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Some Reservations about the Newport Tower C-14 Dates
J. Huston McCulloch
This paper was published in the Midwestern Epigraphic Journal, Vol. 15, 2001, pp. 79-92.
In a widely cited 1997 paper, Johannes Hertz raises a number of arguments against a pre-Colonial origin for the famous Newport, Rhode Island Stone Tower. Hertz insists that it was modeled after the 17th century Chesterton Mill in Warwickshire, England, and points out that a 1948-9 survey by Hugh Hencken and William S. Godfrey found indisputably colonial artifacts at the bottom of a trench that surrounds the foundations. He extensively discusses the recent carbon-14 dating of the mortar by Jan Heinemeier and Högne Jungner (HJ, 1994). According to HJ, their tests indicate that the Tower was built not earlier than 1635 AD, and most likely in the range 1651-1679.
Architect Suzanne Carlson, writing already in 1996 in response to the 1994 Danish original of Hertz's article, persuasively refutes Hertz's architectural and historical objections: Even Johannes Brønsted, whom Hertz approvingly cites, admitted that "the Romanesque lines of the tower are so striking that if the tower stood in Europe, probably no one would contradict a date in the middle ages" (in Hertz 1997, p. 75). Carlson argues that Chesterton Mill was in fact built as an observatory, and only much later converted to use as a mill. She points out that the trench discovered during the 1948-9 survey makes sense as part of a colonial repair of a pre-existing tower for use as a windmill, after an earlier mill blew down in 1675. Furthermore, this trench does not work as part of the original construction, because it lacks any evidence of the presence of the staging that would have been necessary to have supported the arches. Instead, its backfill contains thousands of mortar fragments, as would be expected if it were opened as part of a repair operation.
However, Carlson admits that she, as an architect, does not understand the highly technical carbon-14 dating of the mortar. I have had a little chemical training (as an undergraduate at Caltech), and some prior familiarity with dendrocalibration, which is an important complication in the HJ paper. Perhaps they or someone else will be able to correct me, but my reading of their paper is that although the C-14 results are certainly consistent with a 17th century colonial origin for the tower, they by no means conclusively rule out a pre-Columbian origin.
When we scrutinize HJ's Table 1, we find some further problems with their dates. Pure calcium carbonate contains about 60% carbonate by weight. Several of their samples contain less than 10% carbonate, and on this criterion HJ reject them. However, they do not explain what is present, if not calcium carbonate. If the difference is primarily unreacted calcium hydroxide, there is a serious slow reaction problem that potentially affects all the dates. On the other hand, if the other material is primarily inert silica sand, there is no particular indication that the remaining calcium carbonate is in any way contaminated, and these samples should be no worse than any of the others. Since Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) methods are being used to measure the amount of C-14, valid results can often be obtained with even very small amounts of carbon. Small sample size might result in a large standard error, and therefore could be a valid criterion for forgoing the expense of a test, but is not per se a valid criterion for rejecting test results once they have been performed, so long as the standard error is not unusually large as a result. Thus, two samples contained 2.0% or less carbonate and were legitimately not even tested. However, sample 8 from the fireplace was tested despite containing only 5.8% carbonate, but then was inappropriately excluded from the final estimates of the age of the Tower, even though its standard error was only 70 years, less than on two of the five samples that were included in the final estimate (75 and 90).
It is very significant that the preferred first fraction of carbon extracted from the inappropriately excluded sample 8 gives a negative uncalibrated C-14 date of -110 BP, or in other words, 2060 AD! (BP = "Before Present", i.e. before 1950, the approximate date when radiocarbon dating was developed.) Because atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons since 1945 has made recent decades appear to be far in the future before calibration, this does not literally mean that the mortar tested in 1993 had atmospheric carbon from the 21st century. However, it does indicate, after calibration, that the carbon was from some date after 1945, long after the Tower is known to have been built. HJ make no comment on this impossible date for the construction, but instead merely drop it from consideration on the inappropriate criterion of the low carbonate concentration per se. In fact, sample 8 appears to exhibit a more severe case of substitution bias than I would have imagined possible, despite Hertz's assurances (1997, p. 93) that rainwater contamination "could be excluded."
That paper was published in a Midwestern local archaeology clubs publication. It is an ...An organization concerned with the study and scientific research of epigraphy, ancient history, and archaeology, particularly as it applies to precolumbian visits to the Americas by members of high cultures." It was set up by Barry Fells a well known believer of various visits of cultures to the Americas.
In the same essay, however, Kelley went on to acknowledge that, "I have no personal doubts that some of the inscriptions which have been reported [by Fell] are genuine Celtic ogham." Kelley concluded: "Despite my occasional harsh criticism of Fell's treatment of individual inscriptions, it should be recognized that without Fell's work there would be no [North American] ogham problem to perplex us. We need to ask not only what Fell has done wrong in his epigraphy, but also where we have gone wrong as archaeologists in not recognizing such an extensive European presence in the New World."
HJ (the administrators of the AMS dating in question) admit that there are two factors that potentially could make the measured age of the mortar appear younger than the true age of the construction.
The first of these is slow absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The surface of the mortar sets up quickly - in as little as a few hours. The interior portions of the mortar will ordinarily set up eventually, but this requires carbon dioxide to diffuse through pores in the mortar, either in gaseous form, or in solution in the water that has been added to the slake lime. Depending on how easy it is for the gas to find such pores and work its way through them, this could take a considerable time. On p. 38, they claim that the effect should be limited to a few years, yet on p. 40, they admit that in the case of the two medieval Finnish churches discussed below, some samples still exhibited an alkaline reaction, indicating the presence of some unreacted calcium hydroxide, approximately 700 years after their construction! Because of this slow absorption, the estimated date will not reflect the actual date of construction, but some weighted average of later dates, even if at the time of testing the reaction appears to have been complete. Surprisingly, HJ do not report having even tested the Newport Tower samples for residual alkalinity.
