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.

Ask an archaeologist why the natives stopped living on the south side of the river, though, and you enter the realm of conjecture. And that realm is quite large when it comes to the Tequesta.Tequesta art, religion, government, and customs are thought to have resembled those of other South Florida native peoples, but no one can say for sure what they were really like. The only direct accounts of them come from Spanish Jesuits, who were convinced that much of Tequesta culture was the work of the Devil. (The Jesuits gave up their missionary work after spending only one year on the Miami River; in the end the priests wound up besieged in their fortified mission and had to be rescued by Spanish soldiers from Havana.) No one knows the Tequesta language, because the tribe had no writing, and its oral tradition died with its last members. And no one knows what the Tequesta town, built from perishable wood, looked like at any stage of its development, although the Miami Circle finally has offered some hints about the rough outlines of some of its buildings.

One thing archaeologists think they know for certain about the Tequesta is that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the Maya or any other Central American people. No one is more forthright on this point than John Ricisak. "There isn't any," he declares when asked about a connection with the Maya, the wry tone in his voice a product of months spent answering questions about what he calls Ted Riggs's "outrageous claim."

It's ironic, then, that it was Ricisak who brought Riggs to the attention of the media in the first place -- accidentally, the archaeologist says, and with no clue as to the circus that would result. It happened just before Christmas 1999, after four months in which the dig had been virtually (and, both Ricisak and Carr imply, blissfully) ignored by the press. The circle discovery had received only the most cursory coverage: a single story on WAMI-TV (Channel 69). Then, one day, a reporter from Reuters, Jim Loney, showed up. "Their Miami bureau is just up the street, and I think he was just passing by," Ricisak remembers. "He came up and asked what we were doing, and I gave him a brief tour of the site and explained that we had discovered this interesting circular feature. He asked me what I thought it was, and I said one reasonable interpretation is that it's the partial footprint of a large, probably pre-Columbian circular structure of some kind. And I said of course there are people who have other ideas, and he said, “Like who?' And I said, “Well, there is one person who has even suggested it was a Mayan celestial calendar.' And he's like, “Who's that?'"

Michael Baumann (rear) watches as one of his 
lawyers pleads his case before the county 
commission
Mark Diamond
Michael Baumann (rear) watches as one of his lawyers pleads his case before the county commission

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Ricisak directed Loney to Riggs, who happened to be on-site that day. That was all it took. The article that Loney wrote ran nationwide a few days later, and while it featured quotes from Carr and Ricisak as well as skeptical comments from a Yale University Maya specialist, its real star was Ted Riggs. Identified as "a surveyor who has studied Mayan culture," Riggs was quoted as saying, "It looks like Stonehenge in negative -- instead of stones, holes."

Nobody working on the project was prepared for what happened next. It was as if the words Maya and Stonehenge had a shamanistic power; once spoken to a single reporter, they magically summoned countless others, all clamoring for answers about the "mystery circle" and its connection to the Maya. The effect was amplified a week after the Reuters article appeared, when the Miami Herald put the circle on its front page, accompanying its story with an artist's rendering of Riggs's celestial calendar headlined "The Maya Theory." Suddenly it seemed everyone in South Florida wanted to know about what had been dubbed the "Miami Circle."

The sudden publicity gave Carr the perfect chance to do something he regarded as one of the most important parts of his job: remind the citizens of Miami-Dade County that they live in a place more than a few decades old and whose roots actually extend all the way back to the last Ice Age. On the other hand, publicity could mean big problems for the ongoing archaeological investigation. For one thing it forced the archaeologists to deal with crowds of visitors and take extra precautions to ensure the security of the site after hours. It also compelled them to spend precious time fighting what they saw as misinformation generated by Riggs's speculations, partly because they felt a sense of responsibility to the public and partly to protect their credibility with their colleagues. Finally it put stress on their all-important relationship with developer Michael Baumann.

Just how much stress became apparent the day after the Miami Herald story ran. That morning a furious Baumann showed up at the site and accused the archaeologists of playing up the discovery in the media. "He was pissed," Ricisak recalls. "He was demanding to know who had alerted the press. I assume that he was insinuating that I did or that someone else working on the crew did." Ricisak took emotional exception to that insinuation, and an argument ensued that quickly escalated to the brink of physical confrontation. Fortunately Carr was present and was able to get between the two men.

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