Armed with shovels, trowels and screens, a team of researchers led by Dr. Stephen Mrozowski from the University of Massachusetts Boston last month began meticulously excavating rectangular plots at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, looking for artifacts from the past.
“You should see this piece of metal,” a student called out to Dr. Mrozowski as he wandered through the plots, checking on his crew’s progress. Dr. Mrozowski examined the scrap of metal.
“Feels like a lead, maybe copper,” he said as he brushed the dirt away. “This is something that the Europeans brought that the native folks would have liked.”
Two weekends ago, the researchers made an exciting discovery: a Jesuit ring, which they think dates back to between 1624 and 1700. Dr. Mrozowski, who’s the director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research and a professor of anthropology, thinks the ring either predates the Sylvesters or points to the garden as an area where Native Americans lived while working for the family.
Along with the ring, they’ve found ballast flint, which Europeans emptied from their ships, and the Native Americans would have used to make tools. Dr. Mrozowski said its presence makes the garden a “good candidate” for having once been a Native American living space.
Sylvester Manor was founded by Nathaniel Sylvester in the mid-17th century and it remained in his descendants’ hands until 2010, when it became a nonprofit organic and community educational farming center. For a time, it was one of the largest slave-owning plantations in the north.
In 1998, Dr. Mrozowski was invited by then-owner Alice Fiske to conduct digs to find the original Manor House and its artifacts; the house there now dates to the 18th century. He led teams between 1998 and 2005 all across the manor’s grounds, excluding the garden, which Mrs. Fiske carefully tended.
Mrs. Fiske “was the most wonderful, supportive person you can imagine,” but “the one place she didn’t want us digging was in the garden,” Dr. Mrozowski said.
After her death in 2006, the property passed to Eben Fiske Otsby, who created the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm in 2010. In 2014, Dr. Kat Hayes from the University of Minnesota, who was a part of the original team, was allowed to return and conduct the first dig through Mrs. Fisk’s garden. Now, Dr. Mrozowski’s team is continuing the work of Dr. Hayes.
Sitting on the manor house’s deck on a recent Monday, Dr. Mrozowski explained that the soil layers in the garden are mixed, making it difficult to date the artifacts they find there based on the surrounding soil.
“This was a garden, at least from the 18th century up into the 20th,” he said, so the ground was constantly being churned up.
Nigel Francombe is a recently retired Shelter Island resident who volunteered to help the researchers sift through the soil. He was the one who actually spotted the Jesuit ring.
“I saw something circular and I thought, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” he said later while screening pebbles. “Then they all got very excited. It was really cool —beginner’s luck.”
Made from silver, the ring’s band is etched with diamonds. The face is circular, inscribed with a cross and the letters “HIS,” a reference to the Greek spelling of Jesus.
Team member Melissa Ritchey, who is from California and just earned her master’s degree at UMass, said the ring was probably as a trade item used by the Europeans and Native Americans. It may add to the narrative of the manor site having been inhabited before the Sylvesters.