Archaeological Dowsing (Part Two) – ‘Non-Sense of Place’

sentaidowseThe future of archaeology?

As promised – the second part of my article about dowsing in archaeology (first part here). This week, we’re bang up to date with the latest ‘research’…

A recent article in the fringe journal ‘Time and Mind’ (behind a paywall and with a stupidly long title) included a section in support of dowsing as part of a supposedly emergent approach called ‘Spirit of Place‘, borrowed from ‘psychogeography‘. Right away, a flaw becomes apparent. Psychogeography is only valid (insofar as it is!) because it deals with what people we can actually talk to – who are alive today – are thinking about the place they’re in. Archaeology is about dead people. The difficulties here should be apparent!

The authors wish to graft this onto a little-known but pre-existing discipline called ‘archaeography’ – originally defined as a scientific, documentary-based parallel to field archaeology of the historical period (though colloquially, it has a portmanteau meaning of archaeological photography!). In contrast, ‘Spirit of Place’ is an attempt to reconstruct the psychological ‘feel’ of a site (including prehistory) along the lines of the post-modernist field of phenomenology, using such approaches as archaeoacoustics, lighting effects, temperature, weather and even feelings of foreboding. Not quite paranormal stuff (more psychology and art-based), but pretty speculative and subjective. The whole idea seems to be a perverse reaction to the realisation that archaeology has relatively little to tell us for sure – this kind of thing seems to me to be throwing baby out with bathwater though. A licence to make things up doesn’t ‘fix’ the problems with traditional archaeology – it compounds them, adds to confusion, and validates those in the new age fringe that have quietly championed such approaches for years, albeit for religious/spiritual rather than epistemological reasons.

Back to dowsing though, which is the initial focus of the piece. The piece acknowledges the existence of criticism by professional archaeologists (the authors being in fact a business analyst and a complementary therapist respectively), but instantly dismisses it;

“..others have been scathingly dismissive (Williamson and Bellamy 1983), though sometimes perhaps more from prejudice than practical experience.”

‘Practical experience’ has its many uses, but falsifying a scientific method is not one of them. Again – if the aim is to establish whether dowsing works AT ALL, properly controlled tests would make that experience utterly irrelevant. In fact, when we look up the bibliographic reference given, we find that the book (a debunking of another ‘woo’ idea in archaeology – ‘ley lines’) for some reason conceded that;

“No doubt it is possible to dowse for buried water,..”

Assuming (correctly) that ley lines do not exist, and that archaeological dowsing is contingent upon that, it then proceeded to dispose of this in a two-for-one deal;

“.. but when the search is for ‘earth currents’ the process becomes far more subjective.”

This was therefore a pretty questionable example of criticism to choose, as it takes for granted that dowsing in general terms is valid, and only quibbles with its application in archaeology. It is therefore easily dismissed as ‘prejudice’. Having seen off their carefully-chosen opponents, The Time and Mind article authors, in common with many proponents, therefore proceed under precisely the same lazy assumption – that water-dowsing is in any way proven. Also typical of pro pieces is that the bulk of the evidence offered is anecdotal (more on this later) or at best, what (arch-enemy of Dowsing) Vogt calls ‘field tests‘ (as opposed to scientific tests) prone to all sorts of misleading results. Where this article differs slightly is in this string of apparently academic bibliographic references;

“…a Roman fort and Tudor culvert beneath the site of Kensington Barracks (Bell 1947); Iron Age defensive ditches at Mellor hill-fort (Andrews 2007); Roman roads in Lancashire (Plummer 1976) and Essex (Ingram 2007); and medieval farm buildings at Cressing Temple (Hillman-Crouch 1999).”

Impressive, no? ‘No’ is right. ALL but one of these are from the same source – the Journal of the British Society of Dowsers – hardly scientific, not even peer-reviewed – fringe publications. They are also not accessible online (though neither are most proper journals), and tough to find even in the real world. I did however come across this amusingly scathing review of an anthology of BSD articles (edited by one of the Time and Mind co-authors!) that does appear to include Kensington Barracks article (or at least another about the same site). My favourite quote has to be;

“This kind of nonsense would normally hardly merit a review in any respectable journal.”

This is very true, and rightly so. At the same time, this kind of passive disdain by academics can make it all the easier for the unwary archaeologist to fall for the charms of the technique. Fortunate then that this reviewer decided after all that some attention should be devoted to it. Needless to say, I wholly agree with him on both counts.

The final quoted source is an online-only self-publication of sorts – an earnestly written report into dowsing at Cressing Temple Barns in Essex. It’s the only one that we can access with any degree of ease, and it’s an excellent case study in the sort of well-intentioned but wrong-headed approach that leads to people being convinced that dowsing (of any flavour) actually works. I’ll take a look at this in detail as a final part to this series next week.

