By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Terrence McCoy
By Jeff Weinberger
By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
Read Part 2
If you spend much time talking with Bob Carr about the Miami Circle, you're almost certain to hear the story about his encounter with the Oklahoma Seminole medicine man. It took place in early February 1999, when the archaeologist was still Miami-Dade County's historic preservation director, and the public frenzy over the mysterious discovery was approaching its climax. For more than a month, Carr had been giving tours of the circle to journalists, politicians, and visiting dignitaries. The medicine man, one of three representatives sent by the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma to investigate the circle, fit into the last category. Quite a bit older than his companions -- a lawyer and a historic preservation specialist -- he also seemed somewhat uncomfortable in the white world. On the ride to the circle site on a nub of land called Brickell Point, at the mouth of the Miami River, he said almost nothing, staring silently out the car window while Carr and the others discussed the artifact's prospects.
But a few moments after he followed Carr into the circle itself, stepping over the holes in the limestone bedrock that form its boundary, a change seemed to come over the old man. He began speaking in a language that Carr couldn't understand. He didn't seem to be talking to Carr or to the other Seminoles, who, Carr suddenly realized, had not come into the circle with the two of them. Instead his attention was focused downward, at the holes and the rock itself.
Taking the hint, Carr left the circle and joined the others outside. They stood there quietly for twenty minutes while the medicine man continued his monologue, sometimes sounding as if he were chanting and sometimes as if he were talking to himself. When he was finished, he fell silent again, and the two younger men resumed their conversation with Carr as if nothing had happened. Later, though, at lunch, the archaeologist was unable to restrain his curiosity. Look, he said to the medicine man, I know I'm a white man, and I know you're not able to tell me what it is you know or see. But what is it that you can tell me?
The medicine man answered slowly and carefully, in heavily accented English. He told Carr that the circle was very powerful and very dangerous, and that he was concerned about the harm it might cause the unprotected. He was particularly worried about a small child he had seen run up to the circle and grab a rock for a souvenir. This could harm that boy, he said. It could kill him. You need medicine to protect yourself to go in there.
"He kept talking about how powerful it was," Carr recalls. "Then he said, “But the good news is you're not dead.'"
Carr laughs, remembering the oddness of the moment. The Miami Circle's unexpected discovery had given him many things to worry about, but a King Tut-style death curse was not one of them. And yet the archaeologist admits that the medicine man may have been on to something. For when they uncovered the circle, Carr and his colleagues actually did unleash something powerful -- something unlike anything Carr had ever seen in nearly 40 years of delving into South Florida's past.
And the story of what happened when that something got loose in Miami makes the plot of an Indiana Jones movie sound almost plausible by comparison. It's the story of an amazing archaeological find made in a place barely aware that it even has a history, much less a prehistory. It's the story of that place -- Miami-Dade County -- coming to terms with its buried past and coming together to save its newfound legacy in the face of almost impossible odds, a story that jumps from cliffhanger to cliffhanger to arrive finally at what seems like a ridiculously unlikely ending. And it's the story of how a short soft-spoken archaeologist and county bureaucrat on the verge of early retirement found himself on the ride of his life, caught for a year and a half between scientific heaven and political purgatory, with a hell of a lot of serious weirdness thrown in for good measure.
