Dowsing and Archaeology: an Introduction

by Roger Brown, Adelaide

In orthodox scholarship, accounts of what happened in history are based either on written records or on interpretations of the surviving physical evidence. Both types of evidence may be scanty – with physical structures and artefacts largely destroyed or at least covered up. As remains are progressively covered up over time by soil or rubble, so archaeologists have to keep digging down to get to progressively older levels. Thus Roman remains are found up to 8 metres deep in urban areas of Britain. York Minster was built over the top of a Roman fort, the remains of which can now be examined in the Minster undercroft.

Buildings only have a certain life-span, and in urban areas throughout history new buildings have been erected over the foundations of older ones. Thus the Viking excavations in Coppergate in York worked down through ten successive house layers. However in areas that have remained rural since early occupancy, there has only been the slower accretion of soil to cover up the remains and thus the Roman villa and Orphic temple at Littlecote were excavated in the 1980s from under less than half a metre of soil.

Excavations are labour intensive and costly and so it’s important to know where to dig. ‘Field archaeology’ is the term given to the identification of features prior to excavation, and generally involves both aerial photography and a ground search. Features like old walls and ditches are often revealed clearly on air photos as crop or soil marks : for example, the deeper soil over a ditch makes more moisture available to the crop which may therefore grow taller. It was in this way that aerial photography revealed, among many other buildings, the previously unsuspected Roman villa at Lidgate in Suffolk, and most of the thousands of medieval deserted villages in Britain, where ridges on these grassed-over sites have clearly revealed former roadways and buildings.

Ground search techniques vary. Historically, labour-intensive searches have been organised over arable land, with a line of people sweeping across the ground, eyes down, looking for pottery or other fragments. However, as costs have escalated and technology has developed in recent years, reliance has grown on electronic instruments whose readings are systematically recorded at the intersection points of a grid and later analysed for indications of human disturbance of the ground. Commonly used instruments are the proton magnetometer and electrical resistivity meter.

After the ground search comes the excavation. Classical techniques have involved either the relatively clumsy and inefficient trenching or the more satisfactory method of layering, in which a relatively large area may be uncovered layer by layer with much of the work done by fine brushes and trowels. Detailed survey of the site and recording of the finds is absolutely essential as the sequence is destroyed by the excavation.

As you work downwards you get to progressively older deposits and artefacts. Thus the basis of archaeology is stratigraphy, or the study of the sequence of deposits. Finds can be dated relative to each other as part of a sequence, for example pottery can be arranged in the order of development of particular styles, and this is called typology.

Absolute rather than relative dating is the next step. Sometimes a coin may be found in a particular layer, e.g. in 1973 at the long-running Wharram Percy excavations in Yorkshire the remains of a fortified Romano-British farm were found together with a coin of the emperor Trajan that was dateable to around 100 AD. In modern times numerous dating techniques have become available that require laboratory analysis. With radiocarbon dating, organic remains like charcoal can now be dated back to a maximum of 65,000 years. Dendrochronology matches the detailed growth patterns of tree rings and has developed into a most rewarding technique with the advent of long-term records on computer programmes. One of the other commonly-used techniques is thermoluminescence, used for dating pottery or clay that has been fired in a kiln.

So where does or can dowsing fit in? It brings several advantages to archaeology, but only if it is systematic, accurate and adheres to clearly-defined concepts. Good accurate dowsing can locate features quickly and easily and without destroying the evidence, though verification generally requires later excavation. Dowsing can also suggest dates for buildings and artefacts that orthodoxy can confirm with its own techniques. Dowsing can also bring new understandings to archaeology, as with the relationships between megalithic features and early churches and earth energies, though most non-dowsers still deny the validity of the latter.

Sometimes, where excavations are not possible or instrumental surveys are not practicable because of layout (e.g. under churches or other buildings that are still in use), dowsing or other psychic skills may be the only means left of accessing below-ground information. Denis Briggs has used his angle rods to produce some outstanding work on the subsurface features of various English churches, and his results have been validated on the occasions when scientific surveys or excavations have proved possible. As Richard Bailey wrote in Popular Archaeology for February 1983, after describing this work,  “Archaeologists are rightly on their guard against the extravagant claims flooding in on them from wilder shores …. Nevertheless, it would be equally dangerous if, through fear of scorn from their fellow professionals, they ignored what appears to be a tool of great value. This ‘fringe’ deserves to be woven more tightly into the fabric of archaeology”.

The use of dowsing has now spread quite widely in Britain and elsewhere onto otherwise orthodox excavations. Archaeological digs are generally very slow because the recording of finds is generally very detailed : for example, the dig at Cadbury hill fort in pursuit of Arthurian evidence took 5 summers but still covered less than a hectare, so increased use was made of both electronic instruments and dowsing. Both rods and pendulums were used at Cadbury, though in the official reports the dowsing was disguised  as ‘probing with metal rods’. In some other countries like Russia, where dowsing is openly accepted and indeed taught to science and technology graduates at postgraduate level, more evidence is forthcoming. For example, under old Kiev dowsers located underground passage-ways up to 20 metres deep with 78% success (as validated by narrow boreholes) whereas radio-wave instrumentation returned only 25% success.

Various methods can be used in archaeological dowsing using rod or short pendulum. One can tune in to the objects being searched for using either a physical or mental witness. Or the mind can be focused on a specific past time in a search for objects relating to that time : using this method the site can be dowsed several times with different dates in mind and so the sequence of occupancy can be worked out. Then there’s the inspiring example of retired archaeologist Tom Lethbridge, who spent ten fruitful years recording discoveries with his long pendulum. This splendid  but much-maligned device can when properly calibrated by used to locate anything from glazed pots to Hartmann lines.

A basic archaeological dowsing search strategy would usefully be : (1) start with some library research to find out details of what you’re going to be looking for; (2) do a map or air photo dowse of the site to find approximate locations of objects of interest; (3) do a more detailed dowse at the site to locate and date features; (4) transmit the findings to a local archaeological group in the hope that there may be sufficient funds and interest for selective preliminary investigation; (5) date any objects excavated.

Tom Graves’ 1980 anthology Dowsing and Archaeology, selected from the BSD Journal, includes Patrick Leonard’s dowse at Moulton on the outskirts of Northampton.  Having discovered that a 16th Century map showed the site of a castle, Patrick map dowsed the area to locate the precise location. An information dowse revealed a round shape with a diameter of only 25 metres. A time dowse brought the information that the castle was built between 1284 and 1287 and finally pulled down in 1479. Patrick then went to the site where his dowsing (using his left hand) bore out the location and size of the castle and determined some burial and other sites. Details were then checked with a willow fork. Documentary evidence of John FitzJohn’s castle fitted this scenario.

Five houses were also dowsed at the same site, with a period of habitation (using our present calendar) from 23 September 843 to 28 December 1150. A site dowse with the willow fork and a mental focus on ‘stone handled by man in the use of his buildings or shelter’ was followed by a very small area of shallow digging which unearthed a stone floor at 14″ (35.6cm) depth, associated with some pottery and bones. It was then arranged for the Northampton Archaeological Department to appraise the site : they dated the floor at 8th to 9th Century and the pottery as 10th and 11th Century, which all fitted with Patrick’s dates. He subsequently extended the known history of this parish not only to Roman times (with finds of appropriate coins) but way back to 20,000 BC.

There are so may different but useful approaches to archaeological dowsing. The challenge is out there.

(Reprinted from the Dowsers’ Club of South Australia, Newsletter #44, 1986, with minor amendments and additions).

© 2001 Roger Brown & BSD EEG