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Provincial Archaeology Office

Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 1997
Edited by K. Nelmes

1997 Archaeological Investigations at Cape Ray, Newfoundland
Lisa Mae Fogt


The Cape Ray Archaeology Project began in the summer of 1996 in a field season that led to the discovery of a Dorset dwelling. The dwelling and the site as a whole was analyzed and discussed in my Master's thesis (Fogt 1998). Prior to this investigation, the only other large-scale research conducted at the site was by Urve Linnamae (1975) whose interpretations resulted in one of the first characterizations of the Dorset in Newfoundland.

Dorset people were part of a larger prehistoric Arctic group called the Palaeoeskimo. The Palaeoeskimos 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 4500 years ago.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that Dorset groups occupied Cape Ray between approximately 1800 and 1200 years ago (Linnamae 1975). Dorset people were primarily sea mammal hunters. We know this from the kinds of artifacts recovered from Dorset sites that can be linked to sea mammal hunting. These artifacts include harpoon heads and endblades for hunting; microblades, scrapers and knives for food and skin processing; and soapstone pots and lamps for cooking. Archaeologists have also found preserved bones of sea mammals such as seals and walruses in Dorset sites. Magico-religious artifacts that depict sea mammals, such as carved amulets and figurines, also indicate the importance of these animals in the economy and spirituality of this hunter-gatherer group.

The Dorset occupation at Cape Ray was no exception. 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.

Other artifacts and their use are worth mentioning. Endscrapers and scrapers are also common artifacts at the site. These tools were used to scrape away the fat from the underside of skins (seal, caribou, fox, etc.) for food processing and to ready the skins for clothing manufacture.

Although some bifaces were preforms for various tools, many of them were used as knives for cutting skins and meat. The retouched flakes also appear to have been used for this purpose.

Ground slate points were likely used for hunting seals. The smooth edges of the slate allow for a more efficient penetration into the seal's thick skin.

Dorset groups visited Cape Ray in early spring to hunt the harp seals off the Gulf coast. The present migration of harp seals into the Gulf of St. Lawrence occurs in late February, as the seals travel with the pack ice. The whelping, mating, and moulting period begins shortly afterwards. The seals return north to Labrador and Greenland waters around April.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence is currently one of only four places in the world where harp seals whelp. There is evidence that all four places have been used by the seals as whelping areas since the last Ice Age ended almost 10,000 years ago. Presumably, Dorset groups set up camp at Cape Ray for a few months each spring to coincide with the harp seal migration into the Gulf. The land-fast pack ice would have enabled these hunters to walk out to the seals.

The availability of seals in this area is dependent on appropriate ice conditions, and since ice is very sensitive to temperature change, a prolonged change in temperature may affect the seal migration. Around 1200 years ago the Medieval Warm Period, a world-wide climatic warming, reached maximum temperatures. This coincides with the time that Dorset groups appear to have abandoned Cape Ray, and Newfoundland in general. It is likely that Cape Ray was abandoned when the presence of seals became too unpredictable. What became of the Dorset groups from Cape Ray, and throughout the Arctic and Sub-Arctic, remains a mystery to archaeologists. However, archaeologists have proposed that the depletion of resources, and competition with other prehistoric groups for these resources, account for the apparent disappearance of the Dorset.

Location of Cape Ray in Newfoundland


Cape Ray is located on the southwest tip of Newfoundland (see Figure 1), approximately 12 kilometres northwest of Port aux Basques. Figure 2 illustrates the location of Area E grid excavation, as well as the locations of Area C excavation (1996) and Linnamae's excavations in 1967 and 1968.

Area C Excavation

Area E is located along the coast, approximately 53 metres north of Area C. A contemporaneous occupation of both areas is suggested in this report. However, as I will discuss later, the initial occupation of Area E by Dorset people likely occurred during the warmer weeks of the sealing season, sometime in April.

Area E is located in dense tuckamore (low-lying spruce trees), which was cleared for excavation. The excavation grid was oriented towards magnetic north. Thirty-two 1 m2 units were excavated in Area E during a period of seven weeks. The stratigraphy encountered in Area E consists of four naturally occurring layers. The first layer is a thick peat layer, approximately 25 cm deep, with some disturbed cultural soil (likely the back-fill from Linnamae's investigations). The second layer is cultural layer (a), a grey-black, gritty layer. The third layer, cultural (b), is a brown-black, smoother layer. Cultural layer (a) is between 5 - 15 cm deep, and cultural layer (b) is between 5 - 25 cm deep. The last layer was a light yellowish brown to dark brown clay subsoil.

A total of 1948 artifacts were recovered from the undisturbed cultural layer in Area E. Most of the artifacts came from 2a (most 2a artifacts are recorded as 2, since 2b was recognized only in some units and after the excavation was underway).

