For more than two centuries, these pieces of metal lay unnoticed, buried in soil once tilled by farmers and later transformed into an airport for training fighter squadrons during World War II.
Now historians are wondering whether they may be tied to the “second battle of Lexington” that took place on April 19, 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution.
In recent years, archeologists have uncovered several musket balls, a shoe buckle, a knife, and other Colonial-era artifacts on land that is part of the Hanscom Air Force Base property. And at a ceremony last month, Hanscom officials officially loaned eight of the items to the neighboring Minute Man National Historical Park, which plans to create a display for its visitors.
“The reason the park felt it wanted to get these particular items was the idea that these may be associated with the battle of April 19th, 1775,” said Terrie Wallace, curator at the park. “That puts a whole different spin on it.”
Part of the Hanscom property extends near the site of a battle known as “Parker’s Revenge,” which took place hours after the dawn clash on Lexington Green where British regulars killed eight Colonial militiamen. Around 1:30 p.m. that day, Captain John Parker and his Lexington militia unit ambushed the British as they returned to Boston from Concord.
The afternoon battle has received scant attention compared with other events of that historic day. There had been ceremonies at the site, but in the last two years, reenactors began staging the fight as part of Patriots Day observances.
“It’s something newer that people are starting to say, ‘More people should know about this afternoon battle. It’s an important event. It’s part of the whole story of Patriots Day,’ ” said Lou Sideris, chief of planning and communications for the park.
Minute Man already has about 250,000 artifacts, including other shoe buckles and musket balls. But the location of the pieces found just inside the fence on the southern edge of the Air Force base, very near the Parker’s Revenge battle site, made them appealing to the National Park Service.
The Air Force began looking for artifacts to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires all federal agencies to protect historic and archeological properties, and to avoid or minimize damage to them, said Don Morris, cultural resources manager for Hanscom.
“They were able to link the location of where they’re finding these to the history of the site,” he said. “There was quite a bit of discussion of how these artifacts came to be in the place that they were. There’s a real element of tying these artifacts to not only that day but that time of day . . . Parker’s Revenge occurred.”
Morris knew that first-hand accounts of the Parker’s Revenge battle described the hillside and how the militiamen hid behind large boulders. As he and other officials observed the area of excavation, he said, “we’re out there on the hillside and there are large boulders.”
The archeologists hired by Hanscom used a metal detector in 2003 to survey land near the Parker’s Revenge site to look for artifacts from the day of the battle. Eventually, during several excavations since then, the musket balls were found, including one flattened from being shot, as well as a knife, a shoe buckle, and a hooked implement for cutting brush called a fascine knife.
Earlier this year, Bill Poole, captain of the Lexington Minute Men, a group of reenactors, went with Wallace and others from the National Park Service to view the artifacts at Hanscom.
“You find musket balls that certainly could and very well might have been fired,” Poole said. “It gives you a little bit of a chill because you are finding something from that day, perhaps. It’s very exciting.”
Meanwhile, the Lexington Minute Men have been clearing land near the battle of Parker’s Revenge and have raised money for further excavation.
“Other artifacts were discovered sometimes by farmers during the course of their activities, and others were recovered from the general area,” Poole said. “But there has never been a detailed architectural investigation of the site such as what we were proposing now.”
For now, the artifacts at Minute Man National Historical Park are stored in plastic containers in a secure storage room. One day recently, Wallace unlocked the door and slipped on white cotton gloves so the oils on her hands would not damage the metal.
“This was kind of the piece that started it all,” she said, unwrapping the fascine knife.
The containers are filled with silica, to absorb moisture and protect the antiquities. After the artifacts were discovered, Hanscom officials sent them to a conservationist.
“Some of them were just blobs of rust,” Morris said. “Part of the conservation process may include X-rays, soaking the materials in solutions that liberate the rust from whatever the item is.”
Soon, the park hopes to put the artifacts on display, maybe at the Minute Man visitor center on Route 2A, close to the site of Parker’s Revenge.
“It was kind of amazing,” said Poole, the Lexington Minute Men captain. “Those of us who are kind of steeped in the period and reenact this period, it is amazing to see an artifact of this time period.”