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.

"Here's the exposed limestone," Carr says, dropping his bag under the big umbrella and peering down at the pockmarked bare rock. "And this, interestingly enough A this is artificial, this is a post hole cut into the rock by hand, by people setting up a structure here." Even an untrained eye can discern the difference between natural solution holes in the soft rock -- dissolved by rainwater -- and the chiseled, square concavities being cleaned by shovel-wielding dig technician Don Mattucci. Despite the post holes' distinctiveness, some effort is required to puzzle out their pattern, to connect the dots into some kind of recognizable house, something that might offer a clue about Surles Lewis, his wife Frankee, and their three boys.

Field director Kim Heinz uncovers something that prompts her to exclaim, "Neat!" One gloved hand holds a nondescript object from the dirt she's been screening. "It's a gunflint," Heinz announces, turning the oblong pebble between her fingers. "Look, you can see the percussion crease right there." Smooth all over except where a piece has obviously broken off, the flint bears a small indentation at what would have been its business end -- the part that hit steel hard enough to spark powder and send a pistol ball on its deadly way nearly 200 years ago.

Powder and ball would have been indispensable to anyone trying to keep body and soul together on this wild coast in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, whether that person was a member of the Lewis family, a British sailor, or an American soldier; all used flintlocks, and all left evidence of having occupied the Santa Maria site at one time or another. But life at what the old maps called Lewis Point was probably pretty peaceful, given what is known from historical accounts. And the spoils of the dig suggest that the people who lived here were doing well enough to bring in some of the more sophisticated touches of European civilization. Broken pieces of pearlware, a kind of china common in England between the 1770s and the 1830s, have turned up in large numbers, as have fragments of jackware found aboard British ships of the same time. Shattered gin bottles testify to one possible means of passing the time and medicating the mosquito bites. And part of a clay pipe -- along with Carr's comment that smoking wasn't uncommon among pioneer women -- conjures up an image of Frankee Lewis unwinding at day's end, puffing contentedly as a quiet night falls across Biscayne Bay.

That's a far cry from the picture Bob Carr got growing up in Miami during the Fifties and early Sixties, when he was, as he puts it, "very enamored with these stories of pirates." In those days, pirates loomed large in the popular consciousness of Florida history, and every bay and inlet had its bloody tale, every beach its buried treasure to excite youthful enthusiasm. Red-blooded boys all over South Florida, Carr included, ate up this stuff. But there was only one problem: Almost none of it was true. The tales were the products of people that Carr says "had no obligation to a past." In a Florida where nearly everybody was from somewhere else, the past could literally be created, built on the framework of whatever fantasy the region's hucksters thought would sell.

This worked fine for the folks pitching real estate, but for a kid growing up with a keen interest in local history it was intensely frustrating. "I remember dying to know, really wanting to know what the history of this area was," Carr says. "And all I could find out was that oh, there were some Seminole Indians. Nobody had any knowledge, no teacher I ever ran into had any knowledge about the earlier prehistory here." And then, in a seventh-grade classroom at Ada Merritt Junior High -- a few blocks from his current office in Little Havana -- Carr met his future in the middle of show-and-tell.

"One of the kids came in and he said, 'I have some artifacts that I found on the Miami River,'" Carr recalls. "And I couldn't believe that there could be anything like artifacts in Miami. I talked to this kid -- his name was Mark Greene -- and I remember I had to give up several days' worth of lunch money for him to share the secret of the great discovery he made."

Greene guided Carr to the site on the riverbank where he'd found the artifacts, and the boys' business relationship quickly turned into a friendly one. All year long they combed the area just upriver from Brickell Point, gathering piece after piece of the past. When summer came, they were ready for their most ambitious project yet, an excavation of the largest deposit of prehistoric material they'd ever seen. They'd found it on land now occupied by the Rivergate Plaza office building, a low hump about two feet high and fifteen feet in diameter, and they were certain they knew what it was: an Indian burial mound.

"We spent that summer very laboriously digging, trying to do archaeology right. Of course, we were destroying this mound, this incredible mound," Carr says, and then pauses to let the magnitude of his teenage crime sink in. "Finally, just as the school year was beginning to unfold, we uncovered the secret of the Indian mound: a huge mass of rusted iron in the middle of the mound, which we later found out was a Model T. The Model T had been dredged out of the river, placed on the bank by the dredge with the sediments that were filled with artifacts. We hadn't damaged anything; the mystery of the mound was that it was just a dredge-pile."

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