Looking for graves, precious metals, and treasures with witching or divining rods just won’t go away.
As a heritage professional for an agency that works closely with descendant populations to the public lands where I work, I probably come face-to-face with dowsing and witching once or twice a year. If I’m headed to the field to help with the location of a historic cemetery, the topic is bound to come up. And occasionally I’m challenged to accept the results.
The scientist and skeptic in me just screams to say something I might have a hard time taking back. Luckily, the patient ethnographer in me remembers how to do participant observation and I try to be as non-judgemental as I can. If outright called on it, I’ll admit that my position is it has no efficacy. That is, unless the desired result is an answer no better than chance.
Most days I just nod my head and say things like, “well let’s try some methods that might offer some tangible evidence. After all, you wouldn’t want to get something like this wrong and have the real cemetery get plowed up a half-mile away.” Or something like that. Depending on the audience and how well I know them.
I’ve written on dowsing a couple of times in this blog: once was about a farmer that was in the process of losing some of his field to imminent domain so he claimed to discover a cemetery by grave-dowsing. The state came in and checked it with GPR so they could clear their highway. I tried to locate that stretch of highway a few years later from the news story, and check with Google Earth if it every got expanded, but I really wasn’t sure of the location.
The second time I wrote about dowsing was, again, about a cemetery. Acting on descendant information, my shop set about excavating a few centimeters in depth along a half-meter by 2 meter trench to locate a grave shaft. None was found. The “witcher” (the term that seems to be in favor for my region) even let me try his witching rods, two wire rods bent at 90 degrees. As I stepped into a small depression, the rods moved. Apparently I’m a natural. The witcher claimed an ability to find both graves and water. I asked how he knew this wasn’t water. My answer was a brief stare… and then it was as if I never asked the question at all, as he told about another time he helped find this or that… I’d never observed cognitive dissonance so nakedly before.
A New Anecdote
Then there were the two fellows I helped set a grave marker at a real cemetery (we have hundreds of historic cemeteries where I work). It was a grave that was previously marked and the interred was known but he had no marker. A local history-minded group got together and had a marker created. My job was mainly to ensure no other graves were disturbed by the truck used to bring the stone in, etc.
As we set up, one of the two men busied himself with getting things ready: a bucket of sand, small shovel (you have to dig a few inches down and put in a little sand so the marker stands straight and level). The other gentleman already had his dowsing rods out. They crossed at the spot we’d already identified, “yep, that’s a grave,” he remarked. They crossed again at spot just next to it.
I nodded, taking note of the oblong, east-west aligned depression that was in a row of other east-west aligned depressions. Graves. No rod needed. I’m a natural.
Then the same fellow reached in his pocket and pulled out a pendulum. I have to point out this is the one and only time I’ve seen this done in the field so I was suddenly more interested in this guy than the one still scurrying about dumping sand in a bucket and looking for a 2×4 to tamp it down with.
The pendulum was held above each of the depressions where the rods crossed. And something must have been different between them because the witcher announced, “uh-huh… this one’s a female and this one’s a male.”
In my head, I knew which was supposed to be our guy–the Civil War veteran interred below. I previously checked the cemetery map that listed who was buried where. And HE was not where the witcher was pointing. So I thought this just might get interesting between the witcher and the busy guy, who also checked the cemetery map. About that time, the busy guy had the gravestone slid to the back of the pickup bed and wanted some help. Granite weighs 175 pounds per cubic foot. Marble weighs a little less. They’re both crazy heavy. I mean, like, crush your foot heavy if you’re not careful. So we heft this gravestone the short distance from the truck to the grave the witcher just said is a female. And the first guy starts digging a few centimeters out for the footing.
Literally putting his back to the witcher who could very quietly be heard to say, “but… that one is a female….”
Then suddenly it didn’t matter when it was apparent nobody was lifting that marker again and the shallow, narrow trench was getting sand tamped down and leveled, ready to receive the stone. Some days cognitive dissonance wears less clothing than the emperor.
