During recent restorations, the boards were discovered under layers of flooring at St. George’s Guildhall in King’s Lynn, the United Kingdom’s oldest working theater. The large oak boards are almost 30 centimeters (12 inches) wide and 15 centimeters (6 inches) thick, and they’re held together by wooden pegs instead of nails.
Tim FitzHigham, the guildhall’s creative director, tells the New York Times’ Derrick Bryson Taylor that the discovery was “really, really exciting and pretty mind-blowing.”
Archaeologist Jonathan Clark, an expert in medieval buildings who’s leading the research, has been studying the wooden boards for two months. He’s been trying to date the floor by examining the construction methods used to build it, as well as the growth rings that can be seen in the surviving wood. Based on these details, he says the floorboards date to the early 15th century, likely between 1417 and 1430.
FitzHigham claims that Shakespeare must have performed on them, as documents show that the Bard acted at the venue in the late 16th century, according to BBC News’ Colin Paterson. “We have the borough account book from 1592-93, which records that the borough paid Shakespeare’s company to come and play in the venue,” he says.
Since the floorboards were installed long before the 1590s, “this is likely to be the surface that Shakespeare was walking on,” Clark tells BBC News. “It’s this end of the hall where performances took place.”
Some historians who aren’t involved with the research say the discovery is exciting. Tiffany Stern, a Shakespearean scholar at England’s University of Birmingham, tells BBC News that the evidence that Shakespeare was there is “quite strong."
Others, however, argue that Shakespeare’s whereabouts during this period are uncertain. As Siobhan Keenan, a scholar of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at England’s De Montfort University, tells the Times, “We actually don’t know for certain who he was acting with before 1594.”
Historians know that a group of actors and playwrights called the Earl of Pembroke’s Men performed at St. George’s Guildhall, and some of those plays were Shakespeare’s. But whether the man himself was part of the group in the early 1590s is “speculative,” Keenan adds.
Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, was similarly underwhelmed by the discovery.
“I don’t think it’s hugely important unless you’re a kind of fetishist who really thinks that having a piece of wood that has probably been touched by Shakespeare’s foot is going to make an enormous difference to your understanding of the plays, which I rather doubt,” he tells the Times.
He adds that the floorboards are “not the oldest thing associated with Shakespeare by any means.”