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.

Virtually no one digging at Brickell Point in December 1998 gave any credence to Riggs's Maya theory. While Riggs was respected as an expert surveyor, he had less formal archaeological training and experience than the youngest field technician on the site. His intuition might have been responsible for the discovery of the circle, the archaeologists said, but there were any number of problems with the ideas he was presenting. The axes, for example, didn't have to come from Central America; basalt was available in North Georgia. (Later studies have revealed that the stone the axes were made of did come from the southern Appalachians.) There were so many holes in the rock that almost any sort of alignment a person wanted to find could be found, and likewise, the basins were so amorphous that a person could find in them any picture he wanted. Finally the notion of the circle being a calendar seemed unlikely, since calendars generally are associated with agrarian societies, and nothing found on the site indicated that its builders had raised crops.

The surveyor accepted all these criticisms calmly. They could call his concept "Riggs-henge" for now, but he was sure he would have the last laugh.


Surveyor Ted Riggs modeled his circle theory on 
Stonehenge and Mayan temples
Steve Satterwhite
Surveyor Ted Riggs modeled his circle theory on Stonehenge and Mayan temples
Prehistoric holes riddle the bedrock alongside the 
Miami River
Bill Cooke
Prehistoric holes riddle the bedrock alongside the Miami River

John Ricisak bends over bare limestone, picking at post holes with a metal trowel. "These holes are everywhere, man," he says. Where he stands, in a large square of naked bedrock about twenty feet away from the circle, it certainly seems that way; the rock is almost sievelike. "To me what they reflect is generation after generation of structures being built on the site in pre-Columbian times."

Standing up, Ricisak peers over the edge of the excavation pit, toward the backhoe that Ryan Wheeler's crew is using to peel shellrock fill away from midden that later will reveal still more holes. Across the river an osprey perched on the blue-and-gray façade of the Dupont Plaza shrieks and then launches itself, gliding low over the water. "What's so valuable from an archaeological standpoint," Ricisak continues, "is that typically when archaeologists find evidence of aboriginal structures, it's in the form of stains in the soil. But here, the locations of these posts are literally written in stone. I think as we expose more and more areas, we're going to pick up patterns of holes that show the locations of other structures and really give us a complete picture of what went on here. I mean, it's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The picture Ricisak hopes the Brickell site will bring into sharper focus is that of a lost city. Built of wood, its structures lacked the scale and grandeur of the temples and palaces of Central America. But it was a substantial community nonetheless, one perhaps twenty times older than the city that took its place on the banks of the Miami River. Its boundaries in time and space are not known precisely, because its builders did not leave any account of themselves in writing. The only written descriptions of the native town -- the ones in which the Spanish referred to it as "Tequesta" -- were composed late in its life, only about a century before waves of European diseases and raids by English-allied Indians from Georgia sealed its fate. They say nothing about anything that happened before the late Sixteenth Century, and they speak only of a settlement on the river's north bank. But the archaeological record tells a different story.

Digs conducted over the past 50 years, most since 1978 by Bob Carr, have determined that a prehistoric settlement spread over an area roughly bounded by Flagler Street to the north, SW Seventh Street to the south, Biscayne Bay to the east, and SW Second Avenue to the west. The Tequesta (the name archaeologists continue to use for the town's inhabitants, even though they don't know if the Spanish got it right) lived there by the thousands, for thousands of years. Many of them are still there, buried beneath streets and parking lots and the spreading oaks of Brickell Park. Once a 25-foot-high, 100-foot-long Tequesta burial mound loomed over the north side of the mouth of the Miami River, but in 1896 it was leveled to make way for Henry Flagler's Royal Palm Hotel. (Until recently no one knew exactly where the bones it contained were dumped, because Flagler construction chief John Sewell made the men who did the job swear to keep the location a secret.)

From excavations and Spanish historical accounts, archaeologists such as Ricisak and Carr have been able to learn quite a few things about the Tequesta. They know what Miami's prehistoric people ate (fish, shellfish, and venison, with turtle, seal, and whale meat thrown in for good measure), and they know what kind of tools they used (shell picks and hammers, knives made from sharks' teeth, and stone axes and arrow points). They know Tequesta pottery well enough to use fragments of it to determine the age of other items found at about the same depth beneath the surface. They know from analysis of pollen recovered from excavations that during the wet summer months most of the Tequesta left the coast, probably heading upriver into the Everglades to hunt deer trapped on tree islands by high water. They also know that a few centuries before their first contact with the Spanish, the Tequesta abandoned the bayfront south of the river.

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