Many of you will likely remember (Joe) Gunnar Thompson, the self-described “chief archaeologist” for the New World Discovery Institute who uses his Ph.D.—in studies related to rehabilitation counseling (his dissertation was on affirmative action compliance systems)—to give an air of academic legitimacy to diffusionist theories. (Thompson holds a master’s degree in anthropology, where he focused on linguistics, and a bachelor’s in anthropology.) Thompson, writing in his capacity as the “chief archaeologist” for the institute he operates himself, alleged in a recent letter to the Ancient America website that a medieval lime kiln has been identified in Newport, Rhode Island near the site of the colonial-era windmill fringe historians believe to be a medieval construction.
This would be news if there were a new discovery to support Thompson’s claims. Instead, Thompson himself made the identification based on photographs taken in 1898. The background is a bit confusing, but it runs something like this: According to Thompson, the lime kiln used to produce the five tons of lime that hold together the Newport Tower has never been found. He also asserts that because colonial builders reused earlier structures’ foundations for new constructions that we can therefore look for the missing kiln beneath later buildings.
So far, this is logical enough. He then identifies a candidate for where to look: the Seuton Grant House, once the oldest surviving great house in Newport before it was demolished in the 1890s. The house, built around 1670 or so, bore the name of its most famous occupant, Seuton Grant, who lived there after 1725. The Sueton Grant House was something of an architectural anomaly in Newport, for it had the only pre-1700 central stone chimney in the settlement, all the others having been made of less expensive brick.
The basement of the house was unusual for its time, being made of stone vaults in the European style. Thompson identifies these vaults as a medieval lime kiln, which he dates—based on no evidence other than his impression of a photograph—to 1370-1400 CE. Based on his viewing of the photo, he also believes the kiln ran on coal imported from Baffin Island.
The Colonial builder used the preexisting medieval lime kiln sections as a convenient foundation for three chimneys that were built above the ground floor. Photos show that the chimney superstructure is out-of-alignment by a meter on the east side; and this indicates that the foundation units of the kiln were not originally planned as part of a house foundation. Use of the structure as a kiln was determined by photos that revealed the presence of distinctive lime-kiln “vents.” These are situated above the north and south archways. These vents are common in medieval kilns that were built in the British Isles. Foundation vents of this type are otherwise totally unknown in Colonial New England.
It is not clear to me that the photograph (copied below at right with Thompson’s preferred but clearly not to scale drawing of it at left) actually shows the vents that Thompson claims to see in the blurry image. Certainly, no one who visited the site before its destruction described any vents, and if I had to guess, I’d say that they were holes where support beams ran to hold up the floor. Obviously, such beams could not run through the chimney and therefore had to terminate somewhere. That the holes are spaced just wider than the fireplace above (and thus outside the zone where the beams might catch fire) makes me suspect this was their function, though I am sure there are some experts in colonial architecture who could tell us for sure.
An architectural study of the house made just before its demolition, for example, records this unusual basement. Thompson cites the study in his piece as evidence of the basement’s connection to the Newport Tower, but the original author, Norman Isham, in Early Rhode Island Houses, noted that while the arrangement of the stone construction is unusual, crucially, it is not unique:
The arrangement of the stairs is peculiar. The two piers at each side of the flight come together above the stairs in the second story. Under the stairs in the first story are the steps to the cellar, which is very interesting, for the foundation of the huge chimney instead of being a square mass of stone, is cut into on three sides by deep recesses, which are arched over to support the masonry above them. The recess on the fourth side is occupied by the stairs from the first story. We more than suspect that these arches were turned by the same mason who built the Old Stone Mill. This arrangement occurs outside of Newport only, so far as we know, in the Lippitt house in old Warwick, of which the chimney is of brick.
Thompson chooses to omit that last point since his claim is that the organization of the original kiln dictated the organization of the (presumably later) superstructure, while the Lippitt House suggests that there were purposeful reasons for the arrangement that might therefore have dictated the reason for organizing the basement thusly.
According to Thompson, the unfinished, rough character of the arches in the basement marks the site as a “distinctly” Norman-Scottish medieval kiln, for he argues that no other colonial site (barring the Newport Tower) contains wide arches made from uneven stones. He compares the Seuton Grant House to a medieval Orkney church repair in this image posted on his Marco Polo in America website in 2014, before suspected that the colonial stonework was a kiln (and thus redrew the photograph, which appears only in the altered drawing form in his subsequent claims):
A similar arch is also seen in Greenland. He declines to note that the medieval European and Greenlander arches he cites were Gothic (pointed), while the colonial arch—rough because it was never meant to be seen—looks similar in geometry to other colonial arches used to span foundations. The reason far-flung outposts of civilization had weird, rough arches when other places didn’t? It should be obvious—at the edges of civilization, masons had to work with what they had, and local conditions limited them.
So why compare a flat arch to a Gothic one? Because Orkney is where Jarl Henry I Sinclair lived, and by imagining a colonial basement as a fourteenth century Scottish kiln, Thompson can lend spurious support to his fantasy that Henry Sinclair ruled over a far-flung colony in New England and shipped Mi’kmaq people back to Europe (yes, he really claims this). As I have demonstrated many times, there is no evidence whatsoever of Henry Sinclair traveling to America, and the entire claim rests on a sixteenth century hoax that doesn’t even mention him.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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