As with last week, a historical review is necessary to understand where America Unearthed went so terribly wrong. If you know the history of the Newport Tower, you can skip to the episode review, but I recommend reading since there are some interesting tidbits below that even I didn’t know until I started researching the Tower.
The Newport Tower is more famous as a ruin than it ever was as a working building. A nearly-circular tower supported on eight not-quite equal arches, the ruins of the tower site in a park in Newport, Rhode Island, where they failed to much excite anyone’s attention from the time of the building’s construction down to 1839 when the first “alternative” theories emerged. The known facts about the Newport Tower can be summarized rather simply.
The first record of the tower comes in the will of Gov. Benedict Arnold, colonial governor of Rhode Island in the mid-seventeenth century, just four decades after the settlement of Rhode Island, previously inhabited by Native Americans. On December 24, 1677, he described it in his will as marking the place where he wished to be buried, on a “parcel of land containing three rods square on or near the line or path from my dwelling house leading to my stone built windmill in ye town of Newport.” He died the next spring, on June 19. His will remained public record (escaping British destruction of Newport’s records in 1779) and was widely consulted by antiquarians down the centuries.
Arnold left the mill to his daughter, Freelove Arnold Pelham, along with warehouses, a mansion, and a farm. Freelove tried to bequeath the land to her children, but her brother successfully sued for control in 1730, arguing that a woman was not allowed to decide how to dispose of real estate under English law. At no time did anyone mention, describe, or refer to the stone wind mill as anything else, and neither child of Arnold expressed the least doubt that the mill had been built by their father. It continued to be described as a windmill throughout the eighteenth century in colonial and early Republican documents.
In 1836, a magazine called Penny Magazine from Britain included an illustration of the Chesterton Windmill, a 1632 stone-built windmill in Chesterton, England, that is remarkably similar to the Newport Tower in size, shape, and design. It was located close to where some of the colonists at Newport had once lived in England, including George Lawton. This Lawton lived less than twenty miles from the Chesterton mill before coming to the colony, where he became the go-to man for designing windmills. In fact, tower-shaped windmills had increased markedly in popularity in England between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries; when the colonists came to Rhode Island in the years after 1638, it only made sense that their mill would take the form of the latest (and therefore best) in English style.
Between the 1630s and the 1730s, no one doubted that the Newport Tower was exactly what everyone could see it was: A functioning windmill. Things began to change when it was used as a powder magazine and subsequently fell into disrepair. Left as a ruin, it sparked the romantic interest of local residents, who saw in it an analog to the romantic stone ruins of Europe, then a popular subject in engravings and paintings. America, having few ruins of its own, had to make do with what it had; in 1777, the Tower featured in a quite romantic pastoral painting, serving the same purpose as a castle keep in European art.
Nevertheless, down to 1838, no one batted an eye at the idea that this building—which had been functional in living memory—was a windmill. This is especially surprising, for had it truly been a Pre-Columbian, Continental European church, as later claimed, it would have been a great piece of propaganda during the Revolution, a symbol tying the new United States to its greatest ally, France—the very home of the Knights Templar—and cutting at Britain’s legal and moral right to sovereignty. And yet the Freemasons in the new American government—those supposed heir to the Templars—said nothing about it.
Archaeologists have conducted several excavations around the tower (notably in 1948 and 2006-2008) and have found no artifacts predating the seventeenth century. In 1848, an analysis of the mortar found that it matched other mortars from area buildings of the 1640s. In 1984, radiocarbon testing tied the Tower to the seventeenth century.
So where did the alternative view come from?
I’m glad you asked.
In 1820s, the Danish antiquarian Carl Christian Rafn became convinced, based on his readings of medieval literature, that the Norse had crossed the Atlantic and that the Vinland of the Norse sagas had been a real place. This inspiration was in fact true, as the 1960 excavation of L’anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland would prove, but it was still a contested idea in the 1820s. To prove his case, Rafn decided to gather together every possible scrap of evidence that the Norse had been in the Americas. But he didn’t know about climate change or that Newfoundland had once been warm enough to grow grapes—the vín or “wine” in Vinland—during what we now call the Medieval Warm Period. So he aimed too far south and assumed the Vikings had colonized what is now New England, the northernmost place known in those days to be capable of sustaining viniculture. To that end, he tried to assemble the best available evidence of Viking occupation in 1831 in the Antiquitates Americanae, a monumental book written in Latin. Some of it would turn out to be right, and a lot of it would be wrong; among the wrong material were ambiguous petroglyphs (like the Dighton Rock) he thought were Norse runes.