Where did the Practice of Witching or Dowsing Come From?
Curious to know this I started where we all start: Wikipedia. According to the editors of the Wikipedia entry on Dowsing, the practice dates at least as far back as the 16th Century since it was mentioned in De Re Metallica, a book by George Bauer published the year after his death in 1556. In this book, there is a detailed description of dowsing for metal ores using a “forked twig.”
A slightly earlier text, Cosmographia, by Sebastian Munster (1550) has an image of dowser walking around with a forked stick that is actually labeled: “Virgula Divinia” and “Gluck Rut,” which are, respectively, Latin for “divine rod” and German for “luck stick.” But, even earlier, Martin Luther supposedly wrote that metal dowsing was a violation of the first commandment. This was in 1518, so it seems reasonable that the practice might have been around a while longer in Europe and could have regularly practiced as early as the 15th Century (I should note that I’ve only ever found authors that say ML said this, but not the specific passage by ML).
Interestingly, the Christian Bible has a passage that denounces dowsing as pagan skill: “My people consult their wooden idol and their diviner’s wand informs them; for a spirit of harlotry has led them astray and they have played the harlot, departing from their God” (Hosea 4:12). Yet every single witcher I’ve met in the southeast United States would also, undoubtedly, refer to themselves as a believing Christian. Cognitive dissonance again laid bare.
There are claims of dowsing represented also in the rock art of Algeria, dating to around 6,000 BCE, but the image I saw attached to this claim looked more like a figure holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. In fact, the panel, found in a cave at Tassili Ajjer, is called the Archers of Tin Aboteka. This is also the featured image of this blog article, mostly because I really like rock art.
In the Toolbox of Archaeology?
Archaeologist and skeptic Jeb Card writes in his Spooky Archaeology that “one in eight archaeology instructors in the 1980s were favorable to dowsing,” and he cites Ivor Noël Hume’s Historical Archaeology, of which I have a 1975 edition on my shelf. Noël Hume is considered by many to be the Father of historical archaeology and his book of the same name is one I recommend for any archaeologist that finds themself recording historic sites. But here’s what Hume said:
This simple device, which must, I suppose, be classified as archaeological dowsing, has been thoroughly tested under all sorts of conditions and there remains no doubt that two pieces of wire, each bent a right angle and held lightly in each hand, will cross when they pass over metal. This is by no means a new discovery; it has been used by plumbers and electricians both in the United States and in Europe for years as a means of locating the course of buried pipes and cables.
Hume has at least three pages of various praise and description of what he clearly thought was cutting edge geophysics for the cost of two shirts tossed to the floor of one’s closet. But…
The most limiting factor of all is that not everyone can make the coat hangers work. Our tests have shown that they react for about eight out of ten men but only for three out of ten women, and, so far, no satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming.Noël Hume, I. 1969. Historical Archaeology. New York: Knopf, pp. 37-39.
[…]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.
Clearly, the women among his team were the more skeptical and critically minded.
But Does it Work?
Short answer: no.
In another book also titled Historical Archaeology, but written some 50+ years later, Charles Orser is a little more critical of dowsing, particularly as a tool for archaeologists:
Dowsers complain that professional archaeologists have bitterly attacked them as occultists because their technique has no theoretical explanation. These British dowsers swear their method of subsurface surveying works, and they offer serious arguments for its use. It is admittedly easy to be tricked by dowsing because it actually does appear to work in some cases.
But can it really provide archaeological clues to buried sites? James Randi, famed professional magician and debunker of the paranormal, reported that all dowsing fails when tested using scientific methods. In fact, no dowser has ever passed a scientifically valid test. So why do dowsers continue to believe in their method? The reason is a powerful psychological phenomenon called “the ideomotor effect.” This is an involuntary bodily movement evoked by an idea or thought process. In other words, the angle rods will move when the user thinks they should. Most dowsers are not aware they are causing the angle rods to move. In the case of British churches, dowsers are familiar with church architecture and they undoubtedly evoke the rods to move where they expect to find buried walls and other well-documented features.Orser, Charles (2016). Historical Archaeology. Routledge, New York and London, pp. 140-141.
