“This is not my best day,” the 70-year-old pirate-ship hunter said. “But I’ve had days like this before.”
Clifford is a professional adventurer, treasure hunter and self-styled expert of the antiquities.
As he’s eager to remind anyone who will listen that he’s been at this a long, long time. Decades, in fact, a period during which he became famous — and infamous — for searching waters across the world for sunken ships and treasures like a modern-day Indiana Jones. Most notably, he found a verified 18th century wreck of a pirate ship, the Whydah, in 1984.
Earlier this year, Clifford and his team were searching the shallow waters of a small island off the coast of Madagascar, an infamous pirate-ship graveyard. They had been diving on the wreckage for days. Clifford was burned out, he said.
“I decided to go back myself to the where I thought Captain Kidd’s cabin was,” he said, referring to what he has long claimed is the wreckage of the infamous pirate ship, the Adventure Galley. “I was looking for maybe a piece of broken pottery, maybe a spoon.”
Stonefish and urchins swam by as Clifford looked and felt around in the murky water. Eventually, he found an opening.
“All of a sudden, the ceiling caved in on me and I was hit with a really big object, it nearly knocked me out,” he recalled. “As I felt the edge of it, I thought: ‘This must be lead.’ ”
Clifford was literally hit over the head with his latest discovery, he claims. Days later, he announced to the world that a silver ingot, weighing more than 110 pounds, was evidence that he had found Kidd’s ship and a treasure — though plenty of Kidd experts disagree that any such treasure exists.
The president of Madagascar and other dignitaries gathered on the sandy beach to announce the find — along with the news that Clifford and the History Channel (which plans to air a documentary on the search for the Adventure Galley) would be investing in a museum and laboratory to further investigate the wreckage.
But months later, something else struck Clifford. This time, it was a shoe dropped by UNESCO.
“There is no silver treasure,” Michel L’Hour, chief of the UNESCO mission, said in a statement this week. Clifford’s prized silver ingot was 95 percent lead, UNESCO said.
And, UNESCO added, there was no evidence that Clifford had discovered Captain Kidd’s ship.
Hours after the revelation, Clifford was livid.
“Nobody can conclude an investigation in three g——– days,” Clifford railed over the phone, in one of several conversations with The Post.
He’s convinced, he said, that this is both a personal and political vendetta against him as the public face of private-sector archaeology.
The Cape Cod native also said this: “UNESCO is heavily anti-American and anti-British.”
In recent years, the United States, a founding member of UNESCO, has had a rocky political relationship with the organization, whose mission is to contribute to lasting world peace through educational, scientific and cultural collaboration between nations. Its mission also includes protecting world heritage sites on land and in water.
Clifford isn’t just angry at UNESCO. He also turned his attention to John de Bry, who worked with Clifford on the search for the Adventure Galley for the past 15 years — including the excavation in Madagascar this spring. Following the Captain Kidd announcement, de Bry assisted UNESCO with its report on Clifford’s findings.
And that has Clifford furious.
In interviews, he angrily attempted to discredit de Bry’s education and experience, even referring to him as “a fraud.” When asked to provide proof of his claims, Clifford had none.
De Bry, who was born and educated in France, does not claim to have degrees in archaeology, but his resume lists a bachelor’s degree and an advanced degree in European Post-Medieval History. In its report this week, UNESCO refers to de Bry as a “historian with an archaeological background.”
Nevertheless, for the past 15 years, Clifford has held him up as an archaeologist.
Reached by phone, de Bry let out a big sigh.
“That’s Barry’s way of venting whenever he doesn’t like something,” he said of the accusations. “I could say the same thing about him, but I’m not here to throw mud around.”
He added: “I’m not alarmed at all. I just basically ignore it.”
No one seems particularly surprised by Clifford’s scorched-earth campaign. It wouldn’t be the first time that he’s been accused of lodging unfounded accusations against people who have crossed him.
A 1995 Outside magazine profile of Clifford — which said he is “the Pirate Prince to some, the Underwater Antichrist to others” — told the story of a former co-author on a book project who was fired. When asked to explain the reasons for the firing, Clifford accused the man of being mentally unstable.