The first time Bob Carr stepped into the Miami Circle, he didn't have the slightest suspicion that it was there. No one else did either, of course, and with good reason. In May 1998 the artifact that eight months later would cause so much uproar was buried four feet beneath the dying grass of the Brickell Apartments, six three-story buildings being gutted by demolition crews. Erected at the mouth of the Miami River in 1950, the apartments once had been billed as "your own club-type home in the country within a short walk of downtown Miami." On the afternoon of Carr's visit, though, they looked more like something out of downtown Beirut: doorless and windowless, surrounded by debris. Not far away, by the Brickell Avenue Bridge, a sign on a high pole already was advertising the new construction that would rise from the rubble: two giant apartment towers to be known as Brickell Pointe.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Despite this atmosphere of uncertainty, the archaeological investigation moved steadily forward, producing a series of surprising and provocative discoveries. By early December Ricisak's diggers had cleared a three-foot-wide strip of bare limestone along the circle's perimeter and had begun to clean out individual holes. Both midden and bedrock, they confirmed, were largely undamaged by modern activity; the one significant exception was a large septic tank buried just inside the circle's southern edge, which they jokingly dubbed the "Tomb of the Tequesta King."In addition to the large basins, they found, the bedrock also was pocked with many smaller round holes like those Ricisak had found closer to the river. The little holes were everywhere, even at the bottoms of the basins themselves. Sometimes they contained loose chunks of rock, which the archaeologists theorized might have been wedged into place to hold posts upright. It also was possible that these rocks, or the posts they had held up, marked places of ritual significance to the Tequesta. That hypothesis was supported by the fact that rocks had been placed in holes that matched exactly with the east, west, and south cardinal points of the circle, as if to orient somehow the structure with the earth itself.
Most striking of all was the rock-in-hole feature that marked the circle's east cardinal point, over which a modern observer standing at the circle's center could see the condominium towers of Brickell Key. The hole was shaped like a football, only bigger, and it had a round boulder in its center. It looked for all the world like a human eye, and it seemed to be looking east -- toward the sunrise, perhaps, or maybe at the gap between Fisher Island and Virginia Key. To Carr and others, the position and appearance of the "eye" seemed too perfect to be an accident: The thing, they were sure, had meant something to the people who had made it. Although Carr wasn't ready to speculate on what that meaning might be, another investigator was not so reticent. Surveyor Ted Riggs, his confidence bolstered by his earlier success, had incorporated the eye into his Maya-circle theory -- a theory he had now taken to a new level.
Riggs had no pretensions to being an archaeologist. He seemed, in fact, to have no pretensions at all. In his early seventies but still formidable-looking and broad-shouldered, the leathery-skinned surveyor with a drooping mustache and dark combed-back hair favored white running shoes and bright-colored shirts that he left unbuttoned to his navel. His interest in Mayan culture dated to just after World War II, when, following service in the U.S. Navy, he had gone to Central America in search of adventure. There he had encountered the mysterious monuments left behind by the ancient Maya, visiting "every one I was allowed to get access to and some I wasn't." Riggs had a natural affinity for geometry and math -- it was no accident that he later became a surveyor -- and in time he became fascinated by the close connection between Mayan astronomy and architecture. So when he first saw the strangely shaped cut-limestone basins and carefully positioned post holes of the Miami Circle, he was reminded of observatories from which Mayan priests plotted the movements of the sun, moon, and stars.
Riggs knew that like England's Stonehenge, some Mayan structures were aligned with sunrise or sunset on the summer and winter solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year, respectively, and he thought it was possible that the circle's north and south cardinal points might have served a similar function. Using his surveyor's transit he plotted a precise north-south line through the circle's center and found that it intersected exactly with round holes on the circle's north and south edges. Then, still working from the circle's center, he marked a line toward where the sun would rise on the autumnal equinox -- the first day of fall -- and projected it backward, so that it passed out the circle's west side. Finally, using known directions for the summer and winter solstice sunrises, he drew lines from the holes he'd located at the circle's north and south cardinal points that intersected with the equinox line. At that point, 41 feet from the circle's center, he dug and found a perfectly round post hole that was four inches across and twelve inches deep. There, he decided, the circle's builders had set up a post on which the shadows of other posts at the north and south cardinal points would fall at the summer and winter solstices. And to the east, from a hole near the eye, another post would cast its shadow on the observation post at sunrise on the equinox.