Americans devoured the book and went looking for “proof” of Norsemen in America. No “hooked-x” rune stones were known in those days, despite every effort to find Norse runes in America. This is a pretty good indication that many of the so-called “rune stones” were fabricated much later.
Rafn’s enthusiasm had gotten the better of him. He began corresponding with New England antiquarian societies for information about “Norse” artifacts. In May of 1839, Thomas H. Webb, M.D. wrote to Rafn with exciting new information. Webb, an ardent bibliophile and one of the founders of MIT’s library, wondered whether the Newport Tower was not what all agreed it was—a mill—but something else. He based this on his own erroneous belief that no round windmill had ever been built of stone, and therefore a stone building of that size and shape had to be something more important. As we have seen, stone mills of this type were well known in England. Webb made a description of the tower and asked Frederick Catherwood, the artist best known for his romantic images of the Maya ruins, to draw some images of it to send to Rafn. These images were highly romantic, and they made the Tower look much more regular and finished than the actual rough-hewn building really is. “The drawings sent may be relied upon as accurate in all essential particulars,” Webb told Rafn.
From that false assertion and the romantic imagery, Rafn spun a fantastic tale. He compared the shape of the Tower to Cistercian baptisteries, and he suggested that the arches were Romanesque and therefore medieval. Since he had never been to America, his evidence was nothing more than a superficial similarity between Catherwood’s romanticized drawing of the Tower and selected elements of Northern European architecture. There was nothing more to it than that. He published his ideas in an English-language Supplement to the Antiquitates Americanae in 1839.
(I have published Rafn’s entire text here, its first republication since 1839. That’s because, unlike America Unearthed, I want you to read the primary sources.)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as impressed, including the Norse origin of the Tower in the “Skeleton in Armor.” Articles and books for and against the Norse hypothesis proliferated in the late nineteenth century, with historians often expressing bafflement at the diffusionists who insisted that a windmill was a church or a lookout tower. In 1942, the archaeologist Philip Ainsworth Means, working backward from the conclusion, tried to “prove” that the tower was of Norse origin, though his evidence was faulty.
But in time the Norse were no longer interesting enough. Several people tried to claim that the Tower was built by the Portuguese, but on no better evidence. Gavin Menzies claimed that the Chinese built it, but his claim that the tower matched Chinese architecture of the fifteenth century held no water. Finally, Andrew Sinclair decided in 1992’s The Sword and the Grail that the Tower must have been built by Henry Sinclair at the head of a voyage to America by medieval Scottish Knights Templar. But his evidence was nothing of the sort. The claim derives from the infamous Zeno map and narrative—a fifteenth century hoax that claimed that Venetians had discovered a series of unexplored but occupied lands in the North Atlantic in the 1380s.
In the story, the Zeno brothers of Venice meet a mysterious king of an Atlantic island, and his name was Zichmni. Zichmni eventually founds a colony in Greenland. In 1780 John Reinhold Forster speculated that Zichmni was a corruption of “Sinclair,” and because Zichmni had defeated Norway in 1380 while Sinclair had won a battle and had Norway make him an earl that year, they had to be one and the same. No one in Forster’s day thought much of the theory, and the exposure of the Zeno Map as a hoax in the 1890s sealed its fate, at least until the modern era when any half-formed “fact” from the nineteenth century could be passed off as “suppressed” truth from a heroic generation of Victorian scholars.
(I've posted the whole of the Zeno narrative here so you can judge for yourself.)
Andrew Sinclair picked up Forster’s admitted speculation, ran with it as truth, and declared the Tower to be Templar. And the entire thing started because Carl Rafn had a good idea, pursued it beyond the facts, and speculated without warrant from Catherwood’s romanticized drawing about superficial similarities.
