[The Newport Tower in] “Stumbles and Pitfalls in the Search for Viking America”

In 1837 Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish philologist, published a major work, Antiquitates Americanae, in which he attempted to demonstrate that the "Vinland" mentioned in Icelandic sagas and other medieval written sources was situated in the areas that now make up the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Amidst the stream of information about suspected Norse finds flowing in as a result of Rafn's work his attention was drawn to a ruined tower in Newport, Rhode Island. The building was known to have belonged to Governor Benedict Arnold, who, in 1677, referred to it as "my stone built wind miln [sic]."

For a mill, however, it has an extremely unusual structure: a cylindrical upper part supported by eight round pillars […] On the basis of drawings that had been sent to him by Thomas Webb, Secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Rafn interpreted the building as originally being a baptistry built by Norse settlers in the twelfth century—making it the earliest church and the first European building in the New World. Inspired by Rafn's theory, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ballad The Skeleton in Armor (1841) made the tower famous by referring to it as the home of a supposed Viking found in a warrior's grave at nearby Fall River.

Rafn's theory acquired many followers while others maintained that the tower had been built as a mill by Governor Arnold. After a century of heated debate, it was decided to solve the riddle by excavation, which was carried out in 1948 to 1949 by William S. Godfrey, a graduate student at Harvard University. Among the thousands of fragments found, none were older than the colonial period. In a hollow space in one of the pillar footings Godfrey found a small piece of a clay pipe, and in another footing a piece of a gun flint. Beneath an impression of a hob-nailed boot or shoe with a fiat toe and a square heel found at the bottom of a foundation ditch Godfrey uncovered a fragment of a decorated stem of a mid-seventeenth-century clay pipe. For the excavators, the case was closed: either Governor Arnold of one of his contemporaries built the tower.

The excavation results were strongly disputed, however, by local supporters of the Norse settler theory. Besides, several new theories had been advanced about the original construction, claiming it had been a watch-tower, a warehouse, a lighthouse, a fortified refuge, or even an astronomical calendar. Fissures in the stones of the tower's masonry were interpreted as runes. Nordic Vikings, Irish monks, Portuguese sailors, and Dutch or English colonists were all proposed as its builders. To replace wishful thinking with facts, the Committee for Research in Norse Activities in North America, 1000-1500, mainly sponsored by Marvin Howe Green, Jr., had the tower photogrammetrically surveyed in 1991 by staff of the Danish Technical University. In 1993 staff from Helsinki University, Finland, and the Danish National Museum, studied the evidence, and it is now possible almost with certainty to exclude a pre-Columbian dating of the tower. Because the structure existed in 1677, it probably dates from the seventeenth century and in fact from around the middle of that century—in complete accordance with Godfrey's conclusion. These facts, taken together with considerations about the context of the prestige features of the tower's architecture, allow us to conclude that the Newport Tower was constructed by Governor Benedict Arnold as a windmill. At Chesterton in Warwickshire, England, stands a mill of similar pillared construction (illustrated above). It was built in 1632 in the Palladian style. Benedict Arnold (1615-1678) came to America in 1635 and in 1651 settled in Newport. In 1663 he was appointed the first Governor of Rhode Island. By taking a fashionable architectural innovation in the old country as a model for his own mill he may have wished to give a special contribution to the creation of a New England on foreign soil. A report on this research has been published in Newport History (Hertz 1997).

Source: Johannes Hertz, "[Newport Tower in] Stumbles and Pitfalls in the Search for Viking America" in Vikings the North Atlantic Saga, William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 374-384.

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