Far-Out Friday: Gravesite Dowsing: Science, Wizardry, Witchcraft or Just Plain Hooey?

R_I_P_gravestoneOctober is the spookiest month of the year, so a story about gravesite dowsing seemed in order for Halloween Eve-Eve, I guess you could call it.  The article title pretty much encompasses the range of opinion regarding the subject, although I have to say a brief survey I conducted most decidedly leaned toward the “just plain hooey” side.

Since, personally, I don’t really have an opinion (yet) one way or the  other,  I  hope  nonetheless  you’ll  find  the  article objective, informative, balanced — and hopefully interesting!  And oh, please do tell me what you think — science, wizardry, witchcraft or just plain hooey?

History of Dowsing

Dowsing, sometimes called witching or divining, has been practiced for centuries.  Cave paintings depicting the practice have been found in France and Spain and throughout the Middle East.  There is also an etching depicting ancient Chinese Emperor Yu holding what appears to be a tuning fork-like device.

emperor-kuangThe Bible makes several references to the practice:  “My people consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them.” (Hosea 4:12, NIV)  Some have suggested the instrument used by Moses and Aaron to bring forth water in the desert was a divining rod of sorts.

The practice of dowsing as we know it today may have originated in fifteenth century Germany by miners to locate pockets of ore.  The forked stick was referred to as “Deuter” which generally means “to show”, “to point out” or “to strike”.

As a verb the term “dowse” may have been introduced by John Locke, a seventeenth century British philosopher and essayist whose writings later influenced both America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  The “deusing rod” was used to “discover mines of gold and silver”.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British and European books on mining and engineering practices regularly referred to the term.  By the early twentieth century, the practice of dowsing had spread to central Europe and beyond.

Albert Einstein, inarguably one of the world’s greatest scientists, was aware that some believed the practice had its roots in ancient superstition.  Yet, he acknowledged the dowsing rod as “a simple instrument which shows the reaction of the human nervous system to certain factors which are unknown to us at this time.”1

Dowsing has been used in warfare as well.   General Patton employed it in North Africa to locate water after ordering an entire willow tree transported to Morocco and having two experienced dowsers from Tennessee transferred to his unit.

During the Vietnam War Marines were trained to use coat hanger dowsing rods to locate enemy weapons caches.  Although not included as official Marine-issued equipment the rods seemed to work, generating reports of astonishing success which filtered back to the states.

What Exactly is Dowsing?

Most dictionaries begin by referring to it as a “technique” using a special stick or rod.  Searching for water is often defined as its primary usage, but the Oxford Dictionary takes a broader approach:

A technique for searching for underground water, minerals, or anything invisible, by observing the motion of a pointer (traditionally a forked stick, now often paired bent wires) or the changes in direction of a pendulum, supposedly in response to unseen influences.2

All of which seems to imply one can find just about anything with a forked stick or a pair of bent coat hangers.  Organizations like the American Society of Dowsers (ASD) and a group referring to themselves as “geopathologists” believe anything can be found by dowsing.

At Geopathology.com the term is referred to as “the art of locating energies or energetic changes which are not accessible through our usual senses.”  However, it seems even the most avid dowsing enthusiast can’t quite explain how it works.  When asked they may just shrug their shoulders and reply, “it just does.”  Hmm.

Is There Any Scientific Basis for Dowsing?

Citing two sources, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, calls dowsing a “pseudoscience”.3  A Google search of the phrase “science of dowsing” leads off with a Smithsonian article featuring James Randi, a.k.a. the Amazing Randi, a Canadian whose mission in life is to debunk so-called paranormal phenomena and pseudoscience, including dowsing.

Michael Brooks begins an opinion article at New Scientist’s web site by stating “despite many anecdotal reports of success, dowsing has never been shown to work in controlled scientific tests. That’s not to say the dowsing rods don’t move. They do.”4

Brooks had recently been on a dowsing expedition of his own and offered what he called a scientific explanation.  He cited muscle (or ideomotor) movements “caused by subconscious mental activity make anything held in the hands move.”  This, he believed, would make it appear the movements are entirely involuntary.

Another theory emerges on a different web site with the headline:  FINALLY NEW SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE BEHIND DOWSING.  The article appears self-published and contains several citations but is not dated.  The author hypothesizes divining rods are charged with static electricity from the dowser’s own body and polarities vary between males and females.
For any scientific theory to be considered valid, however, some sort of test should be conducted.  There have been several tests conducted over the years and many have concluded dowsing was no more reliable than mere chance.

In 1990 a double-blind study was conducted by James Randi in Germany.  The three-day test was conducted in Germany utilizing pipes with controlled water flow buried underground about twenty inches.  Thirty-seven dowsers participated, the only test being whether they were able to determine whether water was indeed running through a particular pipe.  The dowsers, of course, expected a one hundred percent success rate, but in the end results showed their methods no more reliable than chance.