And that’s how we come to this episode of America Unearthed, which demonstrates far less understanding of the source material than the brief sketch I just provided, but is much more confident in its ignorant assessment than either Webb, Rafn, or Forster ever were.
America Unearthed S01E12 “America’s Oldest Secret” begins with a summary of last week’s episode before opening with a staged scene of show host Scott Wolter dramatically peering over Gerardus Mercator’s 1569 world map with a large magnifying glass intercut with shots of the Newport Tower digitally altered in post production with a teal filter. The camera focuses in on the word “Norombega,” better known as Norumbega, a legendary settlement in New England, first recorded in the sixteenth century, but which is widely believed to be a figment of European geographical imagination, like Antillia and Brasilia.
In 1542, French explorer Jean Allefonsce found what he described as the inhabitants of Norumbega:
The river is more than 40 leagues wide at its entrance and retains its width some thirty or forty leagues. It is full of Islands, which stretch some ten or twelve leagues into the sea. ... Fifteen leagues within this river there is a town called Norombega, with clever inhabitants, who trade in furs of all sorts; the town folk are dressed in furs, wearing sable. ... The people use many words which sound like Latin. They worship the sun. They are tall and handsome in form. The land of Norombega lie high and is well situated. (trans. B. F. Decosta)
As with the case of the “Welsh” Indians, this report appears to be a case where a European explorer, unable to speak a Native tongue, heard in it what he wanted to hear, just as the Greeks misunderstood the Median word yazona to be a reference to their hero Jason (Iason). In fact, Norumbega, originally Oranbega, is an Algonquian word referring to quiet waters. Only much later, in the nineteenth century, did this geographical anomaly become tied to the Vikings, after Rafn’s claims, and for the same reason: ignorance of the Medieval Warm Period led to placing Vinland far too far to the south on the assumption grapes could only grow in lower latitudes.
Oddly, Wolter ignores Norumbega all together and never mentions it once in the episode.
After the credits, we travel to the Newport Tower in Rhode Island, which Wolter called one of America’s “biggest mysteries.” He asserts that the Tower is constructed of “thousands of intricately placed stones,” though this is highly deceptive since any stone construction of the seventeenth century also features “intricately placed stones,” a prerequisite for creating a stable stone structure. He also asserts that “nobody knows who built” the Tower, “or when, or why,” though as described above, this is only the case if one discounts the entire historical and archaeological record from Gov. Benedict Arnold down to the 2008 excavations, which, of course, Wolter does. He never mentions any of the historical record in the episode, another instance of failing to play fair with the facts.
Wolter asserts that the Tower cannot be a windmill because he believes that it looks nothing like “colonial architecture,” again discounting the clear analog with the Chesterton windmill, as well as other stone-built colonial structures. That said, he also failed to recognize stone-built spring houses as colonial, so it is entirely possible that he has no knowledge of colonial buildings. At no point in the episode is even a hint of the known historical record of the Tower mentioned.
Over some previously-filmed footage of recreations of the Knights Templar, Wolter summarizes their history and his idea that the Holy Grail came to America with the Templars after their order was suppressed following the French raid of 1307. Interestingly, while the previous episode made the Grail into the Bloodline of Christ, in this episode it is reintroduced only as the Cup of Christ from the Last Supper, with only a hint that it may have “symbolized” something more.
Once again, Wolter offers a scoffing reference to “academics” who are butting heads with Our Hero in his quest to find the Holy Grail. He meets with one such academic, Jim Egan, the curator of the Newport Tower Museum. Egan does not believe that the tower was a windmill; instead, he thinks it is the first English structure in Rhode Island, built just before 1600 and later converted into a windmill, based, again, on the fact that it simply doesn’t look like a windmill to him. He believes that Dr. John Dee planned a secret colony for Rhode Island, that the Tower was its first building, and that the colony failed, leaving behind, conveniently, no trace of its existence archaeologically or historically. In fact, Egan produced a video naming the tower the “John Dee Tower of 1583,” for which there is not the slightest hint of solid evidence. However, he is certain that it is not medieval in date.
