An 18-inch piece of gold-coated wood raised from harbor muck may be a remnant of one of the tea chests that colonists threw off British ships during the Boston Tea Party, a treasure hunter believes.

Barry Clifford, credited with finding the pirate ship Whydah in 1983, and two scuba divers located the piece last month at the spot where tea-carrying vessels were pillaged more than 225 years ago in a revolt that fueled the American Revolution.

At low tide on the night of Dec. 16, 1773, angry colonists chopped up 342 chests of tea and hurled them into the water to protest British taxes. Authenticated artifacts from the Tea Party are rare.

"This would be a wonderful find if it is authenticated and it is found to be a part of the Boston Tea Party because it was really the spark that ignited the entire Revolution," said Don Knuuttila, general manager of the Boston Tea Party Museum.

Clifford is keeping the piece of wood in a vat of cool, deionized water to prevent corrosion until he can authenticate it.

Some historians, however, doubt the wood ever will be proven to be part of a Tea Party chest, and question his methods of retrieval.

"Archaeology is a science," said Boston city archaeologist Ellen Berkland. "I don't promote treasure hunters or people who go out there to find a piece of history that they think is significant."

Clifford said the piece was found in about 15 feet of water where Griffin's Wharf--the colonial name for the site--once stood.

"I'm not saying this is definitely a tea chest, but it's definitely suspicious," Clifford said yesterday. "If you were going to find a tea chest, this is exactly where you would expect to find one."

The wood also matches a tea chest now in the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters that reportedly washed up on a beach after the Tea Party, he said. Both have a beveled edge, lacquered paint and gold-leaf details.

The gilded and lacquered chests would have held tea for wealthy people and would have been kept in the captain's quarters of the ships. Other chests, holding tea for the masses, would have been far more ordinary.

If the wood is what Clifford believes it is, chances are there are more artifacts still down in the harbor muck, Knuuttila said.