Thousands of years ago, the little hamlet we call Aquebogue today was the center of Native American society on the North Fork.
“There were tons of villages here, a lot more than you can imagine,” says Lisa Cordani, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at Suffolk County Community College and an Aquebogue resident.
“Aquebogue is in the right place. It’s got the right land. You have fresh, brackish and salt water. And you’ve got the cutouts at Mattituck inlet and James Creek. You can go east-west and north-south. This was the center,” she says.
Cordani is standing in a building that used to house duck egg incubators on Duane Lewin’s family homestead in Aquebogue. Lewin says his grandfather, Karl, used to hatch over a million duck eggs a year for local duck farmers. His grandfather bought the property in the mid-1920s. The house where Lewin grew up stands just to the south. He’s lived there all his life.
The former incubator barn now houses Lewin’s favorite hobbies. There’s a small-batch winery. A stocked bar. All sorts of memorabilia. And a collection of thousands of Native American artifacts.
Cordani, who is on the board of directors of the Southold Indian Museum, has been coming to Lewin’s house nearly every week with Ephraim Horowitz, a filmmaker and amateur archaeologist with the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, to pore over and photograph the stone tools and spear tips in Lewin’s collection.
Lewin’s grandfather and later his father collected them from the soils of the farmland they worked. Lewin says his grandfather had bushel baskets full of the artifacts.
It was a common thing for farmers in the area to find and collect Native American artifacts, Lewin says. There were so many of them, owing to the fact that Aquebogue was populated with so many Native American villages, settled thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. He says he personally knows of several other farm family descendants who also have large collections of artifacts.
“What we’re looking at here is 10,000 years of Long Island history,” says Horowitz, gazing at the collection of stone objects arranged on a table before him in Lewin’s barn.
“As soon as native people came to this area, they came to Aquebogue. It was called the capital of the North Fork,” he says, explaining: “It had relatively high ground and therefore would stay dry. Also, it’s at the mouth of the Peconic River which had a salmon run. Peconic Bay had 16-foot Atlantic sturgeon, right whales, salmon, herring, abundant fish of all kinds — 50-pound lobsters, crabs, clam beds a quarter mile long and three feet deep. As soon as the native people arrived on the North Fork, they most likely abandoned the seasonal round and began to live a more sedentary lifestyle, which gave rise to more complex life ways,” Horowitz says.
Archaeologists believe human habitation of the land we know as Long Island dates back about 10,000 years. The last glacier retreated about 17,000 years ago. The remains of settlements older than 10,000 years are located “100 miles out,” on the continental shelf, Cordani explains.
Some of the stone tools found locally were made from rocks that came a long distance and ended up in the possession of Aquebogue Algonquian as a result of trading, she says.
“We’re trying to find these collections and identify them, properly photographing them and cataloguing them,” says Horowitz. “We’re worried that the archaeological context will be destroyed by treasure hunting — or people will start selling them at garage sales or on eBay.”
People may find collections among the possessions of deceased relatives and not know what they or, or understand their significance. Once they sell them or throw them away, their context — where they come from — is forever lost.
By bringing collections and experts together, the artifacts can be identified, catalogued and photographed. In this way, their connection to place can be preserved, even if the owners sell them or otherwise dispose of them, Horowitz says.
Anyone with artifacts they’d like to have identified and catalogued should email Lewin to arrange for a meeting with the archaeologists.
“When you think about it, it’s really kind of hard to believe. The pyramids are 3,000 years old and we have stuff that’s 7,000 or 8,000 years old,” Lewin said. “It mystifies me.”
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