Sticks and Stones: ‘Dowsing and Archaeology’ and ‘Site and Survey Dowsing,’ 1980

Exhibit / February 6, 2018


Object Name: Dowsing and Archeology, edited by Tom Graves; Site and Survey Dowsing, edited by Clive Thompson
Maker and Year: British Society of Dowsers, 1980
Object Type: Books
Image Source: Exhibit author
Description: (Michael Grasso):

These two odd little volumes were discovered a few months ago in an antiquarian book shop in Canterbury, UK. Published by the British Society of Dowsers in 1980, Dowsing and Archaeology and Site and Survey Dowsing collectively offer a few dozen short articles, culled from the annals of the Journal of the British Society of Dowsers over the half-century leading up to 1980. As the book titles make clear, these articles take dowsing past its usual folk magic remit of finding sources of water and into territory usually ceded to archeologists or metal detectorists: finding ancient objects and the outlines of ancient structures.

But this pair of popular assumptions—that dowsing’s lineage is ancient and that its primary purpose is finding sources of fresh water—are largely myths. The reality is that dowsing, rather than being an ancient art stretching back millennia, was actually developed during a historical period where economic necessity drove the development of methods of discovering sources of metals deep underground. In 16th-century Germany, mining and metallurgy were undergoing great advances, aided by the invention of the printing press and impelled by the increasing political, economic, and sectarian competition between the states of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as competition from Imperial Spain’s tapping into the Americas’ reserves of precious metals. The Renaissance’s most important study of mining and metallurgy, De Re Metallica, featured a large amount of divining lore that shows up in 16th-century Germany (although the author, Georgius Agricola, rejected dowsing as a technique). These methods were imported to Britain in the 17th century, where they soon became part of the rural cultural fabric of British folk magic. The practice of dowsing was brought to America with British settlers, where a distinct branch of the art flourishes to this day.

The British Society of Dowsers, founded in 1933, sought to systematize British dowsing practice in a scientific manner, as well as provide a venue for dowsers and dowsing investigators to share information. The books above contain a capsule history of the Society’s investigations into finding subterranean features and artifacts. The writer-dowsers make a careful distinction between “practical” and “theoretical” dowsing, and the articles come down forcefully in favor of the former. (This same distinction is also very interestingly made in Susannah Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, where Regency-era British magicians separate themselves into “theoretical” and “practical” magicians.) The men who undertook these dowsing investigations seem to consist of a certain class of English gentleman; in the table of contents for each book, several investigator-authors possess various honors after their surnames: doctors from the Royal College of Surgeons, recipients of the Order of the British Empire, army colonels, electronics engineers, and archeology PhDs. Taking cues from other scientific and technical journals from the mid-20th century, British dowsers sought to advance their art through peer review and testing. The fact that the anthologies were published in 1980 is of interest as well, since extra-sensory perception, remote viewing, telepathy, and psychokinesis were all popular subjects of mainstream scientific inquiry in the Weird 1970s.

It is clear from some of these articles that, over the course of the Society’s existence, dowsing had experienced periodic and moderate acceptance from the academic and professional worlds. An article from 1958 in Dowsing and Archeology notes that the author discussed dowsing before the Archeology faculty at the University of Oxford. Dowsers had proposed an inherent human ability called “radiesthesia” that enabled those with the proper equipment and training to sense magnetic fields in the Earth. And yet dowsing in the 20th century has also been treated as a purely paranormal phenomenon, with practitioners asserting their ability stems from either psychic intuition, the power of ritual, or the principles of sympathetic magic. From the very first volume of the Journal, this “physical vs. psychical” split is given a great deal of attention. In Site and Survey Dowsing, a 1930s essay on “The Cause of the Phenomena of Dowsing” by Dudley D’Auvergne Wright finds a middle ground between “science” and superstition, stating that the active engagement of the dowser’s consciousness and concentration on the target allows for the human mind and nervous system to attune to the electromagnetic echoes caused by concentrations of metal or other materials underground, hearkening back to controversies in Western philosophy and phenomenology as old as Descartes’ mind-body problem. Interestingly, most modern observers now believe that the act of dowsing taps into unconscious instincts at the level of an ideomotor phenomenon.

As mentioned above, a dowser operating under a “psychical” paradigm will often use methods that reside in the sphere of sympathetic magic. The dowser will use a bit of the material being sought (gold, iron, or often, in the case of water, a divining rod made of a twig or branch) to find the material in the field. In addition, one branch of dowsing uses color correspondences to help the dowser attune to materials. Clive Thompson, editor of the Site and Survey Dowsing volume, discusses his idiosyncratic color system, where he will wrap or paint his rods in colors matching the material being sought. Guy Underwood, an investigator who dowsed at Stonehenge, seeks to understand why the “influence lines” he senses there seem to always manifest as circles and spirals. In his examination of prehistoric carvings, he notices the repeating motif of spirals. Underwood posits a correspondence here between the art and praxis of ancient monument builders, and notes that sites like Stonehenge contain built-in “boundaries” in the form of these invisible lines that the ancients were sensitive to, making them natural spots for high altars and places of worship and sacrifice. Underwood cites the similarity between the priests of these ancient Britons as makers of “boundary markers” and the traditional Western occult role of gods like Thoth and Hermes and their priests as makers of boundaries, line and distance markers, and the like.

The physical vs. psychical split also seems to break down somewhat on a class level. The physical dowsers are largely academics and affluent hobbyists. As an example of the groups’ differences in praxis, “physical” dowsers largely disapprove of their colleagues who use maps to prepare for field investigations. A dowser who adheres to a sympathetic magic paradigm may decide to use either a small divining rod and/or pendulums and a map to seek likely spots for investigation before even going to the spot in person. The upper-class academic dowsers focus on grand archeological expeditions, such as examining Stonehenge or other ancient sites. But, for the most part, dowsers who use folk traditions tend to be more practical users of dowsing—for example, working for local boards having to do with utilities or city planning—and freely use their powers to help in municipal construction and repair. In fact, as recently as last year, 10 out of 12 local British water boards admitted using dowsing in utility planning and repair efforts. Scammers in the US have even been caught selling bomb detection units and other police investigation devices that operate generally on dowsing principles; i.e., with no scientific basis whatsoever. Dowsing lives on as a powerful concept into the present day, in the hands of both harmless folk magicians and rapacious grifters.

8 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones: ‘Dowsing and Archaeology’ and ‘Site and Survey Dowsing,’ 1980

  1. I’d love to read the article “Beware of Ghosts”. This whole enterprise (and seemingly many of its practitioners of the period) could be straight out of an M.R. James story. How appropriate these were found in an antiquarian book shop!

    • Sadly, the “ghosts” in that essay are not literal, but are the traces that other dowsers/structures/objects left behind. Believe me, that was the first piece I flipped to when I got the book!

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  3. While working for a local municipal water authority in the US, I saw the manager using dowsing rods to attempt to locate a buried waterline on a city street. The line was under a concrete sidewalk. Being an engineer, I scoffed at this attempt to locate the line. Sure enough, the rods crossed at the same location each time. I accused him of manipulating the rods to mess with me (I was actually an intern while still in college and hadn’t been working more than a few weeks). He let me try and sure enough I had the same results as him. They dug up the sidewalk and the line was where the rods said it would be. I believe that the rods were just two small diameter steel rods with a 90 degree bend for you to hold at one end, one in each hand. I haven’t really thought about it until seeing this article. I have serious doubts over the “psychical” angle though I was proven wrong on dowsing once already!

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