You might have heard of dowsing for water, but what about dowsing for minerals?

Dowsing (aka divining and witching) is the practice of using a forked stick, rod, pendulum, or similar device to locate underground water, minerals, or other hidden or lost substances. It is best known as a way to locate water sources, in theory at least, but it has also been used for centuries to look for minerals.

In the classic method of using a forked stick, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward. The bottom or butt end of the "Y" is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. The dowser then walks back and forth over the area to be tested. When she/he passes over a source of water or whatever is being sought, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward.

There have been attempts to dowse for minerals in Nova Scotia. A book written in 1830 said rock had been found around Gates Mountain, Annapolis County, that contained chlorophaeite, which had a greenish tinge: “We would observe, that this substance, from its deceptive appearance, has occasioned much speculation among the inhabitants, and that a company was formed not long since, for the purpose of working it as an ore of copper. This mistake seems to have originated from the use of the mineral rod, which in Nova Scotia, as well as in New England, has led many an honest farmer into ruinous speculations.” The “mineral rod” referred to was a dowsing rod.

(The book, called “Mineralogy and Geology of the Peninsula of Nova Scotia,” does not explain why the inhabitants thought the chlorophaeite was copper. Perhaps they were misled by its greenish tinge, but copper is reddish brown. It only turns green as it oxidizes/rusts.)
Dowsing has been done for thousands of years. In the Tassili Caves of northern Africa, an 8,000-year-old cave painting depicts a man holding a forked stick, apparently using it to search for water. Egyptian hieroglyphics show men using dowsing rods. Greek poet Homer referenced dowsing. The Bible describes Moses using a staff to find water.

The theory is that dowsers establish some sort of mental connection with the substance or object they are seeking, or that some underground objects, like water and minerals, emit a type of energy that dowsers can detect.

While some believe dowsing is an effective way of searching for things underground – the American Society of Dowsers has 2000 members - others argue it has no scientific basis. Many tests have been done to try to confirm dowsing’s legitimacy but the scientific consensus is that it does not work. Many argue that the movement of a dowser’s rods is an unconscious, involuntary motion that is misinterpreted as the rod responding to something underground.

The United States Geological Surveys says this about dowsing for water: “The natural explanation of ‘successful’ water dowsing is that in many areas underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water…Some water exists under the Earth's surface almost everywhere. This explains why many dowsers appear to be successful.”

Dowsing for minerals goes back at least to the early 1500s when it was used by Bavarian miners and subsequently spread throughout Europe.

A 1556 book called “De Re Metallica” (On the Nature of Metals), contains the image below that shows two men holding dowsing rods while other prospectors and miners pursue more conventional methods like digging.

According to the book, many were skeptical of dowsing for minerals even back then: “There are many great contentions between miners concerning the forked twig, for some say that it is of the greatest use in discovering veins, and others deny it.”

The author of the book, Georgius Agricola, came out against dowsing, which is not surprising since it was the first book about mining based on scientific methods like field research and observation: “a miner, since we think he ought to be a good and serious man, should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for as I have said before, there are the natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs.”
“De Re Metallica” was written in Latin but translated into English in 1912 by former United States President Herbert Hoover, a former mining engineer, and his wife.

Dowsing for minerals, like dowsing for water, is a practice that persists today. Highly-respected Nova Scotia prospector, the late Avard Hudgins, wrote in 2002 about being asked to visit a gold prospect by a local promoter. Hudgins was “aghast” when he arrived and saw a coat hanger being used to dowse for gold. The “modern high-tech divining rod,” as the dowser called it, was painted bright yellow (for gold?) and “on the end someone had glued a chunk of quartz with two small sights of gold” in it.

The promoter wanted Hudgins to get exploration companies interested in the property, but Hudgins sarcastically said as he left that they should put “larger pieces of gold on the quartz and that maybe they would get better results.”

The story did not end there: “A spell later, I received a call from a geologist in Montreal. ‘I did not know you were into dowsing,’ he said. He went on to explain that he had visited the same property and that the promoter had told him that I’d said his property was the best gold prospect I had seen but that the firm I worked for had run out of my money and could not option it. He further explained that my tip about making the divining rod more powerful was paying off handsomely.”

“I was floored. I could have shot that promoter,” Hudgins wrote.

Modern mineral prospecting and exploration is a sophisticated, science-based activity. See how it works in a short video at