Archaeological and Grave Dowsing


Psychic archaeology is a larger category of pseudoscientific ways to locate archaeological remains wherein people use alleged psychic powers in order to locate human remains, lost ruins, and even buried treasure. Dowsing is one of these various “ways of knowing.” Advocates of dowsing (which may also be called water-witching, doodlebugging, or rhabdnomancy) describe it as:

Other proponents of dowsing believe that it may also be used for graves (Whittaker 2012) and archaeological ruins (Hillman-Crouch 1999). Dowsing naysayers describe it as, simply, “a method of problem-solving that uses a motor automatism, amplified through a pendulum or similar device” (McCarney, et al. 2002), and outright skeptics describe it as “bollocks” (The Bad Historian 2009a). At its base, however, two questions about dowsing remain: one, is dowsing truly scientific? and two, what proof is there that it works?

Although some believers claim that dowsing was first represented in art dating back to ancient Egypt, the general consensus is that it became common use somewhere in the 15th to 16th centuries (Moreland 2003). In the United States, dowsing has gone through fluctuations of popularity, particularly among rural populations (Barrett and Vogt 1969; Besterman 1926; Hyman and Cohen 1957; Monteiro 1964; Seeley 1971; Vogt 1952; Vogt and Golde 1958), and is still important to practitioners of traditional folklore (Naylor 2008). Even from its outset, however, dowsing has been challenged by the scientific community (1902; Burridge 1955; Feder 1984; Hansen 1982; Holmes 1898; Moorehead 1931). As dowsing has clung stubbornly to science’s side, however, the criticisms have grown more and more vehement, with some scientists either dedicating large portions of their lives to debunking dowsing (Evon Z. Vogt, for example) or becoming aggressively anti-dowsing to the point of mockery (Enright 1999; Randi 1999; 2012; The Bad Historian 2009a; b).

Opponents of dowsing believe that it is lacking scientifically and therefore should not be introduced into a scientific discipline, such as archaeology. William Whittaker offers a systematic examination of Iowa’s archaeological records and their relationship with dowsing. He breaks down his results:

Furthermore, 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 2012:5-7). In each case, dowsing was once again shown up. Whittaker’s assessment is one of the most thorough mainstream analyses available—though other scientists may analyze dowsing, most do not perform the dual-nature analyses that Whittaker offers.

Due to the difficulty in finding controlled, double-blind testing for archaeological or grave dowsing (both of these things border on impossible), one may instead consider the numerous double-blind tests of water dowsing (Enright 1996; Hansen 1982; Walach and Schmidt 1997) or even homeopathic dowsing (McCarney, et al. 2002). For example, J.T. Enright focuses his evaluations on German experiments that were carefully controlled (Enright 1995; 1996; 1999). For the Munich experiment, he explains how the scientists “bent over backward” to accommodate the dowsers; the dowsers were active participants in the planning sessions, the experiments took place indoors so as to allow replication, and the scientists only used, for the final testing, the most “skilled” 43 of the preliminary 500 testers. Moreover:

This was all done so that afterward, the researchers could say that these “dowsers all freely participated in the carefully controlled final experiments, which they accepted as suitable to their abilities. There could thus be no basis for subsequent claims that the test program was inappropriate or unfair” (Enright 1999).

The German testers determined “some few dowsers, in particular tasks, showed an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely if at all be explained as due to chance ... a real core of dowser-phenomena can be regarded as empirically proven ...” (Enright 1999). Enright, however, believes that they misinterpreted the data, and explains that “half of the results in Figure 2b (5 tests of 10) do indeed resemble an ideal hypothetical outcome (Figure 1a or 1b), but it deserves emphasis that Figure 2 cannot be considered “typical” but instead represents the very “best” results, consisting only of ten tests out of 843, from one test series out of 104. (In 843 spins of a roulette wheel, at least one sequence of 10 results that includes several seemingly exceptional events might be expected to arise by chance alone.)” (Enright 1999)

Enright gives this same treatment to the Scheunen experiments, explaining the methodologies, reporting the results, and reevaluating the data so as to not exclude the vast majority of unsuccessful dowses. He comes to the same conclusion: although if one dissects the data to tease out the most favorable results, the results will be favorable, but unrepresentative (Enright 1995).

Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, the Archaeology Officer for North Hertfordshire District Council, and contributor to the blog “Bad Archaeology” addresses, even going so far as to participate in a dowse himself in search of the Stapleton’s Field henge (Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2012). He, along with ten other members of the Norton Community Archaeology Group, worked with professional dowser Paul Daw in order to discover the rings of the henge. His observations included:

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he states:

Although Fitzpatrick-Matthews “has no truck with the use of pendula on maps[;] there is nothing that can be tested,” he is, by his own admission, “more open to the idea that dowsing might have some basis in reality. Might it be possible that the dowser is sensitive to gravitational or magnetic gradients in the landscape, such as might be produced by holes in the ground” (Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2012). However, if this is in fact the case, dowsing is even more questionable. He asks:

All of his questions are valid; this is potentially the most logical, scientifically-provable explanation for the way that dowsing works—if it works at all. Why, then, does dowsing totally ignore features that show up clearly on magnetometry readings? If dowsers can pick and choose the stimuli to which their rods react, how valid and complete are the results?
Proponents of dowsing claim that it is incredibly accurate and is therefore a vital resource that science is rejecting simply out of fear of something new. There are certain studies that have been done—albeit by dowsers themselves—that indicate that dowsing and psychic archaeology are perfectly functional (Hillman-Crouch 1999; Hollywood Psychics 2011). These supporters are often ostensibly scientists, but their credentials are unclear (Varvoglis 2009).

