Magic Primeval

Don't tell archaeologist Bob Carr that the mysterious Miami Circle is just a bunch of holes in the ground. He knows better than that.

Carr had known that Brickell Pointe was coming for three years, but until the day of his visit, he hadn't realized that the demolition of the old Brickell Apartments was under way. For the historic preservation director and long-time county archaeologist, this was a serious matter. Although nothing special themselves, the apartments lay at the heart of one of South Florida's most archaeologically sensitive areas, a place where the earth was loaded with artifacts left behind by the prehistoric people Spanish explorers had called the Tequesta. It was ground Carr knew well. He had begun his archaeological career a few hundred feet south and nearly 40 years before, digging up 1000-year-old pottery shards and shell tools with a friend from Ada Merritt Junior High. In 1980 he had returned to the same site, leading a three-month volunteer excavation before the construction of what is today the Sheraton Biscayne Bay; around the same time he had conducted a survey that turned up remains of human burials in nearby Brickell Park.

Carr was certain that the property occupied by the Brickell Apartments also had been used by the Tequesta; the riverfront land would have been at a premium for people who used canoes to travel into the Everglades. He was less certain whether much of the Tequesta site still survived beneath the six buildings. However remote the odds of finding anything were, though, his responsibility as the county's chief archaeological preservation officer was clear. A long-standing agreement between the county and the City of Miami -- which had jurisdiction over this site and many others but lacked its own staff archaeologist -- gave Carr the job of determining how much archaeological monitoring was necessary when ground was going to be disturbed in an archaeologically significant area.

Since this ground was about to be disturbed in a very serious way, Carr wasted little time making sure Brickell Pointe's developer brought in an archaeological consultant, Fort Lauderdale's Scott Lewis, to monitor the project. And in early summer, as workers with heavy equipment began ripping out the old buildings' foundations, Carr realized that it was a good thing he had acted when he did. Incredibly most of the Tequesta site seemed to be intact, preserved beneath a thick covering of modern fill. Its profile, a layer of dark soil that contrasted sharply with the gray-white crushed-rock fill above, was clearly visible in deep trenches left behind when the foundations were removed. That soil is known as "black-dirt midden," a term archaeologists use for an area of earth stained coal-black by centuries of kitchen scraps and other organic products of human occupation. Filled with shell tools, bones, and bits of broken pottery -- the raw materials of South Florida archaeology -- the soil lay several feet thick above the limestone bedrock. The midden had been undisturbed for more than 500 years and probably had taken close to 1000 years to form. Now it looked as though it would be erased within a few months.

For Carr it seemed the only option was to do what he had done on the Sheraton property next door: conduct a salvage excavation, a dig that would save as much as possible before the site was obliterated. He contacted Brickell Pointe developer Michael Baumann and got permission to dig on the property until building permits were obtained and construction began. That gave Carr only about four to six weeks, but he was used to digging under pressure. As an urban archaeologist, he had built a career out of meeting construction deadlines and cooperating with developers, and he had no reason to believe this dig would be any different from the dozens of other salvage excavations he had overseen in his twenty years with the county. Carr's team would go in, save what could be saved, and get out.

That was the plan, at least, when a crew from the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, a nonprofit group set up and headed by Carr, began work on the site in the blazing heat of late July 1998. Carr himself was not with the excavators most of the time; because his responsibilities as preservation director made full-time fieldwork impossible, he had appointed new county archaeologist John Ricisak as on-site supervisor. The 34-year-old Hialeah native had joined the historic preservation office only six months before, taking over the job Carr had held since 1981. This kind of hurry-up rescue operation was a change for Ricisak; the last dig he had directed was the slow, careful excavation of an Etruscan village in Italy. Still, he threw himself into the work on Brickell Point with confidence and enthusiasm, improvising a digging plan meant to maximize results in the limited time available. Initially Ricisak focused the team's efforts a few yards back from the sea wall-protected bank of the Miami River, working on the assumption that the original riverbank, which had been buried beneath several feet of modern fill, had been a major center of both prehistoric and historic activity.

Once the diggers broke through the shellrock fill to the top of the midden layer, they discovered that Ricisak had guessed correctly. Among the first items they found were glass beads and coins from the late Nineteenth Century, probably dropped by visitors to William and Mary Brickell's trading post, which had been established nearby in 1871. Digging a little deeper, the crew began to encounter prehistoric material: pottery shards and bones, bits of charred wood, fire-blackened stone, and shell-tool scrapers that Ricisak and Carr interpreted as evidence of a riverside canoe-making operation. At the bottom of the midden they found the limestone bedrock, pockmarked with dozens of curious round holes a few inches in diameter. To Ricisak the holes looked natural, the product of water dissolving the soft limestone. Carr, remembering similar holes he had seen on the Sheraton site, thought they might be artificial, dug out by the Tequesta to support posts. But with time so short, there was no chance to settle the question. Instead the crew turned its attention to an area about twenty yards southeast, where a deep trench gouged out by the demolition revealed a particularly rich easy-to-access midden deposit.

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