The second problem, which they just mention and then drop, is recrystallization of the carbonate. It is well known that the calcium carbonate in bone is not very reliable for C-14 dating, because the original carbonate ions may exchange with carbonate in the groundwater that might be either too old - if it represent dissolved limestone - or too young - if it contains atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater. For this reason, the preferred method of dating bone is to isolate the bone collagen, which contains carbon, but in a more stable form. Similarly, lime mortar that is exposed to rain on a regular basis may contain carbonate that dates not from when the mortar first set up, but from much later rainstorms that may have drenched the structure.
A third factor that might make their tests give too young a date, mentioned by Hertz but not by HJ, is the possibility of colonial repairs or "tuck-pointing" to strengthen a pre-existing structure for conversion to a windmill. In this case, the surface mortar might be colonial, while only the deeper mortar, well inside the joints, would reflect the true date. According to Hertz (p. 93), test cores were taken deep enough to avoid contamination from both rainwater and later repairs. Nevertheless, some of the samples HJ took were in fact "prized out as whole pieces of mortar, and marked as surface samples. These whole samples ... are expected to yield the most reliable results as the crushing of the mortar can be done under controlled laboratory conditions, resulting in a more effective mechanical separation of the fossil carbonate from the samples." (HJ p. 36) One of these surface samples, from the flue above the fireplace, was in fact used to construct their composite date for the Tower's construction, contrary to the impression given by Hertz. HJ themselves make no mention that the other samples were taken with a care to avoid repairs.
Hey there hans,
actually I stumbled across that one, but the reasoning in the paper is sound.
I hate to dwell on the tower so much but it is possibly linked to the question at hand. The author brings up some very good points about the '93 dating study.
The c14 studies are not conclusive if the authors interpretations of the data are correct.
The architectural details, such as the offset columns, which has been observed in templar/cistercian round churches in europe.
The 8 sided basic geometry, all templar churches have an 8 sided configuration, just as the templar cross has 8 corners.
A recent excavation has turned up what might be the remnants of the wooden poles that would have held up the ambulatory, that would have been 4 meters wide, encircling the stone structure.
The local architectural historians say its not early colonial, because they worked in wood.
And the only reference of it by gov. arnold is in his will, there is no record of him building it. If it was built in the late 1670's the it was sorely neglected, because by the 1770's, it was already a just a shell.
Deleted a bunch of stuff
You make a big deal out of a lack of remains from any medieval settlements associated with the tower. Are you aware of Carl Sagans famous quote; "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
Stuff on Sinclair
The sites in the area have been heavily built over since colonial times and much would have been lost.
More importantly, Pritchard establishes that early Nordic explorations may well have cohabited among the native Micmac Indians.
The tower, being an observation tower for determining the time (in addition to it's church duties) was certainly their only stone edifice.
Originally posted by Blackmarketeer
You make a big deal out of a lack of remains from any medieval settlements associated with the tower. Are you aware of Carl Sagans famous quote; "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Even when evidence does seem to turn up, it is immediately labeld a fraud by "academics" for no reason other than it falls outside the box.
Appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g. There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
o Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection", page 221
Whether pure lime or mortar is used, the chemistry remains the same. The building lime (calcium hydroxide) reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form calcium carbonate. But even in the hardening process there are potential problems. Mortar lying on the insides of walls or behind stone facings may take years or even decades to solidify, thus yielding a date that is too recent for the building as a whole. Also, mortar exposed to rain may recrystallize, thus resetting the radiocarbon clock long after the original hardening, making the sample again appear too recent.
Working backwards, the carbon study as published has been methodically studied and its validity questioned by at least four qualified scientists. The sampling, testing, and interpretation of a new experimental technique was considered seriously flawed and the results dismissed by all of these researchers. (de Bethune, 1998, Guthrie, 1996, McCulloch,1996,and Watchman, 1996)
After hardening, fresh CO2 from the air penetrates into the mortar and swaps its C with one of the original ones. This process is accelerated in the presence of moisture, and it also results in “too young” error. (This one is difficult to understand intuitively unless you have a feeling for chemistry, and it is the hardest of these error sources to document. It has, however, been confirmed by experiment as an significant error source.)
In closing, here are the words of NEARA author and chemist Jim Guthrie who generously contributed his time to review and comment on the references cited in this article: “The radiocarbon data reinforce conclusions from several other lines of evidence that the Newport Tower is pre-Colonial. However, they do not provide conclusive evidence of antiquity because the methods of mortar and plaster dating are not yet well developed and the sampling was insufficient for proper statistical analysis. Nevertheless, the data generated by Heinemeier and Jungner contain valuable information and we should be grateful for their pioneering attempt.”
Hans: Okay I stand corrected, please provide a peer reviewed published paper that refutes the 1993 AMS dates.
Hans: While you sort around for that paper how do you explain the complete lack of any archaeological finds except 17th century?
Hans: Of course this report comes from the same organization that came up with or reported some of the "astronomical" links - not realizing I guess that any building with windows can/will do the same
Originally posted by Blackmarketeer
Next is Hanslunes repeated use of "ad hominem" attacks, assailing the evidence not based on it's own merit but rather on the merits of the source presenting the evidence. Throughout this thread he used this to attack the History channel and the epigraphic society, rather than presenting any form of credible response to their presentation of Wolter's evidence.
Flaws when using AMS dating - from American Scientist