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Jul 1, 2019 7:04 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Archaeology Students Visit Sylvester Manor On Shelter Island In Search Of A Complicated History

Sifting through soil at the dig site.  DANA SHAW
Jul 2, 2019 11:44 AM

Nigel Francomb spotted a chunky silver ring in a pile of dirt in the Sylvester Manor gardens.How the dirt got there is no mystery—a team from the University of Massachusetts was doing an archaeological dig, looking for artifacts to tell the story of Sylvester Manor, a former slave-holding Shelter Island plantation that today serves as an educational farm.

How the ring got there, however, is an open question.

“All I know about archaeology, apart from what I’ve learned from documentaries on TV, was what these guys have taught me in the last week,” said Mr. Francomb, a Shelter Island resident who volunteered to help the students in the investigation. “So they put me on the sifting, on the screens. Finding the ring was very special.”

The undergraduate and graduate students led by Dr. Stephen Mrozowski, a professor of anthropology, conducted the investigation from June 17 to this past Friday, June 28.

Sylvester Manor was established in 1652 as a plantation that supplied provisions to sugar plantations in Barbados, according to its website. The original 1652 manor housed one of Shelter Island’s original purchasers, Nathanial Sylvester, his wife, Grizzel Sylvester, their 11 children, and enslaved African men and women who worked on the property and lived in the attic.

The house was replaced around 1737 with the current manor that still stands today, but the site, which stayed in the same family, is a treasure trove of artifacts and papers that document centuries of changing culture.

Dr. Mrozowski first visited Sylvester Manor in 1996 with his family after being asked to try to find the remains of the original 17th century manor house, a longtime mission of the last manor heir, Andrew Fiske, who had died in 1992. In talking to Mr. Fiske’s widow, Alice Fiske, Dr. Mrozowski said that if he were to conduct an investigation, he would have to reveal all the manor’s history, including a past of colonization and slavery.

“I told Ms. Fiske, right at the beginning, if you think we’re going to be here just to find your house, that’s not what we are going to do,” Dr. Mrozowski said. “But she was fine with that. I think she really understood that you can’t really dig here and ignore that history.”

Since 1998, Dr. Mrozowski and various teams of students have found materials mostly from the 17th century, but they have not yet found the site of the original manor. And though Dr. Mrozowski has done digs across the East Coast and the world, including Iceland and the Caribbean, this manor on Shelter Island has stuck out to him because it had remained in the same family, leaving it relatively untouched.

Through the years of the investigation, which was paused until this year after Ms. Fiske’s death in 2006, Dr. Mrozowski and the students have made discoveries that not only filled the spaces between the lines, but provided the lines itself. Early on, it became clear that the Native Americans on Shelter Island had interacted with the Sylvesters, something that Dr. Mrozowski said he did not expect.

“This site is interesting, because even though it’s in the North, it has a long history of having enslaved workers, and the archeology also shows that there was a lot of interaction between the Sylvesters and the people here, including the enslaved Africans and the local Manhanset people,” Dr. Mrozowski said.

Over the years, discoveries have included a pot found beneath the front lawn that takes on Native American Algonquin pottery ornamentation, West African firing techniques and a European handle, representing the connection of the three cultures at Sylvester Manor.

That pot was found inside a larger pot containing the remains of 13 pigs that were butchered and deposited around 1660 to 1670. They are believed to represent a large shipment of salted pork to the Sylvester family plantations in Barbados. How the pot got there is a question that archaeologists have to wrestle with.

Claire Norton, a graduate student who is studying historical archaeology at UMass Boston, spoke to the interaction of these three groups, which she said is an ongoing theme for this year.

“Everybody is in the same space, but there are boundaries within it, even if it’s not a building or a wall,” Ms. Norton said as she sifted through the dirt, looking for artifacts. “So I’m interested in those questions. But also I think it’s great at Sylvester Manor that they’re even interested in taking the initiative to begin to tell stories of enslavement here and how that has impacted the broader landscape, because a lot of places don’t do that.”

“As I’ve said to quite a few people when I’ve given talks, you can’t nuance slavery,” Dr. Mrozowski said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, they were treated a bit better in the North than in the South.’ No. People are in bondage—they can’t leave.”

Dr. Mrozowski said he hopes that archaeology is feeding into the mission of the manor today, to act as a center for healing, and that theme is being continued in the garden this year, which Mr. Fiske did not allow to be excavated.

“I don’t know this yet, but I’m really feeling like it’s probably an area where Native folks congregated and wanted to have some kind of contact with the Sylvesters,” Dr. Mrozowski said. “That was not an unusual thing.”

He also believes the area could have been an area for depositing trash later on.

The ring unearthed by Mr. Francomb was a Jesuit trade ring, according to Dr. Mrozowski. It would have been made in France and used in trading by Jesuit missionaries. Dr. Mrozowski said, however, that there is not much evidence of Jesuit missionaries being present, so the ring might have been brought to this area by Native groups between Canada and New England, or it might have belonged to one of the Dutch traders who were once active in this area.

Other discoveries from this year include a spoon, scissors, tools, ceramics from Europe, including German stonewares and Dutch ceramics, and animal bones.

A number of items found over the years, including the pot, are on exhibit at Sylvester Manor. The manor also opened up the archaeological investigation to the public to observe and learn from.

“They’ve been a fantastic group, and it’s really important to us to know what’s happening out there because it helps us to tell the story of what happened here, in the past,” said Tracy McCarthy, the director of operations at Sylvester Manor.

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