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Jamesport Indian burial site awaits its future

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter speaks at a meeting

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter speaks at a meeting of the town board on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015 at Riverhead Town Hall. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Jamesport residents are exploring ways to protect a North Fork archaeological site where American Indians buried their dead and scattered offerings 3,000 years ago.

Sharper’s Hill, as the site is known by locals, sits on an unprotected 34-acre parcel that Huntington developer Robert DiNoto bought in July.

DiNoto has not proposed a development for the property, where zoning would allow several houses, but has expressed interest in building an assisted-living facility on an adjoining 10-acre site to the south, along Jamesport’s Main Road, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said.

DiNoto bought both vacant properties for $5 million, county records show. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Phil Barbato, president of the Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition civic group, met Feb. 12 with representatives of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and the Peconic Land Trust preservation group to discuss strategies for preserving the land.

Suffolk Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said last Thursday that he has introduced a bill that would have the county appraise the land for consideration by the county’s farmland preservation program. Much of the site is covered in unused agricultural fields.

“It’s surrounded on three sides by already preserved farmland,” said Barbato, whose Biophilia Organic Farm abuts the property. “It’s got this ancient kind of historic site on it. What if there’s a lot more there?”

North Fork residents say they are used to finding arrowheads in the area’s farm fields, but Sharper’s Hill stands apart as a remarkably old and revealing key to Long Island’s past.

A 1953 archaeological dig unearthed evidence of a hilltop burial ground facing Peconic Bay: a circle of stone slabs, cremated human bones, red ocher, and pieces of stone tools and pots, according to a 1959 report by former New York State archaeologist William Ritchie.

The Sharper’s Hill site was one of four similar burial grounds on the East End dating back 2,800 to 3,000 years. Two others are in Orient and another is in Shinnecock Hills. Little is known about the “Orient culture,” as Ritchie called the people, who lived off shellfish and wild plants and predated better-known tribes of Long Island.

“It’s one of the oldest sites,” said John Strong, a professor emeritus at Long Island University who is an expert on the American Indian tribes of Long Island. “These were the ancestors of the Shinnecock, the Unkechaug,” he added, referring to modern-day Long Island tribes.

“What makes this special is that it’s a burial site,” said Richard Wines, chairman of Riverhead’s Landmarks Preservation Committee. “It’s also from a period that we have very little knowledge about, and one has to imagine that an archaeologist going back to that site today with modern equipment would probably discover a lot more.”

Douglas Mackey, an analyst for the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said in a 2004 letter to a neighbor of the property that the site “is likely to contain human remains, possibly as cremations” and “the site is likely to be considered eligible” for designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

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