Captain’s Kidd treasure neither treasure nor Kidd’s

A UNESCO investigation into the claimed discovery of a massive silver ingot from the wreck of Captain Kidd’s ship Adventure Galley has found that the silver ingot isn’t silver and the wreck isn’t a ship. The so-called ingot is 95% lead and has no silver in it at all. It’s just a large hunk of ballast. As for the so-called wreck, it’s a pile of stones, probably rubble from a broken section of the port.

Days after the putative discovery was made in the shallow waters of the bay of the island of Sainte Marie off the east coast of Madagascar, UNESCO’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Body (STAB) sent an emergency mission to the island at the behest of the Ministry of Culture and Crafts of Madagascar. A team composed of seven divers, archaeologists, curators and photographers was to report on the general condition of the historic wrecks in the bay and to evaluate Clifford’s excavation project. They explored the site for four days, ultimately finding nothing that could be part of a ship, just stones. Team leader Dr. Michel L’Hour, a French underwater archaeologist who has explored 150 wrecks in his career and is in his ninth year as Director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research of France’s Ministry of Culture, thinks the stones may be all that’s left of a jetty or the base of a sea wall.

Determining that the bar wasn’t silver was a simple matter of testing it. Clifford admits that he never did have the metal tested before announcing to the world it was the biggest silver ingot ever found on a shipwreck. He claims he was going by the word of his collaborator John de Bry, a historian who has worked with Clifford for 15 years, but de Bry says he never got a chance to examine it or touch it, that he only saw the piece from a distance. “It looked like a silver bar except the markings were unusual.” Clifford persists in believing that it could still be silver despite UNESCO’s results.

John de Bry, who is not an archaeologist despite having been erroneously described as such in the media and by Clifford, was quoted at the time of the discovery saying that the underwater remains and the ingot were “irrefutable proof that this is indeed the treasure of the Adventure Gallery.” Yet, shortly thereafter he was cooperating with the UNESCO investigation very much against Clifford’s wishes, sharing the expedition’s research data which according to UNESCO Clifford refused in writing to provide.

Clifford has a history of UNESCO disputing his breathlessly announced finds. I didn’t post about this story at the time because it was just so blatantly crap, but last May Clifford claimed to have discovered the wreck of Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti. Five months later UNESCO announced their team had investigated the wreck and found bronze or copper fasteners which conclusively date the ship’s construction to the 17th or 18th century.

Now that they’ve poured cold water on his Captain Kidd fantasies too, Clifford insists UNESCO is out to get him. The organization is only trying to besmirch his discoveries because it’s opposed to all private archaeology, he says, and is “heavily anti-American and anti-British.” Sam Browne, producer of the documentary about the wreck for the History Channel, agrees that UNESCO is just hating on Clifford. Apparently without a shred of irony, Browne decries UNESCO’s “frankly shocking lack of transparency and impartiality throughout,” which is pretty rich coming from the people who emerged out of the sea with a hunk of lead, called a press conference to announce without proof or even a single decent picture of the site that they’d found Captain Kidd’s treasure and then refused to share their research data with UNESCO. He insists that their methods were scientifically rigorous, that they conducted “the most comprehensive geophysical study ever done” of Sainte Marie bay, that the UNESCO team wasn’t even looking in the right place.

Judging from the UNESCO report (pdf), it’s not Clifford’s private funding and Americanness that irks them, but rather his shameless mediawhoring and lack of adherence to the strictures of its Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

The work of the film team and its lead‐explorer, undertaken in spring 2015, as well as prior work by the same explorer, was distinguished by a media‐led approach, which has not respected the regulations of the 2001 Convention, and which jeopardized the scientific understanding of the sites concerned and the preservation of the artefacts recovered.

UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, ratified by Madagascar, requires, among other things, that any contact with the wrecks be led by a qualified underwater archaeologist. Clifford is not an archaeologist, nor is de Bry or the members of the film crew documenting the find. October Films, the production company shooting the documentary, said that “all the work was carried out by a team of experienced underwater explorers lead by a respected marine archaeologist,” the last apparently being a reference to Clifford who is not in fact an archaeologist.

It’ll be interesting to see if this documentary ever sees the light of the day. They should just edit in an addendum questioning ominously whether the UNESCO team might be aliens. The History Channel will eat that right up, no questions asked.

9 thoughts on “Captain’s Kidd treasure neither treasure nor Kidd’s

  1. I know nothing of this man, his situation, this case, of battles between people and the institutions they establish to serve them. However, I would be really saddened if we as a culture got to the place where being a adventurer, and following our heart into whatever adventure we wished to explore, for scoffed at, or made illegal. I went to college to study History and Archeology in N. California, and never took one traditional, business focused class. However, after college I started a business that in 7 years grew to revenues of 4 million a year. All along the way, most people I met did the same thing, they scoffed at me, and told me that I was not trained, and could not do it. Well, I not only did it, but i did better than that, I sustained it for 12 years now.

    I say this only to prove the point is that I believe academic study can only take someone so far in whatever they pursue, however, the power of the human spirit is the greatest force on earth when focused. It is what set the explorers, who we all hail as heroes, off beyond the limits of the known world. It is what set mankind to create this modern world we live in and enjoy. Without the power of the unbridled human spirit, we would have and be nothing.

  2. All indications at this point are that Clifford is rather quick to jump to conclusions and has little or no interest in rigorous archaeology.

    I would be interested to know what Clifford’s response to UNESCO’s findings regarding Columbus’ flagship was.

  3. Very well stated Tom. Clifford may or may not be right in this; no one’s right all the time. But for those who don’t know of his greatest accomplishment, similarly ridiculed by people with their own overblown ego issues, Google “Whydah”. None of the historical artifacts of that ship would have seen the light of day had it not been for Clifford’s dogged research and drive. Read his book. Jealous and exclusionary academics take refuge in bashing his work based on his lack of academic training. Clifford learned by doing and has gotten more accomplished, with minimal collateral damage, than most academics ever will.

    What I want to know is whether it was common practice to inscribe lowly ballast lead ingots with complex symbols. UNESCO should hand this nearly worthless piece of lead over to a dispassionate third party for further testing.

  4. Yes, lead and pig iron ballast bore such markings as it would eventually be bartered, traded or sold. There is no reason to retest the lead bar as it was tested by a professional lab using an XRF gun. In any case, the lead bar is still in the president’s office in Antananarivo.

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