis smoking.  ^ I still think much of forensic archaeology is done for shits and giggles.  After Stephanie Pappas asked me about it for her LiveScience piece, I outlined my misgivings about the practice a bit more fully here.  Perhaps it's my population bias or my need to toe the line between anthropology and classics, but something makes me root for the little people and get annoyed by the continuous attention being paid to the elite.


J.F. Thackeray, N.J. van der Merwe, & T.A. van der Merwe (2001). Chemical analysis of residues from seventeeth-century clay pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and environs South African Journal of Science, 97, 19-21.


Stacy K said…
Interesting article. It does sound like Thackery is interested in boosting his ego by doing something that would guarantee press attention.

What is the evidence in the sonnets for Shakespeare's use of weed?
The Village Voice claims that Sonnet 76 talks about "that noted weed" - I don't know what other mentions are claimed within his work, though.
Anonymous said…
With the exhumation of Mona Lisa and Galileo I've been wondering if people are going to start calling for other celebrities of the past to be exhumed. Its a little disconcerting that researchers believe they can just dig up anyone now if they have a question. I'd love to see a skeletal analysis of Shakespeare- but only if it were conducted properly and was going to answer genuine questions. I don't think the question of his personal smoking habits warrants exhumation.

Great Article!

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