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Unearthing Layers of an Island

Posted on 03 April 2013

 

A complete rim and upper body of a globular ceramic pot  found in a midden heap at Sylvester Manor.

A complete rim and upper body of a globular ceramic pot found in a midden heap at Sylvester Manor.

By Annette Hinkle

In 1998 when she was a graduate archaeology student, Dr. Katherine Howlett Hayes arrived on Shelter Island with a team led by Dr. Stephen Mrozowski from the University of Massachusetts to begin an excavation of Sylvester Manor.

Sylvester Manor was a plantation founded by Nathaniel Sylvester, a Quaker, in 1651 and the dig was triggered by a request from the late Alice Fiske, lady of the manor, who wanted to know what secrets the property held. For the next seven years, the UMass team returned each summer to excavate more of the property and in the process, they uncovered a treasure trove of historic artifacts detailing life on a unusually intact 17th century northern plantation.

And at Sylvester Manor, Dr. Hayes found a project that would chart the course of her future in archeology for years to come.

“None of us had ever heard of it – it was a rare opportunity,” recalled Dr. Hayes. “When I went off to do my doctorate at UC Berkeley – Steve [Mrozowski] was generous enough to let me do my dissertation on the site.”

Today, Dr. Hayes is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. But this Sunday at noon, she returns to Sylvester Manor to lead an archeological tour through key excavation sites of the property. She will also bring along her newly published book — “Slavery before Race: Europeans, Africans and Indians at Long Island’s Sylvester Manor Plantation: 1651-1884.”

The story of Sylvester Manor is the story of a provisioning plantation in a time that predates what we typically think of when we hear the term plantation —  a southern agricultural settlement.

“The role of Sylvester Manor was to provide food and other provisions to Barbados sugar plantations,” explained Dr. Hayes. “We don’t have good documentation to say whether they came in with enslaved people or not. I suspect they did. There was already a connection with Barbados and it was easy to bring them up at that point. It would have been a lot of work to build the infrastructure of the Shelter Island plantation in 1652.”

“It’s really early,” she added. “To me what makes it most astonishing is we’re talking about a time before any laws were on the books that underwrite race-based slavery. They were forging a new kind of society on their own terms.”

“What Sylvester was doing was not unusual with respect to the trade he was engaging in,” added Dr. Hayes. “What makes Sylvester weird is he is unconnected from any colony. If you were not part of the West India Company or a Puritan, you were on your own.”

“He’s an independent operator and drawing on a whole bunch of different models.”

Finding an intact 17th century northern plantation is exceedingly rare and the fact the property had been little disturbed in the years since its settlement meant Sylvester Manor yielded some intriguing finds that helped researchers put the property — and its people — into context.

“Our thoughts were, ‘Wow, a northern slave plantation,’ — the site itself, the yards, the house all fit into that expectation,” said Dr. Hayes. “What we came to realize years later was we were looking at it as a southern plantation and expected it to look the same way archeologically.”

But that was not that case.

“With a southern or Caribbean plantation the expectation is of a sub-population of enslaved people living in distinct and separate places from where the owners are living,” explained Dr. Hayes. “You find slave quarters and that’s how you get some sense of the experience of slavery there.”

But at Sylvester Manor, no such separation of living space existed. In fact, notes Dr. Hayes, everyone on the site was “working cheek by jowl alongside each other.”

For Dr. Hayes, among the most intriguing finds from the dig were etched metal pieces — copper scraps — that were probably made for decorative purposes.

“There’s one really neat piece – it’s a remnant of a clipped coin — silver not copper – there’s an etching on it, a big X which means many things to many people,” said Dr. Hayes. “And on the other side is an etching that is both a thunderbird and a serpent — which are the icons for the two main Algonquin deities.”

“It’s just a fragment of a piece. It’s so small — and not even pierced for use as a charm,” she added.

But given the symbolism, it indicates the plantation was not just populated by the white land owners and the African slaves. There was a third population on the property as well — members of the Native American Manhanset, Shinnecock and Montaukett tribes. And like the Africans, does Dr. Hayes assume these indigenous populations were also enslaved?

“That’s one of the trickiest questions – Natives versus slaves,” said Dr. Hayes. “We have no expectations — or little — that Indians will be enslaved. It is clear they are there at the center of the plantation. Whether or not they’re considered enslaved is missing from the documentary record.”

One thing the Native Americans were definitely doing on site, however, was producing wampum — the currency of the day made from the purple edge of quahog clam shells. Dr. Hayes suspects wampum production was a sideline for Sylvester — and given it’s value in the 17th century, something akin to printing money today.

“It was the first standardized currency, his crew was making money for him,” said Dr. Hayes who added that in wampum production, one thing that speeds up the process is the use of iron awls. Several of these were recovered as well during excavation.

“I can say pretty confidently wampum making is a skill the Native Americans had that would have been valued and it was not something easily made,” she said.

Another item that the archaeologists uncovered were straight pins — loads of them, which Dr. Hayes feels would have served multiple purposes, including sewing and pinning clothing (likely more important to women than men.)

Straight out from the manor house’s front door, the UMass team uncovered a pretty extensive midden layer (midden being a fancy word for trash heap — finding one is like hitting pay dirt for an archeologist because of what garbage can tell you about someone’s life). Interestingly enough, though the trash was building up in certain areas, Dr. Hayes noted that later in the 18th century, it had been smeared across a large area as fill.

“It was five to 20 centimeters thick across that area, covering what we believe was a the central working yard of the plantation core – probably  a compound,” she said.  “Architectural traces we see aside from the debris is lots of broken brick and mortar and nails. Beyond that we kind of expect to see post in ground construction.”

“Part of the problem was they were building and tearing down and rebuilding,” she added. “On one side, a trench was dug and posts put and it was refilled. The maximum dimension of the structure was six to eight meters long.”

“It could have been the remnants of the original Sylvester residence,” she added. “The interesting thing about that is there was tons of the wampum making debris right outside.”

For Dr. Hayes, Sylvester Manor has come to shape the way she now looks at populations and her assumptions about who they are.

“This site upended my expectations,” she adds. “We thought we would talk about African Americans in this place, and came away realizing there was a category of person that may or may not have been meant to be all together at that time — African Americans in interaction with Native Americans.”

Though the team found a great deal during their time at Sylvester Manor, the question remains whether or not they have uncovered the biggest finds on the property.

“It’s a big estate – and we did test the areas that seemed like they had high potential,” said Dr. Hayes. “But there is one area left where we were never allowed to dig before — Mrs. Fiske’s garden.”

Dr. Katherine Howlett Hayes hosts an archeological tour and book signing at Sylvester Manor on Sunday, April 7, 2013  from noon to 3 p.m. Admission is free. Sylvester Manor is location at 80 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island. Call 749-0626 for details.

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