Dowsing and Archaeology

by Sue Brown

We were attracted to North Lodge by its history, for there are two reputedly Norman mottes and one bailey in the grounds and another bailey across the road. In the Park a mile away there is a third mound. North Lodge was part of a large estate – with its over-grown grounds near the River Kennet and Kennet and Avon Canal.

The problem was that sites like these are (quite rightly) scheduled, so no unauthorised digging can take place. How could we find out about these mounds without excavation? The answer was dowsing. A Garden Historian Ted Fawcett was advisor to the National Trust and lectured at the Architectural Association. One of his student’s had researched Hamstead Park and its history and Ted was very interested in the 17th century formal gardens of an earlier manor house nearby and the Mesolithic flint finds on the Kennet flood plain. Using a ‘Y’ shaped rod Ted surveyed the two mounds, and the area between them. Around the sides of the smaller mound pockmarked with several sandy burrows, he found a regular arrangement of ‘animal pens’; he likened it to the spokes of a wheel radiating out, with fences in between the spokes to form the pens. On top of this mound he detected wooden posts placed to support a simple fort.

The larger mound he thought was much earlier, possibly Neolithic and that was it was probably contemporary with Silsbury Hill near Avebury. I was astonished and decided I must learn dowsing to find out more about pre-history.

The local college ran a dowsing workshop where 25 students, using coat hanger angle rods all learnt to detect water, gas, electricity and telephone cables. Also we found auras around trees and people and were shown how to map-dowse. Later, I attended a course in Cumbria on ‘Dowsing and Church Archaeology’, based on the book of the same name by Dennis Briggs, Professor Richard Bailey and Eric Cambridge.

Several dowsers visited our site and to my surprise and frustration all tuned into different periods. But we are fortunate there is so much to examine, as there seems to have been sporadic activity here from the Mesolithic period to the present day.

Two years later, while attending an evening class on the history of castles, I saw slides of the building of siege-castles. At the time of King Stephen, during the ‘Anarchy’, castles would be besieged by their opponents. A prefabricated wooden ‘spiders web’ was quickly erected and infilled with soil and sand; when it had settled, a wooden fortification was built on top. From this structure slings and arrows could be aimed at the other castle or motte. Ted had unwittingly detected the prefabricated ‘spiders web’, which he had surveyed and described as ‘animal pens’. Here was evidence of the efficacy of dowsing.

At the top of the hill beyond the motte stands the local church. Around this is the site of a deserted medieval village, which may have been removed in 1663 when a manor and formal gardens were built nearby. The house was burnt down in 1720 but a twelve foot wall and formal gate piers still remain. It was in this area that Geophysics was to confirm other dowsing work.  Dowsing and Archaeology really do go together!

My investigation of the grounds were carried out on two fronts; dowsing and looking at the documentary history. A famous statesman William Marshall (1147-1219) had lived here and on his death, a very long poem was written about his life ‘Le Histoire de Guillame de Mareshal’. Up to the age of 32 he was knight errant in Normandy, and around the next forty years were spent assisting and advising  three kings; Henry II, Richard I and John; lastly he was Regent for the young Henry III. He was also involved in drawing up the Magna Carta. His heirs inherited his estates, but later they were returned to the King.

© 1999 S. Brown & BSD EEG