The importance of this area of the circle, Riggs thought, was underlined by the eye (which seemed to him suspiciously close to the Mayan symbol for zero) and two other mysterious artifacts that had been found nearby. These were wedge-shaped hand axes made from basalt, a type of rock not native to South Florida but easily obtainable in Central America. Examining the axes, Riggs saw evidence of trade routes between the Yucatán peninsula, Cuba, and Florida, traveled by navigators in huge oceangoing canoes. And looking at the other basins in the circle, he thought he could make out the eroded remains of images that would have been familiar to such intrepid mariners -- the outlines of a whale, two sharks, a sea turtle, a dolphin, and a manatee. For the surveyor it all seemed to jibe perfectly: The circle was a calendar cut from stone, a product of Mayan astronomical genius, and it had been used by the people who once lived at Brickell Point to track the annual movements of the sun, probably for some religious or ritualistic purpose.
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.
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.
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?'"
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 Heraldput 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.
Baumann's touchiness about media exposure was telling. Early on he seemed to have come to the conclusion that public attention could do his cause no good, that as the developer, the man ultimately responsible for destroying the site, he automatically would be portrayed as a villain. Ricisak and Carr tried to present alternatives, pointing out that at other archaeological sites builders actually had used the press to their advantage, modifying their plans to protect resources and then publicizing their good deeds. But Baumann wasn't interested. Perhaps he was still smarting from what public controversy had done to him in the late 1980s, when he tried unsuccessfully to rip out a mangrove swamp next door to Oleta River State Park and replace it with condominiums and a marina. (That ill-starred venture was brought down by environmentalists and county and state regulators in an ugly fight that involved accusations of threats against activists, a failed run by Baumann for the North Miami Beach City Council, and a $30 million lawsuit by Baumann's father, Stan, against North Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County. In the end Baumann declared bankruptcy and lost the mangrove land to the Resolution Trust Corporation, which sold it to a state-county partnership.) Or maybe he was just feeling the pressure of the millions of dollars in other people's money riding on his project and of the costs certain to be incurred if he substantially modified its design. "Basically he said it's too late for anything like that," Ricisak recounts. "He was probably right."
Baumann also was setting himself up for a public-relations disaster. Had he been more flexible, it is possible that he and his project might have avoided following the familiar "evil developer versus the community" media script. But by refusing to bend, he made it virtually certain that those terms would be applied to any conflict over the circle site. And a conflict was coming, all right -- an epic battle that would make earlier South Florida fights over preservation look like mere skirmishes by comparison. It would be fought in the media; in the halls of city, county, and state government; and outside the fence surrounding the site itself.
Whether he deserved it or not (and the archaeologists are unanimous in saying he didn't), Baumann would be perceived as the villain in this confrontation. Where there are villains, of course, there also have to be heroes. In this case that was what Bob Carr was about to become.
Toward the end of the second week of January 1999, while anticipating the arrival of Baumann's permits and the eviction of his dig crew, Carr noticed a shift in the attitude of his superiors at Miami-Dade County. It was a subtle change, something that might not have been picked up by someone lacking the bureaucratic intuition Carr had developed after two decades with the county, but it was there nonetheless. The signs were small but definite: extra-anxious attention from his boss, Office of Economic and Community Development director Tony Crapp; unusual requests for information from the county manager's office; an awareness that his reports were being routed further and further up the county chain of command. The circle, he sensed, was beginning to attract political interest, and since he was the county's point man on the issue, his job was about to become a lot more complicated.
It was a strange position to be in, one made stranger still by the fact that Carr wasn't even supposed to be working for the county anymore. Long before the discovery of the circle, he had scheduled his retirement for December 31, 1998. When that plan had been disrupted by the circle crisis, Carr had agreed to stay on until the matter was resolved. He had expected the resolution to come quickly, with the beginning of construction. Now, though, it seemed there might be roadblocks, or at least speed bumps, ahead.
