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.

There is archaeology happening today, too, but the diggers Carr has come to the site to see are not here on a salvage mission. They are from Florida's Bureau of Archaeological Research, and they have been sent to Miami by the Florida cabinet, which tentatively has decided to spend $15 million to help buy the circle property. At the moment five of the seven state team members are either in or around a five-foot-deep trench near the bulkheaded bank of the Miami River. Carr interrupts his analysis of the tight position he'd been in the year before to greet the group's leader, Ryan Wheeler. Tall and gangly, the thirtyish Wheeler is dressed almost completely in shades of blue, from his faded jeans to the floppy, flower-decorated hat on his head. He hands Carr a broken-off bottleneck pulled from the bottom of the trench, and the older archaeologist identifies it with a glance. "That's Civil War period, that particular bottle," Carr says. "Late 1850s, 1860s."

"Where it came out of would have been right at the edge of the water," Wheeler notes. "That area was probably capturing a lot of junk throughout the years."

"The dark soil you're looking at is the original bank, the historic bank," Carr explains, expanding on Wheeler's comment and pointing to the much darker layer below the modern fill, which curves down to meet the bedrock floor of the trench. "So in 1898 your feet would have been wet where you're standing."

When the dirt was dug out, this is what was left: A 
circle cut into the rock
photos courtesy Miami-Dade Historic Preservation D
When the dirt was dug out, this is what was left: A circle cut into the rock
Developer Michael Baumann's billboard (right) shows 
what he wanted to build at the mouth of the Miami 
River
Bill Cooke
Developer Michael Baumann's billboard (right) shows what he wanted to build at the mouth of the Miami River

In fact the old riverbank is still wet; water rises up twice a day at the north end of the trench, seeping in with the rising tide. Archaeologists Gary Biter and Bill Stanton are working in about three inches of brackish water, cleaning out midden-filled post holes in the limestone, features that seem to indicate that the Tequesta built something at the edge of the river. Already, the archaeologists have removed a number of shell tools and pieces of charred wood, probably more leftovers from canoe-making.

The opportunity to take part in this kind of slow careful excavation is, to put it mildly, not what Carr foresaw the preceding fall. The outcome he expected then is pictured on the billboard that still stands beside the Brickell Avenue Bridge, just south of Manuel Carbonell's bronze statue, The Tequesta Family: "A 600 Unit Luxury Waterfront High-Rise Rental," two giant white towers rising above an improbably turquoise Miami River. "It's not that we couldn't conceive of preserving this site as a park -- we did," Carr says later, standing above the real river, flowing algae-green against the incoming tide. "I think we just didn't see that as an option we could create. It's like any kind of political reality. You look at what the options are, and you navigate your way through the perilous rocks and try to reach some attainable goal."

Carr's options in the fall of 1998 had been extremely limited. In the past he had always been able to remove significant artifacts from threatened sites and preserve them elsewhere. But the circle -- perhaps the most significant find of his entire career -- was cut into bedrock. It was part of a privately owned site, and as Carr understood the City of Miami's preservation law, such an artifact was completely at the mercy of the site's owner. Even if he had dug up the sphinx itself at Brickell Point, he believed, the property owner would have been legally free to bulldoze it. Only human burials, which are protected by state law, had to be taken into account by the developer, and none of those had been found. In any event Carr had been told by state archaeologist Jim Miller (with whom he had been discussing the site since September 1998) that any human remains found at Brickell Point simply would be removed and reburied somewhere else.

That left Carr with only one place to turn if he wanted to protect the circle: Michael Baumann. The developer planned to tear out the bedrock that held the feature and replace it with the foundation for a three-story parking garage, but Carr thought it was possible he could talk him into altering his plans to somehow build around the circle. The archaeologist had persuaded other builders to do the same sort of thing in the past; as a result Tequesta artifacts were protected beneath landscape islands in the neighboring Sheraton Biscayne Bay's driveway and under the swimming pool at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. Carr knew that persuading Baumann to redesign so large and expensive a project so close to beginning construction would be difficult, but he also had confidence in his own diplomatic talents. Thus he was not especially surprised when the developer agreed to have an architect look into the feasibility of modifying the design. He even began to hope that Baumann's evident interest in the discovery (the developer had visited the site several times to see what was being uncovered) might tip the balance in favor of preservation. As fall turned into winter, though, Carr heard nothing more from Baumann about possible design changes. Meanwhile the builder's representatives continued to warn that construction could begin at any time.

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