Clifford’s latest explosion also comes after two devastating blows to his legacy.
“It’s not a personal issue; we don’t know him and we don’t care for him,” said Ulrike Guerin, head of underwater cultural heritage at UNESCO and the leader of the Madagascar mission. “When a minister of culture comes to UNESCO and says come help us, then we have an obligation to come and help.”
What Clifford claims to be Captain Kidd’s ship, UNESCO says is probably broken-down harbor construction. Meanwhile, the organization said the artifacts that have been taken from several shipwrecks at the site have been mixed up and mismanaged. Some of the shipwreck sites have been irrevocably damaged, which threatens to make it impossible to make any definitive statements about their historical origins, Guerin said.
“You can’t go to an archeological site, take out your spade and begin digging,” she said.
Experts looked at the photo of Clifford’s silver ingot and knew that it was likely lead, Guerin added. UNESCO’s testing later confirmed that assessment.
Clifford told The Post that never actually tested the bar himself before declaring that it was silver. He blames de Bry for misdiagnosing the bar’s composition, but still claims that the bar could, in fact, be made of silver.
“When I looked at it — I never touched it, only looked from a distance — it looked like a silver bar except the markings were unusual,” de Bry explained.
Clifford isn’t an archaeologist, but he has one major accolade to his name: In 1984, he discovered what might be the only confirmed pirate shipwreck, the Whydah, along with a modest treasure off the coast of Cape Cod.
He has done it once, he said — so he can do it again.
“You have two ships that were built on the same ship dock, Whydah and the Adventure Galley,” he explained. “They are the same size ship and English oak.”
For nearly 15 years, Clifford has insisted that he identified the location of the Adventure Galley wreck near what is known as “the Island of Pirates” off the coast of Madagascar.
But Clifford acknowledged that he has never tested the wood of the ship he calls the Adventure Galley to confirm that it is made of English oak. “I couldn’t say if it is or not,” he said.
According to UNESCO, there was no evidence of wood belonging to a naval structure at the site, only stones and debris. There does not appear to be evidence of a burned structure, either, which would also be strong evidence that Kidd’s ship, which was torched when he abandoned it in 1698, had been found.
Still, Clifford is 100 percent certain that the ship is the Adventure Galley — based on centuries-old maps, Captain Kidd’s statements during his trial for piracy more than 300 years ago, and pieces of burned wood Clifford claims his team found at the site. Clifford contends that UNESCO has refused to review his team’s research, a claim UNESCO denies. The organization said, in fact, that Clifford’s team refused in writing to provide investigators with their data, but they were able to get it anyway by working with de Bry.
And he says his team hasn’t been allowed back on site to complete the work that could prove his assertions.
“Based on my intuition,” he said. “Intuition means a lot when you’re looking for things and discovering things.”
It is exactly this sort of intuition-driven operation that has frustrated scientists and archaeologists for years.
“We were surprised by the whole lack of scientific approach,” UNESCO’s Guerin said. “Standing there and saying ‘I found the Adventure Galley’ without any evidence — any archaeologist would be very careful about saying a thing like that.”
She added: “There was a lot of wishful thinking in the affair.”
De Bry said that this is what ultimately prompted him to act as UNESCO’s guide of the shipwrecks for their investigation of Clifford’s work — knowing well that Clifford would view it as a betrayal and that de Bry himself could come under criticism.
For years, de Bry had been held up as Clifford’s archaeologist, giving some semblance of scientific legitimacy to the explorer’s various exploits.
As much as the UNESCO report is damaging to his reputation, de Bry said, continuing to associate with Clifford and his team is “also damaging to me as well.”
“You have to have a scientific approach and you have to have more physical evidence to come to a conclusion that it is the Adventure Galley or it is not,” de Bry said. “Barry Clifford is Barry Clifford and nobody is going to change that.”
He added: “Barry is always dreaming things up. He believes what he wants to believe.”