The Features:

Three features were distinguished in Area E excavation: a midden, external hearth, and the partial remains of what appear to be hold-down rocks. The midden was found throughout cultural layer 2a, and indicated first by a large number of artifacts, and second by the presence of rocks throughout the cultural layer. Many of these rocks were shattered and in disarray. The disorganized array of rocks resembled those found in the midden of Area C excavation, adjacent to the dwelling. It is possible that a dwelling may be found adjacent to the Area E excavation on a higher plain, since the grid that we set up was located in a sunken spot surrounded by areas of higher elevation. My impression is that rocks used for the structure of dwelling(s), once broken or undesirable, were tossed from living areas (perhaps a dwelling or dwellings) on higher ground into the natural depression of Area E excavation. Other debris, such as spent artifacts, appear to have been tossed in Area E also. Therefore, the upper layers of Area E excavation appear to represent a midden.

Below the midden and resting on the clay subsoil lay an external hearth feature and possible hold-down rocks. These features may have been contemporaneous as indicated by their location in cultural (level) 2b and their placement directly on the subsoil. The hold-down rocks may indicate a warm weather tent structure (i.e. the rocks held down the skins of the tent), and the external hearth may have been used by the tent's occupants. Between 16 and 23 rocks make up the possible hold-down rock feature and are mostly granite and conglomerate.

At some later point in time, as mentioned, it is possible that the location of the dwelling was re-located to the adjacent higher ground beside Area E. Area E was subsequently used as a midden.

The external hearth was constructed with large conglomerate rocks, as well as some granite and schist. Between 10 and 16 rocks make up this feature. A large soapstone shatter was found directly within the hearth. Large amounts of charcoal were also found in and around the hearth, and samples were taken for future radiocarbon dating. Since charcoal is directly associated with this feature, its dating may reliably indicate the period of its prehistoric usage.

The Artifacts:

As mentioned, 1948 artifacts were recovered from the undisturbed cultural layers (2a, 2b) in Area E excavation. With 32 units excavated there was an average yield of 61 artifacts per unit. By contrast, the average yield of artifacts per unit in Area C excavation (where the dwelling was located) was 32. Therefore, a higher density of artifacts was obtained from Area E excavation. The reason for this is largely to do with the functional use of each area. In area C, the artifact density was greater in the midden than in the dwelling. Compared with the midden, the dwelling had fewer artifacts in it because it was, I argue, "swept" occasionally by its inhabitants who discarded debris into the adjacent midden. Most of the units comprising Area C excavation were associated with the dwelling. On the other hand, virtually all of the units in Area E had an upper cultural layer (2a) that consisted of midden material. Therefore, a higher average artifact yield per unit is expected in Area E than in Area C.

The artifacts in the assemblage collected from Area E were, with some exceptions, typically Dorset and consisted of the following typological categories: abrader, arrowhead, biface, core, effigy, endblade, endscraper, fire rock, ground slate, hammerstone, knife, microblade, point, preform, pyrite, retouched flake, scraper, slate, tip flute spall, uniface, utilized flake, and soapstone vessel fragment. The top eleven artifacts, which account for 98% of the assemblage include: microblade (39%), endblade (14%), retouched flake (8%), tip flute spall (8%), core (7%), endscraper (7%), soapstone vessel (6%), utilized flake (4%), biface (2%), scraper (2%), and ground slate (1%). Notice how closely these figures compare with the percentage of artifact-types recovered from Area C excavation:

Table 1. Artifact Density and Rank Order of Artifacts in Areas E and C.

Area EArea C
microblade39% (1)37% (1)
endblade14% (2)12% (2)
retflake8% (3)10% (3)
tip flute sp.8% (4)5% (7)
core7% (5)6% (6)
endscraper7% (6)9% (4)
soapstone v.6% (7)7% (5)
utilized flake4% (8)3% (10)
biface2% (9)3% (9)
scraper2% (10)2% (11)
ground slate1% (11)3% (8)

The consistency of artifact types between the two areas indicates that in all likelihood, the activities that took place in these areas were similar. I contend that these activates were associated with seal hunting, which appears to have been the economic focus of Areas E and C, and of the site in general.

Loosely defined patterns in the Area E artifact distribution were observed. There appear to be more artifacts associated with the eastern and southern units in the grid (units surrounding 509N 499E). Artifact density increases towards the eastern units and towards the southern units. Figure 3 illustrates this trend.

Number of Artifacts per Unit in Area E, Cape Ray, NF

Figure 3. Number of Artifacts per Unit in Area E, Cape Ray, NF.

I contend that the increase in artifact density in the southeast units of Area E is linked with the location of the external hearth in this area. One can imagine that, as the Dorset people sat around the hearth, they processed food and made tools. The debris from these activities would have scattered around the hearth area, and accounts for its higher artifact density.

Percentage of raw material usage was also calculated from the artifact analysis. As expected, chert was the overwhelming choice for tool manufacturing, accounting for 81% of the total assemblage. Quartz crystal followed with 11%, then soapstone (6%), slate (1.4%) and other materials (0.6%).

