BY: SAMANTHA TAPP
If you found a piece of treasure worth a few thousand dollars would you sell it or would you preserve it and donate it to a museum as a piece of history? One part of me is saying donate; it is a piece of history and it has cultural significance, it should be shared with the world. A bigger part of me is thinking about my student loans, my credit card debt and paying rent and is already driving me to the nearest pawn shop. What if the treasure was worth millions, $400 million to be exact. Game over, consider it sold and catch me on an island.
But for Barry Clifford, finding treasure is not about the money, it’s actually about preserving pieces of history. For the past 30 years, Barry has been exploring. He is an underwater archeologist, but in other words, he is a treasure hunter. He has dedicated his entire adult life to finding and preserving shipwrecked treasure.
And apparently he’s a better person than I, as he has never sold a single artifact he has found, choosing instead to preserve them and put them on display in a museum. This is a big accomplishment because he and his team have found hundreds of thousands of artifacts.
“The artifacts speak louder than words, the way that we’ve preserved them,” he said in a Great Big Story documentary. “It’s not what we said, it’s what we did, and they’Il speak very loudly for generations and generations to come.”
Arguably, his biggest discovery was The Whydah, a one-time slave vessel wrecked off Wellfleet, Massachusetts in 1717, and also the only verified pirate shipwreck ever found in U.S. waters. According to the National Geographic, in 1984, Barry and his team found more than 100,000 artifacts including the Whydah’s bell, cannon, gold, silver coins, African jewelry, weapons, and many other artifacts. The value is estimated at more than $400 million.
Barry and his team have gotten the technical side of treasure hunting down to an art. Since artifacts are buried at least 15-30 feet under the sand, they have to dig a hole around 30 feet deep to get to the artifact layer. They have to precisely position equipment and anchoring technique as to not destroy or disrupt the artifacts.
Since the Whydah discovery, he has searched Boston Harbor for ships and artifacts from the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War, and is currently working to discover the remains of Columbus’ ‘Santa Maria.’ Over the years his work has been controversial, with some artifacts not holding up as legitimate pieces from a ship wreck when examined by scientists. But this doesn’t stop Barry and his team from roaming the waters, looking for the next piece of history.
After finding the treasure, it takes years and years to conserve everything properly. But it’s worth the wait. He said when he began this work he promised himself that he was never going to sell anything, but instead would keep it all together. His team and family all agree with preserving the artifacts for cultural heritage.
“I still get just as excited about finding something as I did 35 years go,” Barry said.