Shining new light on life before Revolution

Lexington Historical Society member Elaine Doran works on the display of rediscovered Hancock-Clarke House artifacts. Lexington Historical Society member Elaine Doran works on the display of rediscovered Hancock-Clarke House artifacts. (Evan McGlinn for The Boston Globe)
By Bob Clark
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2010

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Stored and forgotten for decades, artifacts from the site of Lexington’s historic Hancock-Clarke House will soon offer a rare glimpse into family life in the early 18th century.

“It’s a really outstanding collection,’’ said Christa Beranek, a research archeologist who is helping to organize an exhibition of the items for three successive Sundays starting Oct. 17 at Lexington’s Buckman Tavern. “I have not seen another like it from rural Massachusetts in this period.’’

Beranek leads a team from the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at University of Massachusetts Boston that has been cataloging the items and studying their significance.

“I’ve always been interested in people’s stuff,’’ Beranek said.

And quite a lot of stuff there is — including ceramics, glassware, metal tools, buttons, buckles, and other items dating from about 1690 to 1740. They offer a window into everyday life in Lexington before the Revolutionary War.

The house, built in 1737, served as the parsonage for the Rev. John Hancock and his wife, Elizabeth. Their grandson John, whose famous signature has a prominent place on the Declaration of Independence, lived in the house for several years after the death of his father in the 1740s.

The Lexington Historical Society bought the house in 1896 with the proviso that it be moved across the street to preserve it. Then in the 1960s, the society acquired the original land and moved the house back.

But first, it arranged for a dig led by archaeologist Roland Robbins, who had help from many community volunteers. Some 40 boxes of artifacts were collected, stored, and forgotten.

Fast-forward to 2007, when the society was getting ready to do an extensive restoration of the Hancock-Clarke House.

Susan Bennett, the society’s executive director, “asked me to find the collection’’ of artifacts from the house, recalled Elaine Doran, its collections manager. “I couldn’t come up with it.’’

But Doran found a newspaper article from the 1960s showing people working with the artifacts in the basement of the town’s visitors center. Based on the clue, Doran starting poking around in the dusty space, and pushed open a closet door that had been swollen shut.

“There was this sort of ‘Eureka!’ moment when she opened the closet door and there they were,’’ Bennett said.

“I was so excited,’’ Doran said.

The Fiske Center was contacted, and Beranek and her team began to study the findings.

They believe the artifacts date from the time when the elder Hancock and his family — his wife, three sons, and two daughters — lived in a smaller, earlier home on the site. They show that the Hancocks lived quite well for their time.

“For a rural collection it includes lots of imported ceramics and other things that no one else in Lexington probably had around then,’’ Beranek said.

But at the same time, she said, “It was a working, farming household.’’ They had to produce a fair amount of their own food and things to sell, such as butter.

In 1728, Doran said, the town allocated money so that Hancock could buy a “servant’’ — actually a slave — named Jack. Little is known about Jack, but records show there were 20 slaves in the town as of 1735. Slavery was not abolished in Massachusetts until 1783.

The artifacts exhibition is scheduled for three Sundays, Oct. 17, 24, and 31, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Buckman Tavern, coinciding with Massachusetts Archaeology Month. Funding came from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

There will be additional viewing hours in the new year, Bennett said.

Doran hopes the exhibition will give town residents a better appreciation of Lexington’s past.

“A lot of people who live here who haven’t lived here for a long time don’t realize what the community was all about,’’ she said. “It was one of the places to live back then.’’

The Hancock-Clarke House also played a role in the American Revolution, when it was owned by Hancock’s successor as the town’s minister, the Rev. Jonas Clarke, a vocal supporter of the rebels’ cause.

The younger John Hancock and Samuel Adams were Clarke’s guests on the night of April 18, 1775, when Paul Revere and William Dawes both stopped on their separate rides to Concord to warn them that the British were coming.

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