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Cape Ray’s museum displays Dorset treasures

Wayne Osmond shows museum visitors artifacts from Paleo-Eskimo who once hunted in the area. – © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

CAPE RAY — Nestled down a road between two mountains, near a small fishing village, stands one of the gems of the Southwest Coast. The Cape Ray Lighthouse is a well-loved piece of history situated on the coastline, surrounded by breathtaking views, and even though it is off the beaten track, it is a place well worth the trip.

The lighthouse was originally completed in 1871, but it was twice destroyed by fire, first in 1885 and then again in1959. The lighthouse was so important that no time was wasted in constructing replacements, and the one that still stands today was completed in 1960, only one year after the last fire.

The lighthouse, which is open seasonally from June to September, is not the only piece of historical significance in Cape Ray. A trip to the lighthouse museum carries a treasure trove of artifacts left by seasonal hunters dating back centuries.

Wayne Osmond works at the Cape Ray Lighthouse.

“We are carrying the Dorset artifacts. We had an archaeological dig here some years back. The Dorset are what we call ‘prehistoric Eskimo.’ We have things carbon dated back to 2,000 years ago.”

The artifacts were originally discovered by chance.

“Back in the sixties, the lighthouse keeper and his son were playing by the seashore and they discovered a soapstone vessel. They took it up to the lighthouse keeper and he decided to check into it more and after that we had a dig in the sixties, nothing was left to Cape Ray. Then another dig took place in the 1990’s and they found 2,500 artifacts.”

According to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Dorset were part of a larger prehistoric Arctic group called the PaleoEskimo.

“The Paleo-Eskimos shared a small tool technology, perhaps language, and appear to have been part of a now extinct ancestral line that had its North American origins in the area of the Bering Sea around 4,500 years ago.

“Although bone is not preserved at the site, the majority of stone artifacts recovered from Cape Ray reflect a sea mammal hunting technology, and include microblades, endblades, scrapers, knives, and soapstone. Microblades and endblades were the most common artifacts from Cape Ray. Microblades are small longitudinal blades of stone that were used to cut the skin and meat of animals such as seal and caribou. Endblades were attached onto the end of a harpoon head, which in turn was attached to a harpoon shaft. Although the endblade was small, it was sharp and effective, making the initial penetration into the sea mammal’s thick skin.”

Some of the artifacts are housed at the lighthouse museum, but the majority of them are stored in boxes at The Rooms in St. John’s. The artifacts don’t stay at the lighthouse year-round.

“They return every year. They will come back and pick them up on September the 20th, and next year we will apply for them again and they will bring them back,” explained Osmond.

The artifacts are one of the most popular tourist draws for the small community of Cape Ray. Osmond said there have been people coming and going all summer, inquiring about the relics.

“We had archaeologists – three or four this year – who actually came here to look at this and they commented on it, said it was quite a unique display,” said Osmond. “I’m sure there’s more down there to be discovered, but probably funding might stop it. They (Paleo-Eskimo) occupied the land for 800 years.”

As beautiful as the artifacts may be, Osmond said a lot of people don’t even know they are here.

“Most of the tourists who came here this year came here by accident. While they were waiting for the boat (Marine Atlantic ferry service), they decided to go in between the two mountains and they discovered Cape Ray.”

Aside from the Dorset artifacts, another piece of intriguing local history is also nestled in the wings of the museum.

The Rennie family bible, which belonged to Robert Rennie, the first keeper stationed at the original lighthouse, was printed in 1892. On each page are extravagant, detailed engravings, both in black and white and in colour, of biblical scenes and maps. The thick bible contains over 2,000 pages of this magnificent artwork.

Also on display are numerous treasures that were donated to the lighthouse by many local residents, but the historical treasure trove doesn’t end there. In 1856, the first submarine telegraph cable touched land at Cape Ray.

“The telegraph cable came from Europe to Newfoundland, across Newfoundland, and exited here,” said Osmond.

Anne Osmond, Chairperson of the Historical Site, said that this is the first full open year since the pandemic began.

“It was closed for a couple of years because of COVID, but we are up and running again and we are moving along good. It’s been excellent.”

Anne said she deals a lot with applying for funding and grants that are used to help maintain the lighthouse and keep it open for the public. A visit to the Cape Ray Lighthouse is certainly worth the spectacular scenery, but it’s made even more memorable with a stop by the lighthouse museum to explore the area’s rich history.

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