This is more than a Pirate Museum. It is a living laboratory that lets visitors share the thrill of the latest 300 year-old discovery.
How and when to visit the laboratory at the Wyhdah Pirate Museum. Click here.
For educators and groups, click here.
It’s been 33 years since underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the sunken remains of the pirate ship Whydah tantalizingly close to the Wellfleet coastline. Since then, he and his crew of divers, archaeologists and historians have catalogued tens of thousands of priceless artifacts from giant cannons to the tiniest, intricate pieces of jewelry.
Astoundingly, the search continues to this day.
Recently, Clifford, now 71, and his team hosted CNN and the Associated Press for another dive – one of thousands over the decades.
As with every other underwater search, they retrieved new treasures – some buried under 10 to 20 feet of sand, but the vast majority are encased in what is essentally concrete – hidden from the naked view, but virtually glistening in Clifford’s experienced and trained eye.
While visitors to the recently opened Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth can’t quite experience a nerve-wracking dive itself, as great white sharks hover nearby, they can literally interact with the newest treasures inside an expansive laboratory that makes learning fun for children to grandparents.
“It’s like being at the Smithsonian Institution,” said one recent visitor, marveling at the combination of technology and hands-on skills in front of her. High-definition screens display X-rays that reveal encased coins and even pieces of silk.
A giant slab of concreted sand and stone weighing tons dominates the middle of the laboratory. From its surface to its deepest core, Clifford and his team will extract ever so carefully thousands of new artifacts over coming months and possibly years.
Underwater field archeologist Chris Macort, a sixth-generation Cape Codder, who dives alongside Clifford, is working behind his laboratory table as visitors stare intently. On this day, he is cleaning a pristine navigational divider that is more than 300 years old.
Certified at 12 years of age as a scuba diver, he has been working alongside Clifford since 1996. “I’ve always been fascinated with shipwrecks along the Cape Cod coast,” he said. “And, it is exciting to also share the history of Cape Cod. When I met Barry in my 20’s, I realized all my dreams.”
After years of rigorous study and certifications, Macort now is both archaeologist, historian and educator. He’s ventured from Venezuela to Madagascar exploring shipwrecks, but his passion is right here on Cape Cod.
The Whydah Pirate exhibition has traveled around the world with National Geographic. Designed by the same artists who developed the King Tut exhibit, the only pirate ship ever recovered has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors at museums from Chicago to Philadelphia.
“Now we can share our world right here at home on Cape Cod,” says Macort, who is particularly excited about interacting with local school districts as far as Boston and Providence. “We have a wonderful opportunity to teach history and science alongside local educators and merge what we know with school curricula.”
The Cape Cod Museum Trail recently visited Macort. Here are excerpts from our interview:
What do visitors see when they visit your laboratory as part of their tour of the Pirate Museum?
Macort: When we dive on the Whydah site, we are discovering treasures that go back to the 17th century. But, when we bring them back to the laboratory we are discovering all over again. And this time, museum visitors are experiencing the revelations right alongside us.
It begins with identifying the shadows and shapes of a coin, pistol, a piece of jewelry encased in the concrete. Visitors can view the tantalizing possibilities right on our screens. Then, we have to agonizingly chip away and extract the artifacts with tiny tools.
Look right there, you see. Those are silver Spanish coins, but that long shape that looks like it is wrapping around the X-ray. That is probably a slave’s shackle from when the Whydah was a slave ship.
Why are all the concretions, from the giant one in the middle of the lab to the smaller ones on your workshop – including the one labeled as gun parts -immersed in water?
Macort: If they are allowed to dry, the concretion surrounding the object begins to fall apart. Regular tap water works for storage, but rain water and distilled water have a higher PH level that allows them to inhibit corrosion much more efficiently.
How do you remove the artifacts from the concretion?
Macort: For very large concretions, we can use an air scribe, which is like a mini-jack hammer that gently taps it without harming the artifacts inside. But, but as you can see, we also use dental picks and a brushes so we don’t damage smaller and brittle artifacts. And as soon as we extract the artifacts, we have to keep them wet while cleaning and then conserving them.
Once exposed to air and light, it is critical to eliminate all the sodium chloride, salt, which will begin corroding the artifact.
Wood, leather and silk, which we often discover, can begin to dry and deteriorate in a matter of hours if we don’t begin the conservation process rapidly.
What exactly is concretion?
Macort: Concretion is what protects and preserves so many of the artifacts you see at the museum. When iron is submerged in sea water, they undergo electrolytic reactions. The metal starts to disintegrate and combine with the salts present in the ocean water. The metals and salts form a conglomerate that ‘cements’ rock, sand, clay and any other nearby artifacts into a mass called concretion.
While the concretion stays submerged in salt water, most of the objects inside stay relatively stable. But when the concretion is brought to the surface and allowed to dry, the objects inside will deteriorate, as I explained before.
