Antique Archaeology: “Angle Rods”

I like to read early writings on archaeology, comparing and contrasting what they did with what we do now. Antiquarians methods of the 19th century and even early archaeological methods of the 20th century are often fascinating, sometimes incredible, occasionally appalling. But they got us where we are today and I wonder if another 100 years from now, archaeologists will shake their heads in wonder, bewilderment, or dismay as they read our own works.

In leafing through Historical Archaeology by Ivor Noel Hume (1968, Knopf, New York), I came across a list of suggested equipment for the field survey crew (p. 63):

List of suggested items for field survey; note the last entry. From Hume (1968: 63)

In the photograph of the page in the book, notice the last entry on the second column: “angle rods.” Nearly all of this list is still in use by archaeologists today and I recognized it all immediately. But the “angle rods” threw me. I simply could not figure out what they were. So I took care to focus a little more diligently in the text. On a previous page, I found discussion of “angle rods.”

As I have mentioned, wire coat hangers provide the most convenient raw materials, and one simply cuts two lengths, each measuring about two feet, with the bend coming eight inches from one end. Holding the wires very lightly, one in each hand, with the bend resting on the forefinger and the short end of the wire hanging down the rough the palm, one walks forward with the knuckles of each hand touching and the wires parallel and about two inches apart. (Fig. 2) As one approaches a buried metal object, the wires slowly converge until they forma  cross close to the hands, and at that point the short ends of the wires projecting downward below the hands are the closest to the object. (p. 37)

Hume is describing dowsing rods! Needless to say, I rushed to turn the page to see figure 2!

Angle rods in use from pg. 39 of Hume (1968).

Hume goes on to say,

There is no denying that one feels a little idiotic walking across a field intently watching two pieces of coat hanger. Nevertheless, they serve a useful purpose and are included in every Williamsburg archaeologist’s box of tricks. (p. 38)

“Witching” and dowsing for water, graves, and metals is still a thing. Two anecdotes I can share are this: about one year ago, I turned the corner in  my small, country town and noticed the water department was doing some work. As I made my turn, I glanced out of the passenger side window of my car and noticed one of the workers holding dowsing rods that had handles that looked like bicycle grips. On another occasion, I was present when a local informant attempted to show me how to use his dowsing rods to “witch” for graves. Being ever polite, I held the rods which moved just as I expected as I traversed an uneven spot, but this was proof to him that I had the touch.

After he mentioned he can use these to find water in addition to graves, I asked the informant, a man I happen to like very much, a question: how does he know that what he’s found is a grave and not water? I didn’t ask to be obstinate or difficult, I was genuinely interested in how he thought about these things. He didn’t really have an answer and it actually seemed to make him think a bit.

I’ve previously written about grave dowsing as it related to an imminent domain case in Louisiana, where a farmer was trying to find good reason to prevent his land from being added to a local highway improvement. To test his claim, the archaeologists brought in a GPR unit to survey the site and found no evidence of burials.

Hume’s book is only less than 50 years old, yet he discusses dowsing on the same page as the proton magnetometer. What, I wonder, will be our “angle rods” from the point of view of future archaeologists?

About Carl Feagans 357 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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