Last week, an archaeologist team investigated the shipwreck that, last month, appeared mysteriously in the waters of Newfoundland’s Cape Ray. The wooden hull of the massive old boat was discovered on January 20 by a local walking the beach, hunting seaducks.
“He raced home, and got his mom, and they went down on the four-wheeler and took a bunch of photos of the wreck. They put them on Facebook and then it exploded!” says Neil Burgess, the president of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of Newfoundland & Labrador. (The wreck didn’t explode, of course. But Canada’s fascination with it did.) On February 3, Burgess and a pair of provincial archaeologists made the trip to Cape Ray to examine the new find. He says there were swells in that area of the water, which was likely what brought this approximately 100-foot boat to the surface.
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“I was amazed at how big this shipwreck was,” he says. “The timbers were huge. They were more than a foot in cross-section, like there were really big trees used to build the ship.” Burgess believes that at least some of the timbers came from oak trees. That, along with other materials and construction methods used, suggests the ship is around 200 years old, and that it wasn’t built in the Maritimes.
“It’s likely either come from Europe, or perhaps the eastern United States,” he says. “But most of the ships in the 1800s coming by Newfoundland would have been from Britain.”
Burgess and the archaeologists, with some support from many curious Newfoundlanders, were able to take a few samples of wood and fastenings from the ship.
“We were able to get examples of most of the fasteners that were used in the construction, including copper rods and brass fasteners and wooden tree nails,” says Jamie Brake, a provincial archaeologist. The team gathered wood samples, along with “a little bit of metal sheathing that was attached to the outer part of the keel.” Those items will all be sent to the lab to see if they can be dated, and to help create a record of the shipwreck.
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In the meantime, there’s an appetite from the people of Cape Ray to preserve the rest of the ship. But Burgess says time is of the essence—the hull is fragile and sits in the “surf zone.” One storm would tear the remainder of the ship apart.
“They want to get some heavy equipment in and haul it up [the beach] and work on preserving it,” says Burgess. “There is a museum close by at the lighthouse at Cape Ray, and the woman who’s the curator there is spearheading efforts to preserve the shipwreck. And the provincial government has given them the okay to go ahead.”
Getting the wreck out in one piece looks to be impossible, but preserving the ship at least in part is doable, if risky. What’s left of the ship might have to be brought out of the water piece by piece.
“There’s risk to this either way: if it’s left where it is, it’s probably gonna be broken up in short order, and if they pull it above the watermark, that will probably still be a hurdle as well,” says Brake. There’s an online fundraiser to help the community get the right equipment to move the hull.
But with limited resources and countless archaeological finds waiting to be discovered off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Brake says they have to be choosy when it comes to which treasures to protect. “Not everything can be saved, right? We can’t preserve every ship, right? We can’t preserve every aircraft or every vehicle, and so on. In many cases, what’s possible is documenting what’s there before it’s gone,” he says, which is exactly what he and the rest of the team have been able to do thus far.
Brake also says that at this point, archaeologically speaking, there are no indicators that this particular ship is historically noteworthy, despite the intense public interest. “It’s not that this [wreck] is not important, it’s just that we have many other examples of vessels of this age that would be preserved on the ocean floor that could be studied down the road.”
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Getting answers to the rest of Canadians’ questions, like what kind of vessel this was and what it was used for, is now a bit of a waiting game. Brake estimates it could be a month, maybe more, before any results come back from the lab. “We’ll go as far as we can, based on the information that we have, for sure. And we’ll certainly be sharing that with the local folks.” Bottom line? Stay tuned, readers.
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