Return to Doug's archaeology page

A summary of the Journal of the Newport Historical Society, Vol 68, Part 2, 1997: The 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 foundations.

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 (1977), 487.

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!). Return to Doug's archaeology page