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NL Archaeologists visit Cape Ray shipwreck site

Recovery of 125 ft. keel piece unlikely given likelihood of high cost

Neil Burgess
Neil Burgess is the President of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. — © René J. Roy / Wreckhouse Press Inc.

By René J. Roy, Editor-in-Chief

CAPE RAY — After spending approximately four hours on the cold and snowy beach of Cape Ray (the beach in J. T. Cheeseman Provincial Park), Neil Burgess was visibly excited, if not a little tired. Burgess, the President of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland and Labrador arrived on Saturday, Feb. 3, along with two members of the provincial archaeology team to examine the wreck that has been on the beach, and all over the news, since Friday, Jan 19. 

Burgess was not able to identify the type of ship from examining the wreck, as there is very little to identify, but he is hopeful that they will find out a fair bit of information after some careful testing. His initial thoughts on the ship echo the sentiments of locals who have been visiting the site for over a week.

 "It's an impressive shipwreck. It's really big."

With even the low tide remaining uncooperative, Burgess and his colleagues, archaeologists Jamie Brake and Stephen Hull were unable to so much as lay hands on the wreck itself. Instead, the team at Clean Harbour Initiatives. Shawn Bath and Trevor Croft, put on their wet suits and headed into the freezing water to collect samples of wood, copper and brass samples that the trio could take back to their labs for testing. In fact, Bath says the keel was actually closer to 125 feet long. The swell of the tide prevented an accurate measurement. 

Burgess, Brake and Hull were particularly impressed by the size of the solid wooden knees that came from the ship. A knee is a type of bracket installed to reinforce the hull. 

"They're huge," said Burgess. "They're three metres long, great big thick timbers, more than a foot on each side. It was a large, large sailing ship."

As only the keel of the ship itself washed ashore, Burgess is not able to do much more than take a couple of educated guesses about the vessel's origin. 

"My guess is it was made in Europe, but it may have been made in the eastern United States, but likely in Britain or France."

The metals retrieved from the keel will aid Burgess with his efforts to identify more about the ship. 

"It's possible to do some metal analysis on the copper and brass and figure out where it came from, where the mine was, what country. But we've also taken wood cores from some of the bigger timbers, and that may allow us to get a really close date on when those trees were grown and when the ship was built."

Burgess is referring to dendrochronology, the scientific method of dating tree rings to the exact year they were formed in the tree, based on past study of other trees. This would enable him to determine when the tree was cut down for use in the ship's construction. In turn, using the date the ship was built and researching the ships lost on the west coast of Newfoundland, it may even be possible to identify the name of the vessel. 

"We also took a few bark samples, so we'll do radiocarbon dating on those. And that again may tell us what year those trees were cut in."

Burgess is basing his guess on the known history of the area in the 19th century. 

"We know that most of the sailing ships that passed by Cape Ray here, would have been British. Some of them came from France. There were a few American ships that came up from New England, mainly to do sealing in the Gulf of St Lawrence, so it could have been any of those. But most of the ships came from Britain, so the probability is a British ship."

Even though Burgess is intrigued by the wreck, he doesn't hold much hope that the keel can be salvaged. 

"The problem is, it's very expensive to try to preserve wood once its been in the water for more than a century. So it becomes quite expensive to deal with."

A prime example of such cost and effort is the Swedish ship Vasa. Salvaged after more than 300 years in the waters off of Stockholm, a museum and building was constructed around the vessel to preserve it, a task that began in 1961 and concluded with her being installed in her final home in 1990, almost three full decades later. Such a task to preserve what is essentially only the keel of the Cape Ray ship would be a great deal of expense for that segment, and it will likely deteriorate before it can be salvaged. During the archaeological work on Saturday, the planks were already showing signs of starting to come apart. Burgess does feel that the knees could be easily salvaged. 

"There are some of those single timbers that are really interesting to look at. And they have all kinds of fasteners in them, copper and tree trunnels, stuff like that. So preserving one of those, and putting it either in or in front of the (Cape Ray) museum, I mean, that would be a manageable task. But it's going to come down to money and effort."

What makes the Cape Ray wreck uncommon, apart from the uniqueness of the knees, and the spontaneity of its appearance, is just how truly rare it is to have a centuries-old ship's keel wash ashore.

"It doesn't happen all the time," confirmed Burgess. " So once every ten years around Newfoundland, there's a wreck that washes up on a beach. It's happened in Lumsden, it's happened down in Point Lance, but it's not a regular event. And this one, the wood, and the hardware that was used to build the ship is in such good shape, that I'm really hoping that we might be able to figure our where that ship came from. And if we're really lucky, we might be able to identify the actual name of the ship. And then we could start pulling together a whole story of where the ship was built. Who was on it? What cargo was it carrying? Was it maybe bringing immigrants from Europe to Canada?"

Burgess also hopes that if he is able to name the vessel, he would be able to find out how many may have been lost when it was wrecked. 

"It becomes a huge bunch of stories that go along with the ship."

Burgess feels that carbon dating, should the provincial government provide funding to do so, could be completed fairly quickly, but the research on the lumber and metals used would take considerably more time, up to and possibly surpassing a year.  The wreck itself may not last quite so long, but it seems the intrigue and curiosity that it has inspired certainly will.

For more on the Cape Ray shipwreck, visit our YouTube channel, as we will be posting more footage later this week.

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