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Dredging Up Sag Harbor’s Treasured Past on Havens Beach

See a collection of artifacts at the Sag Harbor Historical Society.

If you want to go looking for buried treasure in the Hamptons, maybe you need look no farther than the beach you’re on.

Actually, maybe that’s true only if you’re on Havens Beach in Sag Harbor. Because that’s where an estimated 8,500 cubic yards of dredge spoil were dumped over the winter. The spoil was piped in from where it was dredged up around Long Wharf, and it didn’t contain just sand and muck. No—the bottomland around Long Wharf holds a lot more than that. Rusty nails, old coins, bones, musket balls, pottery shards—you name it.

So, although it wasn’t really the intention of Sag Harbor’s Harbor Committee when they decided to order the dredging, they wound up transferring a lot of historic artifacts from underwater at Long Wharf to the sand at Havens Beach.

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Adam Osterweil, a teacher at Springs School and an avid 2nd-generation metal detectorist, started coming across rare finds on Havens Beach a few months ago. He’s been pulling rare antique metal objects from the sand regularly ever since.

An antique pewter spoon collected on Haven’s Beach, Photo: Adam Osterweil
An antique pewter spoon collected on Havens Beach, Photo: Adam Osterweil

“It’s a rat tail pewter spoon,” says Osterweil as he holds up a crude-looking implement. “It could be from the mid-1700s.” Like anything metal that’s been in water for years, the spoon is badly corroded. But you can still tell it didn’t start out as a machine-made utensil. It’s old. And at some point it wound up on the bottom of the harbor around Long Wharf and was piped to Havens Beach.

More common among Osterweil’s finds on the beach have been square nails, which he says probably date to the mid-1800s. While such nails are usually quite hard to find, Osterweil has been sifting them by the dozen out of the sand at Havens Beach. He holds up a baggie of these handmade nails. “I get about eight to 10 nails in one swing of the detector,” he says. “There are a lot of them around the lifeguard chair.” Once again, these nails must have fallen to the bottom around Long Wharf long ago—dropped during the building of whaling ships?—and recently gotten pumped to Havens Beach.

As Osterweil had been making his discoveries over the last few months, the indefatigable Jean Held of the Sag Harbor Historical Society had discovered the treasure on the beach independently. She began collecting pottery shards, broken china and pieces of beach glass. And, with the help of the internet, she began making tentative identifications of several finds.

“This piece was easy because it has the company’s mark on it,” says Held as she displays a fragment of china she found on Havens Beach with the name “Davenport” on the bottom. “It’s actually part of a platter that dates to 1825, made in England.” Another fragment Held found on the beach depicts the Great Seal of the United States. “It’s hand painted, and unless it’s a reproduction, it was probably made in England around 1805.” As Held points out, the United States didn’t have the capacity to produce china in the early 19th century.

White pottery found on Haven's Beach, Photo: Adam Osterweil
White pottery found on Havens Beach, Photo: Adam Osterweil

“At that time, Long Island and New Jersey produced red ware [a thicker, cruder style of dishware], which was fired at a lower temperature.” Held’s hunting has turned up numerous shards of red ware that must have rested undisturbed in the waters around Long Wharf for over a century before getting piped to Havens Beach.

A couple months ago, Held and Osterweil ran into each other while they were both hunting on Havens Beach, and they’ve been comparing notes ever since. While they say that what they’re doing can’t be called archeology—the finds are too scattered to make much sense out of—they’re nonetheless working to document their discoveries as thoroughly as possible. Right now, there’s a small display at the Sag Harbor Historical Society for visitors to look at what they’ve dug up.

And just think, if you find something under your beach towel next time you’re at Havens Beach, it may well be a piece of history.

Sag Harbor Historical Society, 174 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Open to visitors every Saturday and Sunday through September, 1–4 p.m. 631-725-5092, sagharborhistorical.org

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