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Locating underground features by dowsing

John Greenwood, Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, Nottingham Trent University and Robert Price, Castle Rock Geotech, Colwick, Nottingham.


A lighthearted look at the ancient art of dowsing during a masters course on site investigation led to some surprising findings, with most of the course participants able to detect underground features with little prior tuition. An explanation of the phenomenon is provided in terms of electrostatic forces. It is considered that the technique may be of considerable value as an initial, cost effective, non-intrusive method for estimating location of certain underground services, water and voids before the use of conventional geophysical and exploratory techniques.


The powers of dowsing using divining rods have been observed over the years and have either been dismissed as some sort of black art or trickery or perhaps accepted as being available only to those possessing a special sensitivity. Little credibility has been attached to the results because of lack of scientific explanation. During the part-time MSc module on site investigation at Nottingham Trent University in June 2000, the authors and the delegate group investigated the phenomenon of dowsing and came up with surprising findings. It was confirmed that the use of divining rods can be an effective and low-cost method of detecting the presence of underground services, water and voids.

The divining rods and their use

Traditionally, dowsers have used forked rods cut from hazel or other wood which deflect when the dowser's body reacts to a particular underground feature. However most dowsers today use simple bent metal rods which cross when a reaction occurs. A historical review of the application of dowsing was presented by Grounds (1996).

The authors made their rods from 4mm brass rods, obtained from a local DIY store for about £3, bent to the approximate dimensions (Figure 1).The rods are simply held, not too tightly, with the long arm horizontal. Figure 1 illustrates the holding of the rods, the walking action and the crossed position of the rods when a reaction occurs. Experience has shown that many people have a strong reaction in only one rod - often the right-hand - and therefore a single rod is often adequate.

Dowsing demonstration

During the site investigation course, Robert Price was able to demonstrate his dowsing ability to a group of 15 delegates by locating the position of a service duct running from a manhole in the university grounds. The group was initially sceptical but, after 'having a go' for themselves, discovered that two-thirds of them experienced a similar reaction in the divining rods at the same location (Figure 2).

Each delegate was then invited to walk along a 15m tape laid on the ground and record any reactions in the rods. The location of a reaction was taken to be the position of the delegate's toes at the point of strongest reaction. The results are plotted in Figure 3.The locations detected by the inexperienced delegates who did have a reaction compared well with the locations picked up by Price (participant 16). It is of interest to note that the four females (participants 5,7,8 and 10) all had positive reactions at very similar locations along the tape. All were satisfied that dowsing had some merit as an aid to site investigation.

Other evidence of the value of dowsing While there is some documented evidence of dowsing success (Killip,1984 and Wilcock,1994), the method has tended to be regarded as a gift of special individuals. It is encouraging that a high proportion of people, perhaps 60% to 80% of those introduced to the technique, have a measure of success. The National Coal Board's in-house guidance notes The treatment of disused mine shafts and adits (1982) refer to the use of the services of water diviners and the success of some NCB engineers in detecting underground discontinuities with purpose-made rods. It is believed that many water company workers carry divining rods to help locate positions of pipes and leaks but there is perhaps a slight embarrassment for such staff who seem to possess this mystical power.

Possible causes

Once the existence of the dowsing phenomenon is accepted, the next question has to be 'what is causing it?' Wilcock lists the various force fields which might affect the sensitivity of the human body and rods: gravitational, magnetic, electric, electromagnetic, radioactive, seismic (the stress field around fractures, fissures and faults), geothermal, and geochemical. Of these, he considered the electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields to be the most probable candidates with the skin conductivity of the dowser playing a part.

An explanation

While working with the divining rods, the joint author John Greenwood became overheated and on removing his acrylic pullover discovered that the rods were particularly sensitive to the electrostatic field that surrounded it. When the pullover was placed on the ground, the rods responded very positively as his body passed over it. The effect was even more pronounced when the rods were rubbed on the acrylic pullover prior to dowsing. A similar response in the rods was found when dowsing over a bowl of water placed on the ground.

The electrostatic explanation ties in with the likely presence of varying electrostatic fields around pipes, cables, voids and bodies of water. It may be that forward motion will also play a part in the response of the rods to the fields that are present.

The divining rod is performing a similar function to the gold leaf electroscope used during school physics to demonstrate electrostatic effects. The charges on the rods cause a response in relation to the charges on the object. Like charges repel and opposite charges attract to influence the alignment that the rods are trying to take up. It was noted that if the dowser removed his or her shoes, their sensitivity often increased, indicating the importance of electrical continuity with the ground.

Some work has been published ( supporting the electrostatic explanation and providing a convincing argument as to why one hand (the right) is sometimes more responsive than the other. The existence and detection of electrostatic fields associated with underground features is being researched at Nottingham Trent University with the intention of developing a scientific instrument, operating independently of the human body, to assist the geotechnical engineer in locating underground features.


Most people, but not all, are able to generate a reaction in divining rods relating to the presence of underground features such as cables, metal and plastic pipes, buried tanks, foundations, trenches, large tree roots, voids/cavities and bodies of water.The control and understanding of the response seems to improve with practice.

The reaction is explained in terms of electrostatics and the rods aligning themselves with the various electrostatic fields present around the underground features.

Limitations are its dependence on operator sensitivity and the presence of electrostatic fields to relate the object to the divining rods. It should not be used as a substitute for locating services in consultation with the statutory authorities before any excavation. However it is a very cheap, and often remarkably effective (and entertaining! ) way of making a preliminary 'geophysical' appraisal of a site before more detailed geophysical and intrusive investigation work.


The enthusiastic participation and support of the delegates on the part-time MSc course in geotechnical engineering design and management at Nottingham Trent University is much appreciated by the authors.


Grounds AC (1996).Dowsing as a tool for location of underground services.BEng Dissertation, Ref ES/96, Boots Library, Nottingham Trent University.

Hansen GP (1982).Dowsing - a review of experimental research.J Soc Psychical Research 51 (792) 343- 367.

Killip I (1984).Detecting geophysical anomalies at construction sites by dowsing.Land and mineral surveying 2 (12),633-644.

Wilcock J (1994).Royal Forest of Dean caving symposium.

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