The Ideomotor Effect
The ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon that drives the unconscious motion of a person or persons, and it can be found as the underlying explanation to various pseudoscientific and paranormal activities like dowsing, automatic writing, facilitated communication, applied kinesiology, and that fun family game called the Ouija board.
William Carpenter first coined the term “ideomotor” in a paper he wrote in 1852 discussing the notion that “spiritualists” could channel or influence the motion of objects due to their connection to the “spiritual realm.” He described ideomotor as ideo, meaning “idea” and motor meaning “muscular action.” What he suggested was that muscle movement could become independent of conscious thought and influenced by unconscious desire or emotion.
There have been lots of studies that show this to be true over the years like the paper in Consciousness and Cognition (Gauchou, Rensink, & Fels 2012) that explored how the Ouija was more accurate than chance when using yes/no questions. In 2018, Andersen et al demonstrated that at least one Ouija board participant always knew where the planchette was going. They did this using predictive eye analytics that watched the participants eyes for indicators of intent.
Skepticism about water witching and dowsing in general isn’t really new. In spite of Jeb Card’s probably accurate assessment of 1980s archaeology instructors, the U.S. Department of the Interior had this to say as early as 1917:
It is doubtful whether so much investigation and discussion have been bestowed on any other subject with such absolute lack of positive results. It is difficult to see how for practical purposes the entire matter could be more thoroughly discredited, and it should be obvious to everyone that further tests by the United States Geological Survey on this so-called “witching” for water, oil or other minerals would be a misuse of public funds.
But it might be the Scheunen experiments (Enright 1995) that should have been the nail in the coffin of dowsing. The researchers, who were sympathetic to the cause of dowsing, were forced to conclude that “no persuasive evidence could be found for the reproducibility of the ‘dowsing phenomenon’.” This was a large experimental program that took place from 1987-1988. the goal was to determine if “dowsers can, as they claim, detect water from a distance by extraordinary means.” Approximately 500 dowsers took part in almost 10,000 tests! And the ultimate conclusion was that none of them did any better than chance when considered as part of the statistical collective.
That should have been the nail in coffin. But that’s not the world we live in. I think that water witching and grave dowsing offer a level of control and perceived expertise in a world where that individual would otherwise find themself in the margins of mediocrity or unimportance.
Many of these ‘witchers’ probably have some natural insight or experience that they, themselves, might not even be aware of. Orser writes that the dowsers in his example were successful because they were “familiar with church architecture and they undoubtedly evok the rods to move where they expect to find buried walls and other well-documented features.”
My friend who professed above to be able to find both water and graves has probably been looking for water for years. I’ve often wondered if one can drill or dig a well anywhere in this region and not hit water eventually, but I suspect he has a decent eye for where a likely spot could be. Much in the same way I’ve developed a decent eye for predicting the locations of the remnants of wells and cisterns when I record historic home sites that have few remains above ground. And I’ve been to enough historic cemeteries and looked for more than a few with success that I’m starting to trust my intuition. A natural or not, I don’t bring the rods.
As a heritage professional, I know that my interactions with descendant populations is not to be undervalued. They’re going to bring their witching sticks and wire rods. With any luck, they’ll bring some informed intuition and great stories and we’ll each learn something from the other. I don’t have to rely on the witching or even believe that it works. But I do have to respect the descendants of the lands I work as a cultural steward. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean I need to be an grump.
References and Further Reading
- Andersen, M., Nielbo, K.L., Schjoedt, U. et al. (2019). Predictive minds in Ouija board sessions. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 18: 577–588.
- Ellis, A.J. (1917). Water-Supply Paper 416, Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.
- Enright, J.T. (1995). Water Dowsing: the Scheunen Experiments. Naturwissenschaften, 82: 360-369.
- Gauchou HL; Rensink RA; Fels S. (2012). Expression of nonconscious knowledge via ideomotor actions. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(2): 976–982.