Around the Island

Digging into our past; Manor shares important finds

Sylvester Manor has offered Islanders a number of virtual experiences while COVID-19 has kept them largely quarantined. For several weeks, the Manor has published online tours of the well-preserved rooms within the Manor itself. Now, it’s providing a look at significant artifacts that were unearthed during the archeological dig on the grounds in 2019.

In June of last year, Sylvester Manor welcomed back a team of archaeologists from the Fiske Center of Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston, led by Stephen Mrozowski, Ph.D. Between 1998 and 2007, at the invitation of the late Mrs. Alice Fiske, Professor Mrozowski and a host of graduate and undergraduate students worked at Sylvester Manor to locate archaeological deposits linked to the original 17th-century Manor house and provisioning plantation. Before her death in 2006, Mrs. Fiske had forbidden the archaeologists from digging in her beloved garden, but today the roses are gone, opening up the area for new discoveries to be made.

The Manor staff reports that during the 2019 dig, Professor Mrozowski and his team uncovered artifacts every day in almost every shovelful of dirt. It was an exciting two weeks, with each discovery revealing more of the story of past inhabitants of Shelter Island — of the Indigenous Native People who had made Manhansack-aha-quash-awamock — “Island sheltered by islands,” their home for millennia, to Nathaniel Sylvester and plantation he established, and the enslaved Africans he brought from Barbados to work the land and serve his household.

One of the most significant artifacts the team uncovered last year is called “The Jesuit Trade Ring.” “Finding this ring during the dig was exciting on several levels,” Professor Mrozowski said. “It was found by one of our volunteers who got the thrill of a lifetime finding something that would prove to be so significant.”

He explained that the significance stems from being a ring that Europeans, including the Dutch, English and French, often traded with and among indigenous peoples during the 17th century. “Its discovery helped us link the artifacts we were recovering to the earliest history of the Manor.”

Another exciting find was the circular seal bearing the initial “B” and the name “Sylvester.”

“Nothing beats finding an artifact that actually carries a name,” the archeologist said. “In more than 40 years of archaeological research I have only had such a thrill two or three times, and finding the bottle seal of Brinley Sylvester stands as one of the more exciting discoveries I have ever made. Not only does it connect us to Brinley in a powerful way, it also reconnects us to someone who sought to personalize his material surroundings. I doubt he was thinking of someone finding this almost 300 years later, but by his own actions he sought to perpetuate his identity.”

The bottle seal was probably used on the personal stock of port or brandy by Brinley Sylvester, grandson of Nathaniel, the first European settler. Although the date is hard to make out, it appears to be from the 1740s.

There is much more to discover, thanks to the work of the archeologists and the Manor staff, who have brought to life the stories of the slaves who lived and worked at the Manor as well as Indigenous people and generations of the Sylvester family. To learn more, visit sylvestermanor.org/history.