The World According to Carr

Cynics say that to explore the depths of South Florida culture, all you have to do is scratch the surface. Dade County archaeologist Bob Carr digs deeper and knows better.

It's been fourteen years, but Dade County's official archaeologist still remembers the dream. Bob Carr was standing in a place he had known since childhood -- on Brickell Point at the mouth of the Miami River. Just in front of him a ledge of exposed limestone projected from the bluff overlooking Biscayne Bay, and stacked on top of the bluff were piles of very old, clearly very valuable books. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a strong wind blew up. The books' covers flew open, and the wind seized their pages, ripping them out and sending them flying, stripping volume after volume until none remained intact. And then Carr woke up, shaken and wondering what his dream might mean.

Brickell Point had always held a special significance for Carr, as well as Miami. Occupied for more than 2000 years by Tequesta Indians, once home to William and Mary Brickell's late-nineteenth-century trading post, it had been one of Carr's first dig sites, excavated with all the seventh-grade seriousness he and a buddy could muster. At thirteen he'd haunted the land around the river mouth, picking up whatever he could find on the ground A pottery shards, stone tools, bone needles. He'd crawled under the Brickell house, left vacant by the death of the last family member a few years before, and gathered handfuls of glass beads used for trade with the Seminoles. Later he'd watched treasure hunters tear apart the same stately home board by board until it was beyond restoration.

But Carr knew that the people who destroyed the house had been searching in the wrong place. The real treasures of Brickell Point were still in the ground, and he and his school friend had barely breached the surface. However, he couldn't understand how his unsettling vision related to the site. Then came the day a few months later when his job -- at the time just a short-term commission to undertake Dade's first countywide archaeological survey -- brought him to Brickell Point. He found himself standing in the very place he remembered from his dream, looking up at the bluff. And where the books had been, there were now survey stakes, the first signs of the shape of things to come: a brand-new Holiday Inn, big enough to wipe out anything in its path.

This was in 1980, a year before Dade passed its landmark historic preservation ordinance and Bob Carr assumed the newly created and more substantial post of county archaeologist. In 1980 he had no statutory backup, no real authority of any kind. All that stood between an irreplaceable cultural resource and the hungry bulldozers were his powers of persuasion. If he could get the construction company to give him a little time, he might be able to mount a salvage excavation and recover most of the endangered artifacts. But lost time is lost money in the capital-intensive development business -- enough money to outweigh even the most powerful persuasion, one would think.

"I said, 'Look, this is really an important site,'" Carr recalls today in the same quiet, matter-of-fact voice he used with the Holiday Inn construction superintendent. "'You can't let this site be destroyed.' And he said, 'Okay, if you want to work here, we'll let you work.' He ended up giving us three months to work. I mustered about 50 students and volunteers, all volunteers. We worked for the whole three months, dug anything and everything we could, feverishly."

When the clock ran out, Carr's ad hoc archaeological rescue squad had saved boxloads of artifacts from the site, and filled page after notebook page with information about a culture that had been wiped out before history could take more than a glancing notice of its existence. And without knowing it, Carr had taken his first steps into the arena where he has spent the last decade and a half, dividing his talents between nationally recognized scientific research and the bureaucratic diplomacy he practices for Metro-Dade's Historic Preservation Division.

In his tenure as Dade County archaeologist -- a job he, in a way, created for himself by helping draft the ordinance that established the position A Carr has opened entire new chapters in the story of South Florida's past: digging some of North America's oldest human remains out of a sinkhole on the Charles Deering Estate, uncovering forgotten Seminole War battlefields, picking through the leftovers of 10,000-year-old big-game barbecues, pinpointing the location of Miami's first known homestead -- Carr has made a career of reminding his ever-growing, ever-changing hometown that its roots go far deeper than the day before yesterday.

Along the way he's made more than a little history of his own, becoming something of a legend in Florida archaeology and Dade County government. Words like "mind-boggling" tend to pop out when people talk about his Paleo-Indian excavations. One associate half-jokingly compares him to the Buddha; another refers to him as "the Henry Kissinger of historic preservation." Contractors praise Carr's ability to excavate without putting them behind schedule. Randy Nimnicht, president of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, likes to talk about Carr's talent for cajoling those same contractors into loaning him heavy equipment, and says Dade County is "going to be a heck of a lot better place" because of Carr's work.

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