Dowsing for Human Remains — Considerations for Investigators
By Michael A. Easter, M.S.F.S., and Angi M. Christensen, Ph.D.
Investigators sometimes search for the location of deposited human remains. This can be challenging, especially if bodies have been concealed and/or a significant amount of time has passed since death and deposition. Various approaches have proven successful in locating remains, including visual assessments, geophysical techniques, imaging, and use of canines. The search method employed depends on various factors, such as case information, local terrain, and available resources.
Dowsing, also called “divining” or “witching,” refers to the practice of observing a pointer — often a forked stick, rods, bent wires, or a pendulum — move in response to some type of influence or transmitter. Some consider it a reliable method for locating underground items of interest, including water, oil, and ore. There are even those who believe that dowsing can help locate buried remains (sometimes called “grave witching”).
However, many consider dowsing a controversial practice or even pseudoscience, with no scientific or widely accepted explanation for what influences the response or how and why the practice works. Various explanations have included disturbed soil, magnetic fields, piezoelectric properties of bone, radiation fields, extrasensory perception, cryptesthesia, divine intervention, or other paranormal phenomena.1
Little doubt exists that dowsing pointers move, but there are explanations for the phenomenon other than a response to underground influences. The pointers are typically held in a position of unstable equilibrium, and, therefore, a small movement, such as an involuntary vibration in the user’s arm, becomes amplified and causes the pointers to visibly move. This involuntary motor behavior, guided by the user’s perception, is referred to as an ideomotor effect or action.2
Although there are many claimed and documented dowsing successes, these are largely anecdotal accounts provided by dowsers themselves.3 Several objective studies have been performed on dowsing for water, and results indicate that when dowsers are tested under controlled conditions, they perform no better than random chance.4 The U.S. Geological Survey explains that one reason water dowsers may appear so successful is that some water exists under the Earth’s surface almost everywhere.5
There has been little, if any, objective testing of dowsing for buried bodies. Nonetheless, it has been advocated as an effective method and is even included as part of some crime scene investigator training programs,6 including those provided to U.S. government agencies. Dowsing is also referenced in some archaeological contexts for detecting underground disturbances and features.7
However, others question the ability to locate buried bodies using dowsing rods. Skeptics believe that advocating dowsing and similar unsubstantiated practices gives false hope to investigators and loved ones, in addition to being an ineffective use of resources. Informal tests of dowsing for graves report uncertainty and suspicion of its effectiveness8 and suggest more rigorous tests may provide further clarification.
A recent blind study tested the ability of inexperienced dowsers to detect buried bones using dowsing rods.9 The test design involved nine “graves” dug specifically for the experiment — six contained no bones, and three contained bones of nonhuman origin. The areas of disturbed soil where the graves were dug were not disguised so that study participants could clearly see where each grave was located, thereby eliminating the effect of soil disturbance as a visual clue to the location of bones.
“There has been little, if any, objective testing of dowsing for buried bodies.”
Twenty volunteers with no previous dowsing experience participated in the study. Half of them were asked to determine which of the graves contained bones based on visual assessment. The other half used dowsing pointers — in this case, a configuration consisting of two angled rods — to determine which graves contained bones. All participants were informed that anywhere between zero and nine of the graves may have contained bones. Some participants using the dowsing rods reported that the rods would converge over certain graves, some reported feeling a force moving the rods, and others reported feeling nothing at all.
The success of each group was evaluated statistically based on whether the holes identified by each participant as containing bones represented a true positive (correctly selecting a hole that contained bones), true negative (correctly not selecting a hole that did not contain bones), false positive (incorrectly selecting a hole that did not contain bones), or false negative (incorrectly not selecting a hole that did contain bones). Results indicated that there was no relationship between the dowsing rod response and the actual locations of the bones. Further, there was no significant difference in the ability to correctly identify the locations of bones between the dowsing group and the participants who visually assessed the graves.
Additional tests might still be beneficial, including those using larger sample sizes, human bones, other soil types and/or locations, and experienced dowsers. However, the results of this study suggest that dowsing is not a reliable method for locating remains. While movements of the rods were observed by the participants, they were found to have no relationship to the actual locations of buried bones. The movements of some of the rods were consistent with the ideomotor response (i.e., amplifying an involuntary movement generated by the user’s perception).
