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SUMMARY OF A REPORT ON THE NEWPORT TOWER
A summary of the Journal of the Newport Historical Society, Vol 68, Part 2,
History and Mystery of the Old Stone Mill
The Newport Rhode Island stone tower has long been a contentious issue --
17th century windmill, Viking, watch-tower, church or ?
This report is the result of work by a small team of Nordic researchers,
and the main article is by Johannes Hertz, a medieval archaeologist and
head of the Danish State Antiquary's Archaeological Secretariat. In it he
surveys the history of the debate over this unusual structure, starting
with the Dane Carl Christian Rafn who published Antiquitates Americanae in
1837 (Hertz spends several pages discussing Dighton Rock). Rafn never saw
the tower (only drawings by Frederick Catherwood which makes it look as
though it was constructed of ashlar rather than rough natural stone). Rafn
was convinced it was at the latest 12th century, probably a church.
For most of the 19th century up to the present time debate has continued
as to the origin and function of the tower,. Hertz includes a 1910 drawing
reconstructing the tower as a round church from a French publication.
In 1942 a 365 page monograph, entitled Newport Tower, was written by
Philip Ainsworth Means, a reputable archaeologist who believed in a long-
term Norse settlement in North America with a major church at Newport.
Then in 1946 Hjalmar Holand (the Kensington Rune-stone chap) wrote America
1355-1364, arguing that the KRS's expeditionary base as at Newport, with
the tower a combination church/watch-tower/navigation mark/fortified
refuge. Frederick Pohl also wrote arguing in support of this.
Kenneth Conant, Professor of Architecture at Harvard University and an
authority on medieval architecture, wrote an article at about the same
time (1948) arguing that it was not medieval, but without being able to
pin-point any individual features that showed it was not medieval.
At this time Newport City Council itself gave permission for an
archaeological excavation, run by the Society for American Archaeology and
headed by Hugh Hencken of Harvard as supervisor of the field work, with a
very experienced senior student, William S Godfrey, carrying out the
practical work (with the assistance of other students). This was carried
out over two seasons, and involved a trial ditch through the tower and
virtually the whole area inside the tower and its closest surroundings.
There were only a few finds in the ring-ditch which was the first stage of
the tower's construction, and fewer still that could be dated. A piece of
clay pipe in a pillar-foundation, a piece of gunflint in another, a 17th
century potsherd in the fill, and at the bottom of the ring-ditch a foot
print, under which was found another piece of decorated clay pipe (17th
century). The conclusion was that the tower had been built by Governor
Arnold or a contemporary.
Johannes Brondsted, Director of the National Museum of Denmark and later
State Antiquary, visited the excavation and wrote a 1951 article. Although
he viewed the Romanesque features of the tower as indicating an earlier
dating if there were no other evidence, he accepted it as being from
around 1640 and as having been a watch-tower or light-house.
In 1954 Arlington Mallery and two engineers were allowed to undertake a
controlled excavation of some of Godfrey's old trenches. They concluded
that the building had originally been built with a wooden structure
surrounding it and that the original construction was one of pillars
resting directly on the soil. They argued that 17th century
reconstruction to strengthen the pillars resulted in the removal of any
earlier artefacts. Hertz points out that this is impossible, as the
unbroken precise course of the ring-ditch precludes the later addition of
Hertz also has a short section on attempts to determine the age of the
tower by identifying possible measurement units. It is possible that if
one unit of measurement was used that it coincided with half of one that
was in use at least in Norway and Iceland at the transition from the
Viking Age to the Middle Ages.
The meat of Hertz's article, though, is the C14 dating of the lime mortar.
Samples were taken in 1993 in a variety of places and from a depth where
'pollution' from repair work could be excluded. These were tested and
show that the tower was probably built in the middle of the 17th century,
with a 16th century date not completely excluded.
Hertz then discusses its probable function. He looks at the historical
record, but this is inconclusive. He then turns to the idea that it was
built as a windmill. One argument against this has always been the
existence of a fireplace in the tower, which Means felt would have caused
a dust-explosion. But the flue-channel is built into the wall, and
similar fire-places are found in English windmills. Hertz also has the
support of a Danish windmill expert, Anders Jespersen, who told him that
such fireplaces are not unusual in windmills.
Then there is the construction on an arcade. One argument in favour of the
windmill theory has always been the existence of the tower-windmill on
arcades built in Chesterton, Warwickshire. Although the Chesterton
windmill has 6 square pillars to Newport's 8 cylindrical ones, these two
towers -- which everyone agrees were at least at one time windmills -- are
the only two in the world with this construction. As Hertz says, it is
hard to believe that there is no connection. I haven't seen the Newport
tower, but I have seen and discussed Chesterton with the county
archaeologist, Philip Wise, and the similarity is remarkable. Hertz's
article includes a sketch comparing the two, with the Newport Tower
reconstructed as a windmill.
An appendix looks more closely at the details of the C14 dating -- the
full report is by Jan Heinemeier & Hogne Jungner, "C-14 datering af
kalkmortel/Carbon-14 Dating of Mortar," Arkoeologiske udgravninger I
Danmark 1994 (Copenhagen 1995), pp 23-40; J Heinemeier, H Jungner, A
Lindroos, A Ringbom, T Von Konow and N Rud: AMS 14C dating of lime mortar,
Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Accelerator Mass
Spectrometry, Tucson, Arizona, May 1996, Nucl. Instr. and Methods B123
The journal also has a section with old sketches, paintings and
photographs of the tower, and a short article on the Newport Historical
Society's collection of artefacts from the Godfrey excavation.
Thanks to Peter Gowdy, who obtained the journal for me. Copies can be
ordered for $7 from the Newport Historical Society, 82 Touro Street,
Newport, Rhode Island, 02840. (I imagine they'd want more postage to post
it outside the United States!).
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