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Uncovering the enduring past at Sylvester Manor

COURTESY OF SYLVESTER MANOR
A silver Jesuit ring, the kind used by French traders, discovered in an archaeological dig at Sylvester Manor last week.

Under a baking noonday sun last week, Stephen Mrozowski, and his team from the University of Massachusetts, were digging up the soil to unearth Sylvester Manor’s historical secrets.

Mr. Mrozowski, an anthropologist/archaeologist, stared at what looked to an untrained eye like a 3-foot-deep pit in the middle of the Manor House yard. But to the archeologist/anthropologist and his team, the shifted dirt revealed layers of time that could be read like a book, revealing part of a narrative, with clues about its conclusion.

“We’re looking for an old garden path that used to run through here,” Dr. Mrozowski said.

GRAHAM MOORE PHOTO
Getting down to it. A team from the University of Massachusetts excavating part of the Sylvester Manor house’s yard last week.

And treasures were there to be found. Melissa Ritchey, one of the archaeologists, said they were excited not just by the quantity of objects found in such a short time, but also by the evidence of a European, and especially a Native American presence.

Such treasures as a pewter spoon, bent but not broken, a coin, the stem from a Raleigh clay pipe, and the seal from a wine bottle bearing a mark that may be Brinley Sylvester’s, a grandson of Manor founder Nathaniel Sylvester, are artifacts that are associated with the European presence.

But also found was a silver Jesuit ring of the kind used by French traders, used as a “Christianizing” device, and something used to trade, indicating that native people living on Shelter Island may have been doing business with Europeans long before the Sylvesters came to these shores.

“Finding that presence here is really exciting for us,” said Ms. Ritchey.

Mr. Mrozowski explained that, although the Manor had been owned by the same family for the last 300 years,  much of the property had gone through substantial changes within that time.

He’s had decades of experience with this kind of work, traveling the world searching for signs of ancient cultures, revealing tangible remains that bring fragments of the lives of those from long ago vividly into the present.

This is not his first visit to Sylvester Manor. Between 1998 and 2005, as director of the archaeological team, he spent summers excavating the Manor’s grounds, unearthing a mix of Native American, African, Dutch and English lives, and their cultural legacies.

“Hey, check this out, I think I found something,” said one member of the team.

Dr. Mrozowski’s eyes lit up. An old nail, black from rust and gnarled by age poked up from the dirt.

In one of the pits that littered the yard, a team member was poking around in what appeared to be different colors and textures of soil. It was explained that one could see from the variations in the dirt an old garden path that once meandered through the Manor and now lay buried beneath their feet.

As the afternoon got warmer Mr. Mrozowski’s team were able to cool down on the Manor’s porch for conversation and lunch.

Soon after they were back, searching for past lives to bring into the present.

What drives them is the human connection, Ms. Ritchey said, adding that she and the team are awed at the endurance of the people that they discover. “That persistence of people in the landscape, in the face of a crazy amount of change.”

Additional reporting by Charity Robey

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