A Groswater Component:

A total of four Groswater artifacts were recovered from Area E excavation. Groswater Palaeoeskimos were most likely biologically related to the Dorset, but their occupation of Newfoundland precedes the Dorset by about 700 years. Groswater Palaeoeskimos were also seal hunters, and radiocarbon dates place them on the island between 2800 and 2100 years before present. Minor morphological differences in the tool technology, and differences in settlement and subsistence distinguish the two Palaeoeskimo groups. It is possible that the two represent distinct cultural groups. However, I contend that it is more likely that the styles representative of each period are indicative of adaptive strategies taken by the same biological group.

The four artifacts attributed to the Groswater period include: a finely serrated and side-notched endblade (CjBt-1:10367); a double side-notched endblade (CjBt-1:9004); and two endscrapers with rectangular bottoms and flaring heads (CjBt-1:8765 and 8659). The two endblades were found as fragments.

Although all four artifacts were found deep within the cultural layer, a distinctly Groswater stratigraphic layer was not found. Furthermore, these artifacts were interspersed with Dorset artifacts. Therefore, it is probable that the presence of Groswater artifacts in Area E can be attributed to the discovery and possible use of these artifacts (from this or another location at the site) by the Dorset.

Acquisition of Materials:

The most common raw material used by Dorset in manufacturing tools was chert, favoured for its fine grained matrix that could be chipped with relative ease. Chert was probably obtained from Long Point beach, which is a couple of kilometres north of the site, and from the Port au Port Peninsula. The man who discovered this Dorset site at Cape Ray when he was a child approached me recently (June 1998) with another discovery, this time about the chert source on Long Point beach.

Quartz crystal, which was also used for manufacturing tools, was probably obtained directly from the site where many quartz veins can be found.

Rocks used as construction materials for dwellings and hearths were likely obtained from the nearby shore.

Area E Site Context:

The small sample of artifacts associated with the Groswater period indicates that Groswater Palaeoeskimos may have occupied Cape Ray at one time. A radiocarbon date of 2370 ± 85 years before present, obtained by Linnamae (1975:47) at one part of the site, supports this early occupation. However, a separate Groswater occupation, devoid of Dorset material, has not yet been found at the site. Still, it is possible that Groswater Palaeoeskimos came to Cape Ray to hunt the harp seals.

The storyline for the Dorset occupation of Area E can be proposed based on the evidence laid out. At the earliest time of its Dorset occupation, Area E was the site of a tent structure and exterior hearth, used by one or two Dorset families. These people were there to hunt the seals, and the exterior hearth indicates that the occupants probably lived there when the weather was mild enough to do the cooking outdoors. Therefore, it is likely that the tent and associated hearth were used later into the seal hunting season, perhaps during the weeks of April.

The tent structure in Area C was more substantial than in Area E. This fact, in addition to the presence of hearths inside the dwelling, indicates that Area C was occupied during the full expanse of the seal hunting season, between late February and April. It is feasible that the use of Areas C and E overlapped in a given season. The artifact assemblages from each Area are similar, and do not suggest different occupations in time or season between the two areas.[1] However, radiocarbon dates have yet to be obtained for Area E.

Later in the occupation of Area E, the Dorset may have decided to situate their living area on higher ground (directly adjacent to the Area E grid). It is possible that a tent structure or structures, perhaps even a substantial one as in Area C, exists along this higher ground. This would explain how Area E later became a midden, as occupants tossed their debris into its natural pit.

During the summer months, Dorset groups from Cape Ray probably situated themselves along nearby rivers for the salmon spawning season. In the Fall and Winter they may have followed the caribou for their meat and skins in the nearby Table Mountains. However, the months between February and April were spent at Cape Ray, where harp seals could be hunted during their annual migration into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.


The research conducted at Cape Ray was possible thanks to the generous funding provided by the Southwest Coast Development Association (SWCDA), the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), and the provincial Culture and Heritage Division. Many thanks go out to my crew from the 1997 field season: Cynthia Anderson, Cindy O'Driscoll (research assistant), Amanda Hunt, Elaine Osmond, Majorie Osmond, George Osmond, and Sandra Taverner. I am also indebted to Rita Anderson (SWCDA) for her dedication to, and assistance with this project, to Kent Smedbol for his assistance with the artifact distribution figures, and to Tim Rast for his help with artifact identifications.

[1] Note:
Although a warm weather occupation of Area E is indicated by the tent structure and associated external hearth, the artifact assemblage strongly indicates seal hunting activities. Therefore, while the evidence suggests warmer conditions, the occupation was nonetheless during the few months of the annual harp seal migration.


Fogt, L.

1998 - "The Excavation and Analysis of a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Dwelling at Cape Ray, Newfoundland. Master's Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John's.

Linnamae, U.

1975 - "The Dorset Culture: A Comparative Study in Newfoundland and the Arctic." Technical Papers of the Newfoundland Museum, No. 1. Culture and Heritage Division, Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's.

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