Back to the Time and Mind piece, as in bass-ackwards fashion it attempts to explain how such ‘results’ are obtained;

“As for how it works, the various scientific studies over the past century all seem to indicate that no single mechanism is involved (Barrett and Besterman 1926; Maby and Franklin 1939; Tromp 1949; Maby 1966).”

None of these are ‘scientific studies’ by any reasonable definition, and what they indicate (by their disagreement) is not that more than one mechanism is required to explain the phenomenon, but that the phenomenon does not actually exist! .

“Instead, it seems more likely that a “weighted sum” is derived from multiple perceptual mechanisms, akin to pattern-recognition in neural networks (Bishop 1995). What is also clear from the studies is that, despite appearances and the users’ impressions, the instrument moves only because the hand moves in response to a nervous impulse arising from that “weighted sum;” and the response conforms to that of a mediated or semi-voluntary learned reflex.”

Aside from the pseudoscientific techno-babble, this is very telling, as it eschews the usual external explanation – that the sticks move by some ‘energy’ unknown to science – in favour of something completely indistinguishable from the usual sceptical explanation for dowsing – ideomotor effect. And bearing that explanation in mind, I think it’s telling that the article claims that;

“A solid grounding in archaeology is definitely advantageous; to paraphrase Louis Pasteur; dowsing may at first appear to be chance, but such “chance” favors the prepared mind.” In this it resembles the practical skills required in fieldwalking surveys; an experienced fieldwalker would have little difficulty in distinguishing between fragments of chert and flint, for example, while the “untutored eye” will struggle to identify anything. In short, the quality of results will depend on the skill, experience, and background of the dowser; and discipline is essential.”

Except that fieldwalking is a visual survey method to which an experienced ‘eye’ can be applied – and the eye as a sensing organ is pretty well documented! Whereas dowsing is supposedly about sensing hidden features using some unknown organ or aspect of the mind. This analogy pre-supposes that it’s even possible to detect anything. Nor does the article give any evidence for the untrained dowser actually being any less adept at achieving good results than the so-called ‘expert’. The only difference is likely to be that the ‘pro’ will make many more dowsing pronouncements, and so end up with more ‘hits’ – like a psychic making regular predictions in order to secure that one impressive result for her website.

We’ve already seen that few professional archaeologists actually believe in dowsing, and even fewer actually seek it out as a technique. The only people pushing it are the new agers, certain of the subject-enthusiasts, and now these ‘archaeographers’. But strip away the post-modernist trappings, and what’s left? Imagination, questionable use of psychology, ‘conversation with place’ and;

a ‘belief in a ‘Spirit of Place’ that [is] held as if true, which is not the same thing as saying that it is true’.

So in fact the information being gathered isn’t actually real? Is that really any more use to anybody than new age feel-good religion and its own associated tracts of word-salad? I wonder whether ‘Spirit of Place’ – especially archaeological dowsing – isn’t just an attempt to legitimise fringe practices by creating a new discipline not bound by the same rules and conventions as field archaeology or archaeological science. Dowsing even crops up again at the end of the article, in the form of a bizarre psychic fieldwalking exercise guided by dowsing rods and attempts to ‘talk’ to the monument. Quite what this is hoped to achieve is even less clear than the ‘conventional’ usage already described. Given the spiritual overtones, emphasis on ‘feelings’ rather than facts, and employment of otherwise-questionable techniques like dowsing, isn’t this simply the New Age in a tuxedo (or perhaps a tweed jacket with elbow patches)?

So much for the latest reinvention of this old chestnut. Essentially, the reason archaeological dowsing is bunk is the same as applies to all other dowsing – there are no scientific tests to support it, no scientific method by which it could work, and the ‘results’ it obtains are better explained by the ideomotor effect and perhaps a measure of educated guesswork. Where excavation seems to confirm a dowsing survey, to eliminate other more parsimonious explanations we would need to keep track of the ‘hit’ rate. In other words, what proportion of dowsing pronouncements actually result in a find? For every Roman fort, how many follow-up excavations or remote sensing surveys fail to locate what was suggested – and how many fail to find anything at all? Otherwise, we are counting the hits and ignoring the misses, just like a ‘psychic’ reading. No matter how often the authors insist that dowsing and ‘Sense of Place’ should never replace scientific methods but instead complement them, there’s no evidence that they’re of any objective use whatever.

I’ll end with a quote from my new hero, the author of that ‘Antiquity’ piece…
“I do feel very strongly that archaeology is already lumbered with far too much lunatic fringe – mostly born out of ignorance of the natural sciences; and that this sort of pernicious nonsense can serve no purpose other than to increase confusion.

…and a reminder that any archaeological/graphical (or for that matter, any other dowser) still stands to win one million dollars if they can show results better than chance under agreed controlled conditions. What’s your excuse?


One thought on “Archaeological Dowsing (Part Two) – ‘Non-Sense of Place’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s