Ancient Indian burial site found in Riverhead park

Bones and artifacts, believed to be from an early American Indian burial site, are discovered in Riverhead county park, near eroded river bank

STAFF WRITER; Staff writer Mitchell Freedman contributed to this story.

October 27, 2005

Last week's stormy weather uncovered what experts said may be an important early American Indian burial site at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead.

The site was spotted by a park supervisor after the Peconic River bank was eroded early last week by heavy rains and high wave action, said Suffolk County Parks Commissioner Ronald Foley.

Archaelogists said yesterday that the site contained bones from at least two people believed to be Indians buried during the Early Woodland period, from 800 BC to AD 800. It also contained artifacts including a pipe and fragments of a bowl.

The bones were turned over to the Suffolk County medical examiner, Dr. Charles Wetli, who said the remains were then given to consulting forensic anthropologist Vincent Stefan.

"The bones were in small pieces," said David Thompson, vice president of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, who visited the site Friday. "They were obviously burnt. There were charred pieces of skull and small pieces of a jawbone. The fact that they were cremated is a holdover from a culture that immediately preceded the Early Woodland which was called the Transitional Culture.

In addition, Thompson said, "there was an exquisite ceramic pipe that was nearly perfect and had very interesting geometric detail on it. It was obviously used; it had burn marks on it. It was about four inches long."

Thompson added "there was also some broken pottery ... a very early type of pottery that would make it an Early Woodland burial."

Stefan, a professor at Lehman College in the Bronx and a forensic archaeologist for the county, said "there wasn't enough of the remains to make a determination if they were Native American. There was too much missing. All I was able to conclude was that I had fragments of remains for two or three individuals who had been intentionally burned or cremated." Stefan said he would need more complete skeletal remains or additional artifacts and possibly further systematic excavation to determine the race or ancestry.

John Strong of Southampton, professor emeritus at Long Island University and an expert on Long Island Indian history, said American Indians often settled near freshwater streams that ran into tidal wetlands. He said the Indians then living in the Riverhead-Southold area were called the Yennacock by early white settlers.

Foley said the county would be consulting with leaders of the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, the nearest active American Indian group, on the proper thing to do with the bones and site.

"In many cases the best thing you can do to preserve an archaeological site is to bury it and seal it up. We haven't made a final decision and are researching our options to make sure we do it right."

Parks officials also talked to David Bernstein at the Long Island Institute of Archaeology of Stony Brook University. "He advised us that we don't have a legal obligation to talk to the local tribe leaders but it's the right thing to do once we determine what we have," Foley said. "When the medical examiner tells us the age and ethnicity of the bones, we would contact the local tribe leaders and work with them on what's the right thing to do with these artifacts and the site."

Elizabeth Haile, a Shinnecock leader who serves on the Graves Protection Committee of the Intertribal Historic Preservation Task Force, said, "I'm looking forward to being further informed, and we would cooperate with them. It should be honored, and then it should be protected because it's somebody's cemetery."

Usually, American Indians like to see these sites reburied and not excavated for study or removal of artifacts. "That would be our preference," she said.

In the meantime, Foley said, "it is illegal for anyone to take artifacts like this from a county park," and warned that park police are watching the area.

This is the first significant American Indian burial ground uncovered since a Shelter Island resident - digging a barn foundation - uncovered remains two years go. Shinnecock leaders have been trying to work out a policy for Shelter Island and other towns on what to do with such discoveries.

Staff writer Mitchell Freedman contributed to this story.

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.