Most of us are familiar with the concept of dowsing or ‘witching’ for water. It’s the practice of holding a forked stick or wire and recognising the feeling that water lies below. The presence of water is confirmed for the dowser when the rod twitches, or if holding two sticks, the points come together. Robert Carroll at The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a good discussion on the inability of dowsers to prove their success rate beyond chance.
Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, it should be considered a type of divination and an example of magical thinking.
Despite the fact that many people swear by the ability of dowsers, the James Randi Foundation has tested water dowsers as well, and all have come up short.
With that in mind, we take a look at the situation in Liberty, Miss. where a landowner claims that the Mississippi DOT is building a road over an old cemetery, a cemetery of which no records exist. In order to prove his claim, he has hired a ‘grave dowser’ to verify the existence of human remains in the area. This dowser identified 18 graves in the area.
To placate the home-owner the MDOT brought in a team with ground penetrating radar and will spend several days examining the land for signs of human remains.
William E. Whittaker, of the Office of the State Archaeologist at The University of Iowa published an article titled “Grave Dowsing Reconsidered” in which he casts a critical eye on the practice (he cites numerous references of studies debunking dowsing)
Of the 14 archaeological sites in Iowa which have been investigated by both dowsers and archaeologists, none displayed unambiguous evidence that dowsing was able to find graves or other archaeological features. Most, in fact, completely refuted the claims of dowsers. At eight sites dowsing failed completely, either by identifying graves that did not exist or by missing graves that were shown to exist by excavation (Marshall County Cemetery; sites 13LE688, 13HN122, 13CY22, 13CW21; Muscatine County Home; the Madison County Farm; and Livingston Cemetery). At Site 13JH593 four of five possible graves were shown to be nonexistent, and a fifth only contained shallow flecks of bone, probably animal, less than a foot below surface and was probably not a grave. Site 13HN314, the possible Menefee Cemetery, remote sensing found no evidence of graves at three of four locations, and at the fourth area it cannot be determined if remote sensing was observing the same anomalies as dowsers, since no map was made of dowsing spots and the area was never tested archaeologically. Of the 94 graves at the Johnson County Poor Farm identified by dowsing only one was tested archaeologically. The apparent confirmation of a grave is tempered by the fact that this grave was within a probable cemetery area and had a surface depression. Site 13CY22 was never tested archaeologically, and sites 13DT110, 132 and 133 were not tested at the location of dowsing finds, with the exception of a possible cabin foundation, which had a large surface depression.
So, dowsing can be an effective way to find graves if the area is within a known graveyard and there is a surface depression. It would probably score even higher if headstones were present. Quite simply, dowsing is nothing more than s pseudoscience based upon the ideomotor effect (Ouija Boards) and confirmation bias.
Whittaker goes on to discuss some very simple experiments on the use of wires and rods for dowsing, and to apply some critical thought to the process. He raises concerns about dowsing for graves, being based upon pseudo-science, as having both legal and ethical concerns for cemetery caretakers.
The problem is that the answers provided by dowsing are very often wrong, and this can lead to legal and financial problems for everyone involved. If a burial is missed by dowsing and the plot is sold to a family that then damages the existing grave while digging a new one, the cemetery officials who approved the sale on the basis of dowsing could be held liable by either family. What legal defense does the cemetery caretaker have when there is no scientific basis for dowsing? In addition to the legal and financial trouble, caretakers need to be aware of the emotional pain this could cause both families, as well as the public embarrassment the caretakers would be subjected to when it is revealed that folk superstitions such as dowsing were used to determine the location of graves. My final recommendation is for cemetery caretakers to stop using dowsing. I realize that this seems extreme, but working with incorrect information is worse than working with no information.
In Liberty, an unnecessary delay of several weeks in highway construction could be quite expensive for the taxpayers of Mississippi.
In addition to waste of money, time, and resources, a separate issue came to mind as I was writing this post. What are appropriate means or respecting burial grounds. In Liberty, the land had been bulldozed years ago, and apparently been used as farmland since then. This use of the land did not disturb any the farmer or historians. If it is not acceptable to build a highway over an old graveyard, but farming is OK, where is the break point? What is acceptable use of land over a burial site? Is there a time period at which things don’t matter any longer?
These depend so much upon the attitudes of local people to their ancestors. Personally, given my non-belief, I have no such reverence for physical remains. Some people, on the other hand, are sensitive to burial sites that are hundreds, or even thousands, of years old. Many projects have been altered, or expenses incurred to move remains based upon such beliefs. In some areas, even farming the land is not acceptable, certainly golf courses have created conflict. In the future we are going to be faced with this issue more and more for two reasons. Rising sea levels will require moving a larger and larger number of remains; and the ever increasing population of the earth will put increased pressure on land to be used for support of all of us. This is an ongoing and potentially more contentious aspect to the conflict with religion and secularism.