Wolter asserts that the Newport Tower is “exactly identical to what they built in the twelfth century” because of the “equally spaced” pillars, round centerpiece, and (missing) “ambulatory.” The pillars are not equally spaced but are in fact irregular. There is no evidence of a stone ambulatory as shown in the computer reconstruction (though some possible post holes uncovered in 2008 suggest there may have been a wooden structure around the tower at some point). Worse, there is nothing “exactly identical” to the Tower among the medieval churches of Europe. Even Carl Christian Rafn, the very first to make this connection, could turn up none that exactly matched; he could only talk of how elements of the Tower resembled elements from various medieval buildings. He compared the arches from Romanesque churches, but the round shape of various churches without arches; none had all of the elements in the tower in the same organization and order. The closest he could come was an octagonal structure at Mellifont Abbey in Ireland, but which is significantly different in construction, ornamentation, and design. The only European building that is almost “exactly identical” is the Chesterton windmill. Wolter, however, merely asserts that “identical” European churches existed, but in his very next sentence backtracks and instead suggests only that such churches merely “incorporate” “elements” also found in the Newport Tower, contradicting his own assertion (and computer reconstruction) of ten seconds previous.
It becomes very obvious his material is derived from secondhand summaries of Rafn’s 1839 speculation when he cites Mellifont Abbey and the Danish round churches of Bornholm, both key pieces of Rafn’s evidence. They don’t look the same, or even close. He claims that the Tower is an “exact duplicate” of Cambridge Round Church, which it is not. Cambridge Round Church has a stone ambulatory, and the Tower does not. Cambridge Round Church has an arched clerestory triforium, and the Tower does not. The Church has ornately carved capitals on its columns, and the Tower has no capitals. During the period when the Templars supposedly came to America to build the Tower, the Round Church had already been significantly altered from its original design, having had a chancel and aisle added, a full century earlier. (The Church as seen today was rebuilt in the 1840s based on assumptions at that time about its original design—that’s why in 1839 Rafn didn’t think anything of it.) The Tower has no evidence of an aisle. In sum, the resemblances are entirely superficial.
Wolter next asserts that Geradus Mercator’s 1569 world map depicts the Newport Tower. What we see is nothing of the sort. We see Norumbega and Mercator’s symbol for a settlement, a pair of towers connected by a wall, the small number of towers representing the small size of the settlement, as reported by Allefonsce. It is no different than the symbols for other settlements around the world, all drawn in the same Renaissance style no matter the culture or age, or actual architecture. Here, for example, are even closer approximations of the Tower, only these represent cities on the edge of the Sahara desert in Western Africa—a place where no such European-style round tower ever existed.
It’s just Mercator’s map symbol, not a secret drawing spirited back from America by the Templars. There is therefore no evidence that Mercator depicted the Tower, and an edited sound byte from Egan shows that Egan recognizes that this is but a map symbol. A huge problem with this segment is that Wolter never discusses the myth of Norumbega, clearly referenced on the map, making it seem unclear to viewers why Mercator would have a settlement in Rhode Island at such an early date.
Wolter next asserts that his special training in geology gives him an advantage because “I know rocks.” But he uses none of that knowledge of geology, instead saying that the shape of the rocks was symbolically important, a question of history, not geology.
Egan and Wolter both claim that the Tower has significant astronomical alignments because on the winter solstice, at an unspecified time during the day, the sun shines through the west “window” and illuminates a stone on the opposite wall, which Egan thinks is important because the “Mesopotamian” symbol for Easter was the “egg,” the shape of the rock hit by the sun. Of course, the rock isn’t really egg-shaped—it’s only very roughly egg shaped, with many irregular edges—nor is the winter solstice associated with Easter or its predecessors, the spring festivals. It’s also unclear to me how this “alignment” would have been visible when the Tower was a complete “church” with a presumably finished interior. (The windmill would have had a floor that would have almost certainly blocked the sunlight from reaching the egg stone.)