The most noteworthy advocates are the original researchers from the German experiments and a single responder to Enright’s criticisms. S. Ertel’s reanalysis actually increases the efficacy of dowsers in relation to the original conclusions; he does this by including things like alleged “symmetry errors,” wherein “dowsers sometimes responded at locations opposite to where the pipe had been placed …[Betz] tentatively explained such responses - if they were real - as possibly due to the slanted roof of the barn whose ridge, projected down to the test line, would cross it about halfway. Reflections of rays (if rays were the transmitters) had to be stipulated in that case. In order to avoid generalized doubts in his dowsing study, Betz had omitted this casual and uncertain observation in publications” (Ertel 1996:233). He concludes:

All of Ertel’s suppositions rely on the idea that dowsing works and that alleged “earth rays” control the data received. Without these—one may say overly generous—suppositions, dowsers are right back where they began: unproven.
Betz et al. in their re-review of their own data include not only their original data, but Ertel’s review, unsourced “independent” data, and anecdotal data that they claim is not actually anecdotal because it is too “convincing” (Betz, et al. 1996). This last claim is easily the most frustrating. To wit:

However, all of these claims are backed by data collected by and papers written by Betz himself. If he were to truly believe in the efficacy of dowsers—and this dowser specifically—it would be prudent, one would think, to refer to results and research by other scientists and on other dowsers. Betz asserts that “many critical scientists have been converted to accepting the facts, though they often claim that unquestionable successes result not from a particular dowsing skill but from prospecting experience” (Betz, et al. 1996:275). Distressingly, this may be a falsehood.

Enright claims that:

This alleged attempt in the journal Wetter-Boden-Mensch (Zeitschrift für Geobiologie)—unverified by the author, due to language barrier—casts shade on the entire process that Betz has put forth. If he believes whole cloth his own data, there would be no need to falsify support.

Some scientists believe that dowsing is not particularly harmful. 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 2005:548).

Some even defend it as a folkloric activity (Massie 1971). Overall, however, their support is lukewarm—most supporters simply advocate leaving the dowsers alone and allowing them to continue dowsing without being “bullied” by mainstream science.

Further attempts to verify or disprove dowsing are often thwarted due to unclear qualifications or heavy biases; this is especially true with regard to many web resources. Though, for example, the aforementioned “Bad Archaeology” seems sourced and credentialed, and the arguments set forth are well-sourced and reasoned (Doeser 2012; Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2011). Others are angry at the continued inclusion of dowsing in the archaeological realm (The Bad Historian 2009a; b), and make no attempt to be professional about what they say. Although entertaining, and in this case informative, there are clear and heavy biases which make it a non-ideal resource.

Many advocates of dowsing are either anonymous (Hollywood Psychics 2011; Zack et al. 2012) or questionably qualified (Hillman-Crouch 1999; Varvoglis 2009). Hillman-Crouch is a dowser himself, offering what he calls “dowsing days” (Hillman-Crouch), and, as such, may not be able to offer a truly scientific viewpoint. His 1999 report on “Dowsing Archaeological Features; an Empirical Study at Cressing Temple, Witham, Essex” was published by himself in a non-peer-reviewed place. It is secondarily published on his website—right next to the offer to teach laypersons how to dowse.

There is little to no evidence that dowsing is anything more than coincidence. Multiple studies, anecdotes, and tests have proven that dowsing is ineffective. Why, then, does it persist? One may suggest that part of the responsibility lies not with the dowsers themselves, but in the fact that the scientific community tends to do as Holtorf advises—allowing them relatively free reign over the idea that dowsing is perfectly legitimate and, in fact, real science. One may then ask what the harm is in this—the harm is that dowsers, armed with dowsing rods and a scientific blind eye, may irreparably harm archaeological sites, desecrate graves, or simply waste people’s time and money on their flights of fancy. If, as in Fitzpatrick-Matthews’s henge, the dowser had suggested that the circle was in a different place, or if they had followed the line blindly, they could have destroyed that site for good, and for no reason. In this, dowsing much resembles pot hunters—they may know the general area in which to search, but they may ruin a lot of the past to get there.

Admittedly, I am biased towards disbelief—simply because I have yet to see sufficient proof, and particularly sufficiently repeated proof. An experiment means nothing if it is not replicable by different people in different places. As of yet, none of these experiments, even the allegedly successful Munich and Scheunen studies, have been repeated, successfully. Simply stating that dowsing works is not probative—I, for my own intellectual curiosity’s sake, require more.

Works Cited


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Psychic Archaeology

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