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Touching ancient times at the Shelter Island Historical Society

The Shelter Island Historical Society previewed its new exhibit, “Witness the Manhansett” on the weekend of Nov. 14-15 with special showings for donors and supporters.

The project, staged by Island collector and artist John Pagliaro, presented a staggering array of stone tools he’s gathered locally, as well as pieces of his artwork that were inspired by his research into the Manhansett tribe, the Island’s first documented residents.

The serendipitous discovery of a white quartz arrowhead in 2009 launched Mr. Pagliaro on his “11-year odyssey of exploration and discovery in the field of avocational archaeology.” 

His collection, gathered strictly through “persistent” walking and kayaking the beaches around Shelter Island and the North Fork, now numbers well over 2,000 artifacts, many of which are on display in the Society’s new first floor gallery.

The exhibit showcases stone tools such as oyster openers, awls and axes. There are shadow boxes of arrowheads and spear points of every conceivable size which may have been used on animals such as deer, elk, moose and possibly even woolly mammoth. Displays of harpoon points that may have landed whales and seals attest to the community’s maritime pursuits, as do tools designed to hollow out a wooden canoe or kayak.

The time frame that these artifacts represent profoundly alters one’s sense of what is “old” or even “ancient;” some of these projectile points are thought to date back some 9,500 years. According to Mr. Pagliaro, Native People held a continuous presence on the Island for some 11-13,000 years and Indigenous People likely lived and hunted on Shelter Island and the North Fork for even longer than that.

The finds presented offer hitherto unseen glimpses into the Manhansett, the discreet and autonomous Algonquin Tribe that called Shelter Island home until the purchase of the lands in 1652 by Nathaniel Sylvester. While any estimate of population size so many millennia after the fact is fraught, “the sheer volume of projectiles demonstrates a thriving and robust culture and community,” Mr. Pagliaro said. At its apex, there may have been thousands of individuals living in the area. 

One of Mr. Pagliaro’s prize items is a granite axe head he unearthed at Kissing Rock. As he passed it around the gathering, he pointed out its finely honed edge, the mark of a highly refined tool. He estimated that the “incremental and painstaking work of chopping away the granite to achieve this edge” would have taken its creator some 200 hours of work.

Another piece, found along Bootleggers Alley, still had visible blood residue imbedded into the basalt when he discovered it.

“I have no idea how this residue remained so long, subject to two tides a day for thousands of years,” he said.

His plan is to start a GoFundMe page to raise money to send the sample to a specialty lab to determine the source of the blood. Was it a human who cut his hand while using the tool or an animal on which he used it? Time will hopefully tell.

The Society’s Executive Director Nanette Lawrenson admitted that she “was astounded to learn that the Manhansett were such a large community — more than our current year-round population — and were highly sophisticated. The exhibits have caused me to have a new respect and reverence for these people and a clearer understanding of the consequences of the arrival of the Europeans.”

The companion exhibit, “As Above, So Below,” presents some 20 pieces of Mr. Pagliaro’s art works in ceramic, paper, reclaimed wood and stone, which were influenced by his collection and his ongoing research into their long-ago creators.

Trained as an artist and ceramist, archaeology has strictly been a self-taught avocation for Mr. Pagliaro. As he discovered items, he reached out to like-minded individuals and archaeological experts he found on social media, finding the community eager to share information, opine on a discovery and offer new sources for research.

Through his collecting and studies, Mr. Pagliaro has forged a deep connection with these long-ago denizens of our island.

“As an artist, I brought a humanist perspective to these items,” he said. “Every time I picked something up, I communed with the person who made it.”

Both “Witness the Manhansett” and “As Above, So Below” will be open to the public on Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 27-28. Occupancy is limited, temperatures and contact information will be taken of all guests. For more information, please call the Shelter Island Historical Society at 631-749-0025 or check the Society’s website, shelterislandhistorical.org.