What was the biggest concretion you’ve extracted from the Wyhdah site and brought back to the lab?
Macort: We’ve brought back about 1,000 concretions, some as small as your fist and others as heavy as 13,000 pounds. On average, they weigh about 100 pounds. The big concretion in the middle of the laboratory is about 2,500 pounds and there are enough artifacts encased within it to open up a small museum.
Have you ever been on a trip to the site and not recovered any artifacts?
Macort: Actually, never. And I’ve been diving on the site since 1996.
How did Barry originally discover the Whydah?
Macort: Barry and his crew started looking for the Whydah in 1982, relying on historical records and technologically with a magnetometer to detect iron. They discovered hundreds of iron pieces, but not those from the Whydah. One complication was that parts of Marconi’s towers had fallen into the ocean in the same area. There also were remnants from other more recent shipwrecks.
Then, one day in the fall of 1984, a diver came up and said he discovered a cannon. Nearby was a coin dated 1684, and a brass trigger guard for a pistol. A year later, they made “the” discovery that changed history. They retrieved a bell that said, “The Whydah Galley 1716. That was the final proof for anyone who had been skeptical up to that moment. You can see the same bell right here in the museum when you first arrive.
How do you explain your job to people?
After you have spent an hour or two watching videos of our dives and then going back in history to 1716, you enter our laboratory. At first, it probably catches you by surprise. Because after living 300 years ago, you find yourself surrounded by high-definition screens projecting X-rays and an array of concretions that begin to reveal everything from a brass-handled flint-lock pistol to a pewter spoon, and gold dust.
I want everyone to feel personally connected to each artifact, and we are right there to explain their origins. So you go from restorer and archaeologist to historian.
There are no exhibit cases in the lab. Everything is out in the open. Often, we will pull a concretion directly from its tank on my workshop desk. We encourage visitors to participate with us, even holding a flashlight while we carefully extract an object. Then, they can actually hold the new treasure.
As someone who is from the Cape, I also get very excited about sharing this totally unique Cape Cod story. The Whydah’s captain, Bellamy, after attacking and looting more than 50 ships in the Caribbean and up the Atlantic, navigated his ship all the way to the Cape, possibly to reunite with his young lover. Within hundreds of yards of that destination, the Whydah encountered a fatal Nor’Easter. All but two of his crew perished, including Bellamy. And the Whydah slammed into a shallow sandbar with the plunder of all those ships disappearing into the sand.
For nearly 300 years, it remained hidden under no more than 20 feet of sand and concretion.
What I realize is that every visit is a unique experience.
Macort: Very true. That’s because we will be extracting, cleaning, preserving a new group of artifacts all the time. And with each new artifact, the museum itself evolves and adds to the Whydah story.
If you were in front of a high school science class, how would you share the Whydah story?
Macort: I would explain the entire chemical process of concretion. I could bring this one concretion on my workshop table. Within and around it are hundreds of gun parts that may have been antiques even back then in 1716. We would analyze all the different materials we discovered in each of the parts.
What I strive to do here in the lab is keep everyone listening and excited. Along with the chemistry, I never want to lose sight that we are exploring actual pirate treasure, the stuff of our dreams and imagination when we were eight year old kids.
Here is a giant rock and inside it is this beautiful pistol covered in brass and bronze. Where can you go to have a piece of eight placed in your hand and learn it was stolen by pirates 300 years ago to the day?
Do you ever get bored?
Macort: Never bored. But nervous. I am always on my toes when I work with these artifacts. If I get tired or diverted, I have learned to put my work down and walk away. I have to watch all the objects like a hawk; not because I am afraid something will be stolen, but because they are so exposed that they could be knocked over.
What has been the most exciting discovery for you personally?
Macort: Most recently, our crew discovered a brass ring that serves as a wax seal with four clearly imprinted images – a wheat sheaf, a crown, a mythical griffin and an anchor with rope. So small, but so perfect and pristine once we cleaned and conserved it.
It had to belong to someone who could read and write and send correspondence. My theory is that it was the property of Captain Lawrence Prince, the original captain of the Whydah before the pirates, led by Samuel Bellamy, overtook and captured his ship. Prince was allowed to return to England on Bellamy’s smaller vessel.
As a history buff, maybe the most exciting piece I have pulled from concretion was stuck to the ship’s main anchor. It was a brass name plate only about six inches long in beautiful script that said “The Whydah Galley 1713.”
It was an immediate mystery because the Whydah Barry discovered was launched in 1716.
After a great deal of research, our late history, Ken Kinkor, discovered that the Whydah shipwrecked off Wellfleet actually was the second vessel captained by Prince with the same name. That one apparently had its maiden voyage three years earlier and also was attacked by a different crew of pirates off Jamaica, where it was sunk.
So Prince lost two Whydahs in three years. He survived both incidents, returning to England both times. I can’t imagine how he explained it all to the ships’ owners.