In discussing the alleged “Pygmies” of the Arctic—a holdover from Classical mythology—I referred to Kirsten Seaver’s work connecting the imaginary pygmies to the Skrælings, the Norse name for the native peoples of Greenland and eastern Canada. But I became sidetracked over an incidental question that arose in reading her article on the pygmy-Skræling connection.
In her 2004 book Maps, Myths and, Men, Seaver reported that the Danish antiquarian Carl Rafn had been the first to identify an old windmill in Rhode Island, the so-called “Newport Tower,” as a Norse church. She didn’t give a reference for the claim in the book, but in her 2008 article “Pygmies of the Far North” she claimed that the Newport Tower discussion occurred in Rafn’s 1837 book Antiquitates Americanae, specifically on pages 400-405, a reference she repeated again in 2010’s The Last Vikings.
The Newport Tower, of course, is infamous in alternative history circles as alleged evidence of Viking contact with New England in the Middle Ages. So, intrigued by Seaver’s reference—especially since so much alternative literature has made great hay of the Tower—I looked up the Antiquitates Americanae, only to be greatly annoyed that the book was written in a bizarre hodgepodge of languages—an English preface, Latin body text, and extensive un-translated quotations in a variety of European tongues. Pages 400-404 are an English language letter written by Thomas Webb describing various petroglyphs on New England rocks that he considered to be Norse runes. The Latin text by Rafn on pp. 404-405 discusses the alleged runes and so far as I can tell makes no mention of the Newport Tower, much less that it was church. I was not able to find any mention of the Newport Tower in the book at all, though the city of Newport is occasionally mentioned in connection with the petroglyphs.
So, I next tried to find out where the idea really came from. This led me to Rafn’s 1839 Supplement to the Antiquitates Americanae (reprinted as a standalone volume in 1841), which contained a twenty-seven page description of the Newport Tower with an extensive discussion of its alleged similarities to medieval churches. (It never occurred to him that architectural principles could be applied for other purposes at other times.) Reviewing other scholars’ work on Rafn (and even that of pseudo-scholars like Charles Michael Boland) confirmed that this was the real source of the Newport Tower claims, as it must be since Rafn only learned of the Tower from Thomas Webb in a letter dated 1839, two years after he wrote the Antiquitates.
In reviewing the alternative literature on the Newport Tower, I saw a lot of claims about it, often citing Rafn, but nothing quoting directly from the first source to claim it was a Viking ruin. As far as I can tell, Rafn's work on the Tower has never been reprinted. So, I dug up the Supplement, transcribed it, and put it up in my Library so everyone can read this foundational text for so much pseudo-science.
What I find fascinating is that Rafn never visited America and based his entire claim on a romanticized and misleading drawing copied (perhaps altered) from one made by Frederick Catherwood. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same Catherwood whose romanticized (but largely accurate) drawings of the Maya temples were altered by Plouchet to create the myth of “Egyptian” influence in Mexico! Catherwood’s drawing is the first one below, and the real Tower is the second image. You can see that the lithograph of Catherwood’s image did not truly capture the rough-hewn texture of ruin and, in presenting it almost as finished, creates the misleading impression that it was the centerpiece of a carefully polished interior chamber of a larger building. Such are the hazards of using secondhand information to support a controversial claim.
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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