In this special issue of the Long Island History Journal, we highlight an impressive array of new scholarship on African American archaeology and community history on Long Island. Some of our contributors offer us a peek at their preliminary findings from ongoing works-in-progress. Others are sharing the results of years of field work and laboratory investigations now coming to fruition, often long after actual excavations have wrapped up. In 2005, for example, archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts Boston completed a series of eight summer field schools at Sylvester Manor, an extraordinary seventeenth century site on Shelter Island. Since then, analysis of the excavated materials has continued apace—of everything from botanical and faunal remains to architectural fragments and ceramics—and yielded a slew of scholarly articles, dissertations, and conference papers. Just this year, major monographs by Katherine Hayes and Mac Griswold were published that draw on these findings, as well as extensive archival evidence, to illuminate the intertwined lives of the Manor’s European, Native American, and enslaved African populations during the early colonial period.
Other scholars featured here are pursuing what we might call “living archaeology,” focusing on the more recent past and casting their nets wider to include oral histories, genealogical research, and photographic archives gathered during community events. Their efforts are centered on documenting and preserving Long Island’s historically black neighborhoods, many of which are still vibrant communities. As local historian Thelma Jackson-Abidally underscores in the Introduction, this blossoming of research and outreach has inspired a greater appreciation for learning about the past among the residents of these communities and beyond.
Given the intense development pressure that much of Long Island has experienced over the past several decades, however, most archaeological investigations have been undertaken as the precursors to new construction, as mandated by environmental laws and regulations intended to prevent the wanton destruction of cultural resources. Archaeologists have found themselves conducting what essentially are salvage operations, extracting whatever can be learned in the short hiatus before new buildings are erected or parking lots paved. The enforcement of such mandates, however, has been quite uneven across the region. Ironically, during the recent recession, as Long Island’s economy stalled, many development projects were cancelled or delayed, easing concerns over the preservation of at-risk historic sites and undisturbed lands. However, according to David Bernstein, Director of the Institute for Long Island Archaeology at Stony Brook University, funding for new or planned future archaeological initiatives on Long Island has all but dried up as well.
Despite severe budgetary restraints, archaeologists are continuing to doggedly pursue research that is greatly enriching our knowledge of this important region. Indeed, thanks to innovative scientific techniques and analytical methods, they are extrapolating more data than ever before from archaeological materials, even revisiting previously excavated materials to ask new kinds of questions. There are limits, however, to how much researchers can accomplish in the face of diminishing financial resources and there is still much to learn. As Bernstein adamantly points out, “Long Island has a past that is not completely known. There are so many unanswered questions—Who were the earliest people to move to Long Island? Where did they come from and how did they get here? What were interactions like among Europeans, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans during their earliest years of contact? How were peoples’ lives changed as Long Island became an increasingly multiethnic society? Archaeology can help us shed light on these and many other intriguing questions.”
While Bernstein is particularly fascinated by Long Island’s deep human history, especially after investigating Eagle’s Nest, a 5,000-year-old Native American site in Mount Sinai Harbor (that his students continue to study), he applauds the work of a new generation of researchers, such as Christopher Matthews and others featured in this issue of Long Island History Journal, who are working collaboratively with local community leaders and residents to learn more about their heritages. As Bernstein notes, “This engaging approach to archaeology really resonates with people today and is helping to revitalize interest in the people and places of this unique region.” It is our hope and intention that this issue of the Long Island History Journal will contribute to that revitalization. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all of our authors for their contributions. Special thanks to Christopher Matthews who helped organize this issue, to Thelma Jackson-Abidally for her thoughtful introduction, and Eron Ackerman for editorial assistance.