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Digging up historical secrets at Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor

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 the untrained eye like just a three-foot deep pit in the middle of the manor house yard on Shelter Island. But to the archaeologist/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,” Mr. Mrozowski said.

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 both a European and — especially exciting — 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 have been Brinley Sylvester’s, a grandson of manor founder Nathaniel Sylvester, are artifacts that are associated with the European presence.

A silver Jesuit ring was also found, of the kind used by French traders. Such rings were used as a “Christianizing” device and in trading, indicating that native people living on Shelter Island may have had contact 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, remarkably, been owned by the same family for the last 300 years, within that time much of the property had gone through substantial changes.

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 past vividly into the present.

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

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

Mr. 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, one team member was poking around in what appeared to be different colors and textures of soil. According to the team, the variations in the dirt indicated 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 cooled 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.”

Photo caption: A silver Jesuit ring of the kind used by French traders was recently discovered in an archaeological dig at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. (Courtesy photo)

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