Pirate Ship Treasures Plucked From the Sea

Barry Clifford, the first person to find and salvage a pirate ship and then build a museum to display the ship's artifacts to the public, has been all but accused of being a pirate himself.

An influential group of academic archaeologists charge that Mr. Clifford has commercialized their discipline. They want to stop his work. Ricardo Alia, an archaeologist at Boston University, once wrote that archaeologists who have worked with Clifford have made a Faustian bargain and lost their professional souls.

Since the late 1980s, the Society for Historical Archaeology has banned papers on Clifford's work at its meetings. And Mr. Alia has retrospectively criticized such presentations made in the mid-1980s as improper. He argues that the professional ethics of archaeologists are above private-property laws, which have allowed Clifford to do his work.

Has Clifford really commercialized archaeology? Or are some archaeologists simply jealous of his startling results?

Clifford does his work through a private, nonprofit organization that is regulated by state and federal laws. For years, he sought and finally found in the early 1980s the wreck site of the pirate galley Whydah that was smashed in a storm on the coast of Cape Cod in 1717.

After bringing up more than 100,000 documented artifacts over 15 years, Clifford last summer finally located what he thinks are two large chunks of the galley's hull. Until then, he and his team had found only a scattered mess, not an intact wreck.

So far, Clifford hasn't found his mother lode of gold. But he has found a career. By sticking with the hunt, building his museum, and making his finds available to the public and to scholars, he has become an explorer and educator, according to state and federal archaeologists who monitor his work.

Members of the Society of Historic Archaeology have "unfairly chastised Clifford and have taken the lead in censorship of him," says Victor Mastone, director of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources in Boston.

As further corroboration, the state of North Carolina has acknowledged Clifford's work. Its division of archives and history is exploring what experts believe to be the remains of Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, which was wrecked in 1718 at Beaufort Inlet. The state's official information says that comparing Clifford's finds and the North Carolina artifacts has been an "excellent" support.

"Clifford has brought up a wealth of information on the Whydah and on the lives of the people on board," says Kate Atwood, archaeologist for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for such exploratory work in US coastal waters.

The city of Edinburgh, Scotland, sponsored an exhibit of Clifford's finds several years ago, and National Geographic, which helps fund his explorations, plans an article and a film on his work.

It's hard to fathom the archaeological dispute amid the fun of viewing Clifford's well-attended museum in Provincetown, Mass. Called the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center, it tells the story of Clifford's search for the Whydah and displays his collection of artifacts from the ship. These include the inscribed bell of the Whydah - the pice de rsistance - as well as pistols, cannons, coins, lead shot, ship hardware, a pewter plate, and much more. Recently he found a grinding wheel the pirates probably used to sharpen their swords.

Clifford says he would still like to find chests of gold, and through litigation in Massachusetts courts he has gained full claim to the Whydah wreck. But he stresses that the search may take many years, since the site still contains unknown amounts of historical artifacts.

Boston University's Alia also objects to all Clifford's media coverage, claiming that it has only helped Clifford raise private money for his venture. But Clifford has laughed all the way to the press conferences, at least until he struck a "silence" deal with National Geographic until it publishes.

Clifford says he's "going slow" in his long-term educational project. "None of the artifacts will be sold, they are for the exhibition," he declares. The Whydah plunder includeda cultural cross-section of up to 52 raided ships. Finding and fitting together the whole story is more than a lifetime's work.

Clifford's work comes amid a revival of interest in the history of piracy. It had its so-called golden age from about 1670 to 1725, heightened by the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, which turned a lot of seamen and privateers out of work, says British historian David Cordingly. This authority also says there were easy pickings on the seas because of the extent of shipping, from the slave and rum trades to Spanish gold shipments and other commerce.

* The Whydah Museum's Web site can be found at www.whydah.com

David Mutch was a Monitor writer and editor for 25 years and served in Boston, Chicago, and Bonn, Germany. He left the staff in 1996 to become a freelance writer, based in Harwich, Mass.

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