Around the Island

Shelter Island artist shares tales of Native American artifacts he collects here

John Pagliaro recently dazzled 4th grade students at Shelter Island School with some artifacts discovered here that were twice as old as the pyramids of Egypt. 

Mr. Pagliaro was invited by the Shelter Island Historical Society to return to the school this winter to share his collection of arrowheads and his knowledge about Shelter Island history.

The Island artist, owner of Handwerklab Art Gallery describes and amateur archeologist and historian, told the mesmerized students many of the ancient arrowheads in his collection were found on Crescent Beach.

He advised them not to assume there’s nothing to be found if they seek a physical remnant of the past near Camp Quinipet and come up empty on the first try. Lapping waters at the beach are constantly rearranging sand, covering and uncovering items. What one day will render nothing, the next could reveal a treasure of arrowheads, Mr. Pagliaro said.

He began the program with the students by asking them what they already have learned from their classroom work with teacher Claire Read. They proved themselves quite knowledgeable about the Manhanset Indians who were the predominant tribe occupying the area the students now call home. 

They were also adept at identifying how tribesmen made their own tools out of stones they attached to wooden handles, creating axes. They couldn’t simply go to the nearest Wal-Mart to purchase a hammer or axe as people do today, he said. Instead, they had to use the materials they found around them and determine how to shape them into the items they needed.

Mr. Pagliaro spoke about woolly mammoths and mastodons roaming the Island, and the native people’s prowess using their axes in battle with the animals for food.

Shaping an axe head from a stone was hard enough, but basically useless until they were able to cut grooves into the head to tie the sharp objects onto pieces of wood they had crafted into handles.

Using the reference book, “New England Typology,” Mr. Pagliaro taught the class how to identify arrowheads by the types of rocks from which they came and the periods in which they were found.

While today’s residents might consider these early settlers primitive, Mr. Pagliaro referred to their sophistication in learning to use the resources they could find to make their lives better.

He also noted the native people were talented boaters and told them a story about the Pequots kidnapping a Montaukett princess from her tribe just prior to her planned wedding day. The Pequots came across from Connecticut in dugout canoes during a nor’easter that would have scared off many of today’s sailors. He speculated that with time, they collected a ransom from the Montauketts that resulted in returning the princess to her tribe. 

He compared the arrowhead to the iPhone 11, one of the newest of today’s technologies.

Some of the arrowheads found on beaches here today were likely pushed by glaciers thousands of years ago and moved ashore by wave action, Mr. Pagliaro said, waiting patiently to be discovered and marveled at by 21st-century Islanders.