Some practitioners continue to advocate dowsing or other scientifically questionable search methods, even charging investigators or families substantial fees for these services. Unreliable or unsubstantiated search methods can have detrimental effects on an investigation, including unnecessary financial expenditures, time and other resource costs, and false hope among investigators and loved ones. Therefore, it is important that such techniques are well-understood and rigorously tested and that investigators seek and employ methods that are appropriate, reliable, and valid.
“Unreliable or unsubstantiated search methods can have detrimental effects on an investigation, including unnecessary financial expenditures, time and other resource costs, and false hope among investigators and loved ones.”
Special Agent Easter is a forensic science officer with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division in Quantico, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Christensen is a forensic anthropologist with the FBI’s Laboratory Division in Quantico, Virginia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This is publication number 21.26 of the Laboratory Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Names of commercial manufacturers are provided for information only and inclusion does not imply endorsement by the FBI, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. government. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the FBI, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. government.
1 Sir William Barrett and Theodore Besterman, The Divining Rod: An Experimental and Psychological Investigation (1926; repr., Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004); Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003); Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1957); R. Hyman, “Dowsing,” in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, ed. Gordon Stein (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996), 222-233; Evon Z. Vogt and Ray Hyman, Water Witching U.S.A., 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Y. Rocard, “Actions of a Very Weak Magnetic Gradient: The Reflex of the Dowser,” in Biological Effects of Magnetic Fields, ed. M.F. Barnothy (Boston: Springer, 1964), 279-286; and Bo Nordell, “The Dowsing Reaction Originates from Piezoelectric Effect in Bone” (lecture, Sixth International Svedala Symposium on Ecological Design, Svedala, Sweden, May 19-21, 1988), http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1006334/FULLTEXT01.pdf.
2 William B. Carpenter, “On the Influence of Suggestion in Modifying and Directing Muscular Movement, Independently of Volition” (lecture, Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, March 12, 1852), https://wellcomecollection.org/works/k532hmn2/items?canvas=1; W. Prinz, “Perception and Action Planning,” European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 9, no. 2 (1997): 129-154, https://doi.org/10.1080/713752551; and Yun Kyoung Shin, Robert W. Proctor, and E.J. Capaldi, “A Review of Contemporary Ideomotor Theory,” Psychological Bulletin 136, no. 6 (2010): 943–974, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020541.
3 For example, as cited in Janet Raloff, “Dowsing Expectations: New Reports Reawaken Scientific Controversy Over Water Witching,” Science News, August 5, 1995, https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Dowsing+expectations%3A+new+reports+reawaken+scientific+controversy...-a017191677.
4 For example, see Vogt and Hyman; R. Foulkes, “Dowsing Experiments,” Nature 229 (1971): 163-168, https://doi.org/10.1038/229163a0; Michael Martin, “A New Controlled Dowsing Experiment,” Skeptical Inquirer 8, no. 2 (Winter 1983/1984): 138-140, https://skepticalinquirer.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/1984/01/Issue-02-44.pdf; James Randi, “A Controlled Test of Dowsing Abilities,” Skeptical Inquirer 4, no. 1 (Fall 1979):16-20, https://cdn.centerforinquiry.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/1979/10/22165448/p18.pdf; and Dick Smith, “Two Tests of Divining in Australia,” Skeptical Inquirer 4, no. 4 (Summer 1982): 34-37, https://cdn.centerforinquiry.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/1982/07/22165420/p36.pdf.
5 U.S. Geological Survey, Water Dowsing, USGS Unnumbered Series, 1977, https://doi.org/10.3133/7000104.
6 Jarrett Hallcox and Amy Welch, Bodies We’ve Buried: Inside the National Forensic Academy, the World’s Top CSI Training School (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2006).
7 For example, Ivor Noel Hume, Historical Archaeology: A Comprehensive Guide for Both Amateurs and Professionals to the Techniques and Methods of Excavating Historical Sites (New York: Knopf, 1968); Charles E. Orser, Jr., and Brian M. Fagan, Historical Archaeology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997); and Richard N. Bailey, Eric Cambridge, and H. Denis Briggs, Dowsing and Church Archaeology (Wimborne, UK: Intercept, 1988).
8 Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa, Grave Dowsing Reconsidered, by William Whittaker (Iowa City, IA, 2005), http://online.fliphtml5.com/khqr/sflv/#p=1.
9 Michael Easter, Angi M. Christensen, and Michelle Miller, “Dowsing for Bone: A Blind Test,” Forensic Anthropology 4, no. 1 (2021), https://doi.org/10.5744/fa.2020.0024.