Tools of the Trade

Tools of the trade.

This is abstracted from a longer paper on dowsing, located here.For more complete information, you may follow through there, or skip this shorter explanation entirely!


Dowsing is a subset of a larger category: psychic archaeology. In psychic archaeology, people use alleged psychic powers in order to locate human remains, lost ruins, and even buried treasure. Dowsing (which may also be called water-witching, doodlebugging, or rhabdnomancy) is a “form of divination in which a dowser or water witch uses a simple tool or device such as a dowsing rod, dowsing sticks, doodlebug, pendulum, plumb bob, or divining rod to attempt to locate hidden water wells, underground streams, oil reserves, lost septic tanks and leach fields, caves, utility lines, water and gas pipes, buried metals, ores, minerals, gemstones, people, pets, or missing objects for their clients” according to the Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers, 2011). However, what the AIRR does not mention is that people also dowse for graves (Whittaker, 2012) and archaeological ruins (Hillman-Crouch, 1999).

Pendulum Dowsing

Dowsing in the game "Lord of the Rings Online"


Most archaeologists soundly reject dowsing as a legitimate method of inquiry; Evan Z. Vogt, in particular, spent a good portion of his life devoted to disproving dowsing as any more than folklore (Barrett & Vogt, 1969; Vogt, 1952; Vogt & Golde, 1958). Some, such as Kenneth Feder and John Cole, see things like dowsing and other psychic archaeology as incredibly disadvantageous and even dangerous (Cole, 1980; Cole, Feder, Harrold, Eve, & Kehoe, 1990; Feder, 1984). A small number are willing to allow dowsers to try to prove themselves—but are inevitably proved correct when the results are no better than chance (Randi, 1999; Whittaker, 2012).

There are a small few who entertain the notion that dowsing can be effective—Barry Hillman-Crouch is perhaps the most well-known of these, with his “Dowsing Archaeological Features; An Empirical Study at Cressing Temple, Witham, Essex.” His results, however, were not accepted by a larger audience; although he is a self-described “Masters qualified archaeologist and historic buildings analyst and recorder,” his results were never published anywhere—except by himself. On his website, he offers “Dowsing Days,” calling himself “an experienced archaeological dowser” and stating that participants may “meet an archaeologist who uses dowsing in his everyday working life to locate buried features. Within an hour almost anyone can use the rods to pick up simple features and within two be tracing out archaeological remains. All that is needed is a wire coat hanger each. Bring your own to make a set of rods to keep” (Hillman-Crouch). Because of this, his results may easily be called into question—how may one perform an empirical test when one is already convinced of the results they would like?

Still others simply recommend allowing the so-called “cult” archaeologists to participate—after critically analyzing their implications and consequences, of course. Cornelius Holtorf, for example, states that “even modern society might benefit from inquiring minds more than from passive students to whom factual knowledge is taught, however much that knowledge consists of 'pure truth'. We are thus well advised to encourage any inquiries about the world and not just those that resemble the methods and practices favoured by the scientists of our time. I therefore advocate a commitment to multiple approaches and values simultaneously brought to bear on archaeological landscapes, sites and objects, whether by professional archaeologists or others” (Holtorf, 2005, p. 548).

Indy was never without his dowsing rods.

Indy was never without his dowsing rods.


Web resources veer from archaeologists giving distinctly non-professional opinions (Doeser, 2012; Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2011; The Bad Historian, 2009a, 2009b)—well-sourced, but derisive—to breathless endorsement of dowsing and psychic methodologies (Hollywood Psychics, 2011; Varvoglis, 2009). There are a huge number of online resources, but there are an equally huge number of caveats—most of the web resources—including, for example, this WikiHow (Zack et al., 2012)—are written by multiple people, who are more often than not anonymous. If they are not anonymous, their credentials are often absent or unexplained.


Dowsing Woodcut


Psychic archaeology and grave dowsing simply does not stand up to scientific inquiry; William Whittaker, of the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa, was contacted by grave dowsers after publically expressing disbelief. In order to give them the benefit of the doubt, he systematically combed Iowa’s archaeological records for mentions of dowsing; he found 14 sites where dowsing was mentioned. Of those 14, a handful did find “something” with dowsing—if the dowser had prior knowledge of the area or if there were visible depressions in the ground.
In Whittaker’s words:

Whittaker also “perform[ed] some simple experiments to further illuminate the mechanics of dowsing and to test some of the principles of dowsing,” such as “What makes the wires cross?,” “Are dowsing rods attracted to disturbed soil?,” “Are dowsing rods attracted to human bodies or coffins?,” and “Do dowsing rods cross when exposed to magnetic fields?” (Whittaker, 2012, pp. 5-7). In each case, dowsing was once again shown up. Whittaker’s assessment is the most thorough mainstream analysis available—though other scientists may analyze dowsing, most do not perform the dual-nature analyses that Whittaker offers.

Ouija boards are a form of remote dowsing.


My name is Kat Chappell, and I may be contacted at

Works Cited

To return to the Psychic Archaeology category page, please clickhere.

Psychic Archaeology
Comments [Hide comments/form]
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional :: Valid CSS :: Powered by WikkaWiki