Dowsing is a form of divination which has been used for thousands of years to locate water underground. I worked with Jon Warfield, a water diviner to learn more about this ancient skill as he demonstrated techniques for my group at Holyrood Academy. Jon showed us how to locate water using dowsing rods, find the direction and size of underground water flows and assess the depth with pendulums. He showed us exactly what he does on site when locating groundwater professionally.

Dowsing is something Jon has always known how to do, he was shown as a child by a school master when it was still thought of as a useful agricultural skill and he makes no secret of the fact that he does not understand how it works. 

Jon makes a proportion of his yearly income from dowsing, working for a water drilling company to locate sites for boreholes. In his experience even if clients are not completely convinced by the idea, many are willing to try because mechanical instruments can only partially help locate the water and it costs a lot of money to drill a hole in the wrong place! Jon says his accuracy is 85-90% hence his craft is still used in these scenarios. Jon explained that the times he has been wrong there is usually a change of strata, or some other geological factor eg. a layer of clay where he thought the water was.

We all really enjoyed thinking about the geology and water beneath us, but the students were sceptical and many found it hard to believe that someone could really know what was underground, despite being told that some of them had located the water correctly and one student was even able to dowse with only one rod. The mystery persisted because we couldn’t actually dig up the school playing field to check where the water flows were, so this led to a discussion about truth, mystery, belief and folklore.

Later, without the supervision of Jon we went back onto the field and made maps of the where we thought the water was. People had very different ideas about the shapes of the water pockets and water flows.

Beyond 12,000 years ago years humans were nomadic so water finding would have been an ongoing essential activity for everyone. Guy Hudson, a dowser with a background in hydrology and geology claims that dowsing is ‘a fundamental ability we all have that’s just not used much these days’[i]. He suggests that it is logical we retain this ability because we can’t actually survive very long without water. ‘we’re very focussed on water and we’re very good at finding water’[ii]

Water sources would have been a huge factor in choosing the location of early settlements too. Perhaps it is possible that prehistoric humans had a real sense of the underground environment, being aware of aquifers, underground lakes or streams and caves almost as we experience changes in landscape above ground. There is a lot of controversy about the reliability of dowsing  but I think about how if we see soft mud, we understand that the ground directly underneath is wet, we know that clouds mean rain and rivers lead to the sea, we can hear water before we see it, when the air is wet and damp some of us can feel it in our joints, even before going outside. We feel the force of a magnet and our mood can change from a smell or a taste; these things are also all sensory perceptions we constantly make.

Anna C S, Nov 2022

[i],[ii] Guy Hudson, youtube clip

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