Wolter also believes that the structure has an alignment to Venus. En route we get a call back to last week’s episode where Wolter gawked at Paul Roberti’s magnetic rock called cumberlandite when Wolter finds that a local magnetic rock was incorporated into the Tower! Big deal. The Tower was built out of local rocks. What a shock. An irrelevant search for more cumberlandite in the wild follows. Wolter asserts that cumberlandite is known as the “Stone of Venus,” but I can find no evidence that anyone other than Wolter uses that term to describe it. In Greek and Roman times the emerald was the Stone of Venus, and in Kabala it is the amethyst. The only other reference I could find was to old claims that the magnetic iron stone at the corner of the Kaaba in Mecca, believed to be meteorite, used to be called the Stone of Venus in pagan times. But for Wolter, his assertion that the cumberlandite was known as the Stone of Venus is proof that it is tied to Cistercian and Templar symbolism of the divine female in the heavens, symbolized by the planet Venus. This claim appears only with Alan Bulter (remember him?), who recently asserted that the Templars and Cistercians worshiped the “sacred feminine” by secretly perpetuating an ancient goddess-based religion. There is no earlier connection to Venus in the literature, so far as I was able to tell, outside of ancient astronaut, diffusionist, and Holy Bloodline writers.
Wolter next confuses the Templars and the Cathars. The Templars were never accused of believing in the equality of men and women; that was the Cathars, a completely different group of medieval heretics, persecuted from 1208 to 1325. The all-male Templars were actually accused of being homosexuals who worshiped a demon named Baphomet. Alternative writers have drawn connections between the two groups, but the only proof is an alleged document claiming that the Templars gave refuge to Cathar refugees. This paper is conveniently gone, supposedly lost in World War II before anyone other than an alternative writer had ever seen it. Historians recognize no connection between the two groups.
There is no evidence that the Templars recognized anything special about Venus, nor is the presence of Venus alignments in the Tower proof of Templar influence. (Why not, say, Venus-worshiping Romans?) There is no reference to Venus in any reference book on the Templars I consulted, and it only appears in the alternative history literature in conjunction with goddess conspiracies. There is no evidence of such Venus alignments in any Templar or Cistercian buildings of the era in Europe. Nevertheless, Wolter believes that the light of Venus could be focused through the Newport Tower’s second story window and “captured” by niche on the opposite wall to bring “the goddess”—the Templars are pagans now?—into the Tower. Last week the Templars were “pure” Christians with the “truth” about Christ; this week they’re pre-Christian goddess-worshipers.
Wolter tries to explain that the light from Venus was captured by the niches in the tower, but I have problems with this. If the windows at the very top of the tower (the third story in American usage, or second story in British usage) were meant, as Wolter says, for “observations,” then Venus would need to be visible from ground level, but it is not. The “alignment” could only be seen from halfway up the Tower, at the “niche,” and no light would ever actually shine from the planet into the Tower itself. (Starlight or planet light isn’t bright enough to create a focused beam through an aperture as big as a window; if that were the case, then your home telescope would be shooting lasers into your eyes.) Wolter also fails to state what time during the night this alignment should occur, nor what the azimuth of Venus would be; Venus “appearing” at 22 degrees is not enough information. The angle needs to be measured from a given point, and Wolter won’t say whether that point is at ground level, up in the sky, or what. He thinks that two such alignments together create an “x” like the fictitious Templar “hooked x.”
Wolter next states that the engineering of the Tower was “very precise,” but again I must point to the fact that (a) the Tower not perfectly round, (b) its pillars are unevenly spaced, and (c) its arches are of different widths. Engineers who were supposedly so precise that they encoded Venus alignments to an incredibly small angle were also incapable of building a regular structure?
“Nobody but the Templars would have designed this into a structure like this!” Wolter screams as he views a laser reconstruction of the Venus “X.” Never mind, of course, that the “X” would never have been visible (since Venus cannot be in two places simultaneously), that the Templars have no connection to Venus, and that when Scott Wolter came to the Newport Tower in 2007 to look for Venus (as reported in Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers 26, no. 1  and Ancient American 12 [Feb. 2008]), he found that there “was not a visible opening to allow Venus to be seen” as an evening star. At the time, he blamed the failure to see Venus on (a) clouds and (b) reconstruction work on the Tower after 1780 that may have altered the position of the windows. Given that the Tower’s uppermost three feet have been rebuilt, there is no way to know what the original “alignment” would have been. (Other alternative believers have just as little evidence that the true “alignment” was to Sirius and/or the North Star on various days.)