Despite these types of results, dedicated dowsers stand  by their claims of success.  Yet, no one seems to be able to provide an explanation one way or the other as to why it appears to many to be a valid method for discovering “the invisible”.  Spooky, huh?

Is Dowsing Some Type of Wizardry or Witchcraft?

Skepticism abounds as to whether dowsing is really a science or if it even works at all.  So, is it some kind of  black magic? How does religion view the practice?

Responses to questions at an online Catholic forum lean heavily  toward  dowsing  as  a form  of  divination strictly forbidden by Catholic doctrine.  Sections 2115-2117 of Catechism of the Catholic Church stress that all forms of divination are to be rejected. Dowsers often cite the scripture verse referenced earlier, but the ancient prophet hardly seemed to have been endorsing the practice of divining.

In defense of their skills some dowsers claim there are no “magical” or “supernatural” powers involved, but merely a “natural” force not yet understood.  Such is the case with Charley Eckhardt, a long-time Texas dowser.

Eckhardt was first introduced to dowsing in the 1960’s and remained a skeptic until the spring of 1980 when he claims to have discovered his ability to dowse.  He is convinced some people have the “power” to dowse but no “special power” is involved.

Instead, he believes some sort of physical principle not yet understood is involved.  Upon discovering his “gift” Eckhardt was advised as to the care of his dowsing rods, including an admonition “to sleep with them under your pillow for nine nights, or you’ll lose the power.”

He theorizes the wires act as an antenna of sorts, somehow detecting differences in density.  He has observed the following:

If I am standing on a concrete sidewalk the wires will cross over a steel reinforcing rod or an iron pipe embedded in or under the concrete. If I am standing on dirt, they will cross when I bring them over something more dense. That can be buried metal, very dense rock like granite, flint, chert, or agate, or even a tightly-packed game trail.  If I bring them above an area less dense than what I am standing on, such as an underground void like a tunnel or natural cave, they will open instead of crossing and point down the axis of the void. If there is a turn in the void, the wires will indicate the direction in which the void turns.5

In an online article at TexasEscapes.com, Eckhardt writes his experiences indicate some sort of “conductive contact between the wires themselves and the person holding them.”  Does he claim special powers?  No.  Does he know how it works?  No.

He opines the principle involves physical rather than  psychic realms of nature, and although the principles could be (and have been) investigated there is no need for it.  He states, “The wires work. That’s enough for me.”

If Eckhardt’s theory regarding the detection of density is a valid one, does that justify the claims of gravesite dowsers?

Gravesite Dowsing

Another article at TexasEscapes.com by Dana Goolsby explains gravesite dowsing techniques utilized by East Texans since the pioneer days.  Most dowsers prefer metal rods, while others swear by willow, witch hazel or peach tree limbs.  In a pinch, a coat hanger works just fine.

Dowsing is an acquired skill, according to Goolsby — it takes practice and one must develop and fine-tune his or her own technique.  She suggests practicing over a marked grave before heading out to explore the unknown.

Because Texas breezes can affect the outcome, some dowsers recommend sturdier rods, but days with little or no wind are best for gravesite dowsing.  Goolsby advises a slow and steady approach toward the suspected grave with forearms straight out, arms close to the body and hands and arms parallel to the ground.

She goes on to explain if a body is indeed present the two rod tips will begin to swing inward and cross as you walk over the grave.  Step away and the rods will uncross.  Once the presence of a body is determined, step away again and approach the area believed to be the feet.

How would you know which end is which?  Most Christian burials in the United States position the head pointing west and the feet toward the east.  She points out this may or may not work if it’s an Indian burial site.  In that part of Texas Indians used various burial methods, including a sitting position.

Goolsby suggests the person’s age can be determined by walking over the grave while counting your steps.  If, for instance, you take only a couple of steps before the rods uncross it’s likely the grave of an infant.  Seven steps indicate a very tall adult.  Check out the article for more information.

In defense of dowsing, and downplaying the claims of witchcraft or voodoo, she points out archaeologists and geologists routinely use dowsing as a means to tap into the underground unknown.  Some companies even have dowsers on the payroll.

Does the ancient practice of dowsing, gravesite or otherwise, work?  There doesn’t seem to be a definitive scientific explanation. Is there some unseen and unexplainable force of nature at work?  So much history, so many theories and questions.  What think you?

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.



  1. Dowsers quote Einstein in worthless appeal for legitimacy
  2. Dowsing definition
  3. Wikipedia: Dowsing
  4. Why dowsing makes perfect sense
  5. The Ancient Art of Dowsing

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