Grave Dowsing?

Survey of possible graveyard site along a highway destined to be four-laned.

What’s a water dowser do when his method is demonstrated time and again to be nonsense on stilts? Turn to dowsing for graves, I suppose. It wasn’t mentioned if the dowser who worked for Mississippi landowner about to lose a strip of pastureland to a new highway project used a forked stick or metal rods, but one thing is clear, he didn’t actually find any graves (click “A Grave Matter” for the story).

But that hasn’t stopped MDOT from sending out a CRM team to clear the area. It’s their due diligence, after all. If all they had to go on was a “dowser’s” word, I would say they should dismiss it out-of-hand and get on with the highway project. Imminent domain can be a pain in the butt when you’re a landowner, but at least he isn’t loosing his home. And the highway addition will benefit the whole of society in his area. Not to mention they probably offered him reasonable compensation.

But since there were some anecdotes from local residents, the CRM survey is the right thing to do (plus, it means some archaeologist are gainfully employed!). The landowner hired an attorney to intercede on his behalf and they’re complaining that the equipment used is a single-antenna GPR (ground-penetrating radar) instead of a dual-antenna.

“The research is pretty clear that the dual-antenna system gives you a better depiction,” the attorney said. “The rules have been changed, so it’s frustrating.”

The dual-antenna is probably nice to have, but not necessary for something as straight-forward as locating graves. The single-antenna GPRs are also called monostatic since they use the same antenna to transmit and receive the electromagnetic (EM) wave, whereas a dual-antenna GPR is considered bistatic since it transmits on one antenna then receives on another. Both have their advantages, the monostatic probably being the easiest and fastest to use. The bistatic GPR works a little slower, but it’s datasets are somewhat smaller and give better resolution. Bistatic is what you want for the precision of locating pipes and cabling under city streets. Monostatic is plenty sufficient to find a few graves. But the CRM team was also using a magnetometer, which could be very useful if gravestones are buried.

That the landowner used the services of a “grave dowser” is laughable, but the response of MDOT and the CRM team to the possibility of genuine cultural resources was appropriate. Particularly since there was some apparent anecdote suggesting an otherwise undocumented graveyard was present as well as some alleged “Indian mounds.” Clearly the landowner is hoping to deflect the project away from his own property.

Bad news mister landowner… if they find a graveyard that isn’t Native American, they’ll very likely just move it. The good news is, major highways are good for picking up cans so there’s a potential opportunity for income!

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About Carl Feagans 396 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.

1 Comment

  1. This is a comment I left on the “pingback” above, “A quick intro into dowsing.” The blog there, Dowsing 101, is brand new, and has a single post.

    A quick intro into the fallacy of dowsing:

    Dowsing is one of those pseudoscientific practices that is easy for anyone to believe in if they don’t take the time and make the effort to think critically about it. But let’s take a look at what it is you’ve written on the subject.

    “In my opinion – the truth is somewhere in between.”

    This is what philosophers call an argument to moderation, also known as a false compromise or the golden mean fallacy. Basically, the person making the argument is asserting that given two positions there exists a compromise between them that must be correct. On the face of it, such an argument seems reasonable as long as a gray area is preferred or desired. It doesn’t work, however, for an argument like, “some think humans can fly; others think they plummet; therefore some people can survive a drop from the Empire State Building.” Another example: “mercury is toxic and harmful; mercury is nutritious and beneficial; therefore the truth is somewhere in between.”

    “Dowsing is not as yet scientifically proven…”

    Nor is traveling faster than the speed of light. But both alternatives have been scientifically shown not to have credibility. Science has demonstrated that dowsers do no better than chance regardless of who the “operator, or dowser” is. No “dowser” has ever shown an ability to actually detect changes in an electromagnetic field. Indeed, several studies have put dowsers to the test (;

    “Dowsing is a technique that allows us to observe the info our own bodies obtain.”

    This is one of those vague-but-feel-good statements that people like to make but really doesn’t impart anything meaningful. Our bodies receive information in various ways, but there is no mechanism shown to exist between an object held in a “dowser’s” hand and the ability to “observe” that information. If there truly is electromagnetic information being transmitted, then the body can do nothing with it unless it’s modulated to a format we can understand. Radio waves pass through us all the time an they often contain information, but we don’t “observe” that information in its EM form. Thankfully. Otherwise we’d have a television, radio, and wifi nightmare 24/7.

    Dowsing really isn’t accurate in any hands. Indeed, “competent hands” for dowsing implies the ability to deceive (either others or oneself) since dowsing relies on the ideomotor effect (, a phenomenon that *does* have scientific support. But perhaps “scientific” isn’t something that holds meaning since you did, early in the post, use the phrase “so called scientific instruments,” which indicates a willingness to discount science and reject it. Or at least to doubt that an instrument of science is actually what it is purported to be.

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