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.

At the new location, they again discovered large quantities of prehistoric artifacts. But when they reached the bottom of their first excavation area, they also found something else: more holes in the bedrock. Some of the holes looked like those they had seen before, but four of them were much bigger -- strange ovoid cavities about three feet long and eighteen inches across, forming an arc that gradually curved around to the east. Odd as they appeared, these features were well within the limits of what water could do to limestone. Ricisak was convinced that they were natural, and that the "pattern" they formed was just a coincidence. Carr, by contrast, was certain that they had been cut by human hands. Perhaps, he thought, the holes marked the footprint of a prehistoric structure -- something never before seen in South Florida. Possibly they were only one part of a larger still-buried shape.

One member of the conservancy crew thought he knew what that shape was and exactly where to dig to uncover it. Surveyor Ted Riggs, a long-time associate of Carr, had measured the arc of the holes and concluded that it was one segment of a 38-foot-diameter circle.

Riggs didn't stop there, though. The still-unseen circle, he asserted, would prove a link between the native cultures of Florida and the Maya of Central America, a connection rejected by modern Florida archaeology. The surveyor's claims were too much for Ricisak, who argued that the team shouldn't be wasting its limited time chasing imaginary Mayan ruins. But Carr, while highly skeptical of any Central American connection, was intrigued by the possibility that Riggs's circle might be real. If it did exist, it was unique, and at the very least had to be documented before construction wiped it out. Although delays in the permitting process already had given the archaeologists far more time than they had expected -- it was now early October -- Carr knew development could begin at any moment. Settling the question of the holes in the traditional fashion, excavating by hand, would take months. Carr was going to have to get creative if he wanted to beat the bulldozers.


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What Carr did was simple, if not exactly in line with standard archaeological practice: He brought in a bulldozer of his own. Actually it was a backhoe, a digging machine with a slightly more delicate touch. It came roaring on to the site on October 9 and set up to dig along a circle Riggs had spray-painted on the dirt where he thought the holes were buried. The surveyor stood by watching along with Carr and Ricisak as the backhoe's steel-toothed bucket took its first bite of rocky fill. Within minutes the machine had cleared away the fill and was scooping out midden material with as much care as its operator could manage. When its teeth grated against bedrock, Ricisak stepped forward with a long metal probe.

Earlier he had joked that he would only believe in the circle after seeing not just 360 but 365 degrees of its circumference. Now he poked at hollows in the rough dirty surface of the limestone, trying to see whether any of them actually were deep midden-filled cavities like the four already discovered. In an instant he had his answer. Like a nail driving into rotten wood, the probe plunged first into one, then another hole. Both were exactly where Riggs had said they would be. So, too, were the holes that the backhoe exposed a few minutes later, a little further along the spray-painted circle. As the machine kept digging, and he kept finding holes with his probe, even Ricisak found his skepticism weakening. By the time the backhoe had gone halfway around the circle, he had seen enough to convince him that the cavities were not natural. And when it arrived back at the spot where it had started -- having uncovered more than a dozen new holes, all perfectly aligned with Riggs's circle -- it was clear to everyone watching that a major find had been made.

The question was, what were they going to do now?

"I thought, Here is a seemingly extraordinary discovery that is unfolding under the most difficult of circumstances," Bob Carr recalls. "I had the sense that this was not like anything I'd done before. But I didn't see the rules changing, because I always interpreted our job based on the law. I was operating under this umbrella of constraint."

Carr is walking across the overgrown rubble-strewn landscape of Brickell Point, explaining the circle's predicament as he saw it a little more than a year before. There are no crowds of spectators gathered outside the fence around the site today and no TV trucks besieging the front gate; at the entrance, only a small shrinelike collection of new-age totems and Caribbean spiritual paraphernalia remains to mark the spot where protesters gathered by candlelight for the cameras, and Indian drums drowned out the sounds of traffic. This is the way Brickell Point must have looked when the circle first was discovered, when the only people who knew about it were archaeologists.

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