Wolter tries to test his idea by looking for Venus atop a ladder placed inside the Tower. Neither Wolter nor Egan seems aware that it is possible to calculate the position of Venus at any given time; it is not a miracle that requires speculation. Are we to assume that the Templars stood on stilts to see Venus? Fortunately for Wolter, the weather prevented him from “proving” where Venus was in the sky, despite, again, the fact that astronomers are able to determine such positioning with great accuracy. Wolter is disappointed that Venus fails to hit the niche, and he rationalizes that “maybe in the past” the niche aligned with Venus, when the earth’s axis was in a different position (!) and before earthquakes (!!) had misaligned the Tower! This is post-hoc rationalization at its worst. Again, as a geologist he should be able to find evidence if these alleged monument-moving earthquakes had occurred—is the Tower’s foundation damaged? And astronomers can tell you exactly where Venus was on any given night, except that they are “academics” and so in on the conspiracy.
But only seconds later, Wolter then trumpets a solar alignment that hits a keystone at an unspecified point during the morning around the solstice. But I thought he just said earthquakes moved the Tower out of alignment. Which is it?
The sun is seen quite high in the sky, so the “fertilization” of the keystone “egg” isn’t happening at dawn, the actual sacred moment in ancient religion, but rather by chance sometime later in the day.
“The academic community has dropped the ball,” Wolter says. “Not just with the Newport Tower but with many of these ancient sites and artifacts that indicate that people have been coming to what is now America for thousands of years.” Wolter fails to tell viewers that the “academic community” has been studying the Newport Tower since the 1840s, and the results of architectural, archaeological, radiocarbon, and other studies are always the same: All signs point to the mid-1600s (see above). He is being highly dishonest in ignoring actual archaeological and academic work on the site in order to claim that none exists.
“I truly believe that the society that the Templars envisioned was eventually laid out by modern Freemasons over a period of centuries, and those symbols, the signs, they’re all around us, hidden in plain sight.” Thus, America is actually the culmination of sacred goddess worship, the joint inheritance of the Templars and Masons: “These two orders were responsible for founding our United States itself.”
Wolter sees that one of the Newport Tower’s keystones is very roughly shaped like a Masonic keystone (like the one used in Pennsylvania road signs—it’s the keystone state), but seriously it is so roughly shaped like one that it’s hard to attribute intentional symbolic design to the rock rather than the necessity to support the circular stone placed by design directly above with a flat support that juts up above the rest of the arch. So much for pecision engineering. Wolter sees this stone as a “Mark Master Mason’s Keystone,” but such a stone is a modern invention. As recently as the nineteenth century, the mark master mason’s keystone was smooth (un-notched), with a circle inscribed within. It may be possible, I suppose, that the circle above the Tower keystone was meant to represent this, but Wolter isn’t aware of the fact. I think that the rock was irregular and shaped as best as possible to fit into the available space in the arch.
Instead, Wolter takes a helicopter to look at the Statue of Liberty, a statue created in France, who holds a tablet that has two notches at the top. Although the tablet is rectangular (with parallel sides) and therefore could not possibly serve as a keystone—which by definition must taper in a wedge shape to fit into and support an arch—Wolter screams and hoots that he found a hidden Mason’s symbol. In fact, the sculptor intended the tablet to be a tabula ansata, an imperial Roman tablet with dovetailed (notched) ends used for votive inscriptions. Such tablets also appear in Renaissance European art from the same ancient sources.
The show concludes with Wolter expressing his certainty that the Templars gave rise to the United States and its “religious freedom” and “determined the very destiny of our nation.”
This episode was originally scheduled to be the season finale, and it plays like one, summing up the series’ clear aim of providing an ancient (or at least medieval) rationalization for American values, continuing the project started with the mound builder myth several centuries ago of giving non-Native Americans—immigrants all—deeper connections to the land and a fictive, mythic history sufficient to assuage any doubts about who really belongs in America, and also who does not belong in America as a true member of our society.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.