As an archaeologist Carr welcomed any extra time he could get to find out more about the site, but as a county bureaucrat he had to be careful to remain neutral. "You've got to understand, my job wasn't to set policy," he explains. "My job was to creatively use policy." There also was the matter of the archaeologists' fragile relationship with Baumann, which would be endangered by any hint that they were pushing for preservation. Particularly Carr worried that Baumann would perceive the outspoken Ricisak, a staunch preservationist, as instigating unfavorable media coverage of the developer's project. But as much as Ricisak wanted to come out in favor of saving the site, he also saw the merits of his boss's approach and did his best to keep his own feelings to himself.
By this time, though, there was no need to instigate anything. The press was all over the story, and the community was mobilizing to demand action. Preservation groups like the Dade Heritage Trust and the newly formed Urban Environment League had begun to fight back, and by broadcasting the conflict, the media were creating more opposition to Baumann's plan every day. Still, Carr recognized, at this stage of the game all the public opposition in the world was powerless to protect the circle. That would take some kind of government action, and whatever move Miami-Dade County was considering would probably come too late. For its part the City of Miami had let it be known that it wasn't going to let a few holes in the rock stand in the way of redevelopment. Brickell Pointe was expected to add 600 units of upscale housing to downtown Miami and $1.1 million to the cash-strapped city's tax rolls; along with the planned Miami One development across the river, it was touted by Mayor Joe Carollo as a crucial step to bringing Miami back from the brink of financial disaster.
Of course it didn't turn out that way, and ironically it was a city employee who inadvertently helped Carr discover the first chink in Brickell Pointe's armor. It happened innocently enough, during a conversation with city historic preservation director Sarah Eaton. The way Carr tells it, in mid-January 1999 he was talking to Eaton about building permits, still hoping he would be able to persuade Baumann to alter his design and build around the circle. Eaton, Carr says, used some words that caught his attention. She said the site was in a city "archaeological conservation area," and that Brickell Pointe had received a "certificate of appropriateness" from her office.
This struck Carr as odd. For years he had been advising the city on archaeological matters, making recommendations to Eaton about what she should include in development orders, and he had never heard of an "archaeological conservation area" in Miami. That kind of language suggested that the city had broad zones of protection for archaeology, and as far as Carr knew, Miami's preservation law only provided for the protection of specific, difficult-to-designate sites. Then something occurred to him. In 1991 Miami had amended its preservation ordinance after the county had threatened to sue over the city's failure to protect historic structures. Was it possible that, unbeknownst to him, the city also had changed the part of the law that shielded archaeological sites?
Carr called Assistant County Attorney Tom Logue, who had led Miami-Dade's 1991 campaign to force the city to strengthen its preservation law, and asked whether Logue had ever heard of the city having archaeological conservation areas. Logue said he hadn't, but he offered to check the pertinent part of the statute to see if any were mentioned. What he discovered stunned both men. The archaeological provisions of the law hadn't just been changed in 1991; they'd been strengthened to the point where the city's ordinance actually was stronger than the county's. The revised statute did set up archaeological conservation areas, and it also laid out specific conditions -- including developer-funded scientific excavation and preservation of all or part of a site as green space -- that the city's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board could impose on anyone wanting to dig in them. Under certain circumstances it even mandated that public hearings be held on proposals to disturb the ground in the conservation areas. And finally it required that all such proposals be reviewed by the county archaeologist, who would make a recommendation on archaeological measures to be taken before a "certificate of appropriateness" for the work was issued.
As Carr and Logue interpreted it, this last amendment to the ordinance gave the county archaeologist powers and responsibilities that went well beyond merely advising the city historic preservation officer on archaeological matters. It seemed as though the law said that every application for permission to disturb the ground in the city's archaeologically sensitive areas was to cross his desk first, and he was supposed to be giving guidance to a city board with the power to tell developers what they could do with their land. But Carr knew this was not how things had worked in the years since the passage of the new law; Eaton had simply carried on with their earlier arrangement, never sending him any applications to review or requesting that he meet with her board. It certainly was not how things had worked with the Brickell Point site, where Carr had not been notified that demolition was about to begin and had to discover the damage done to the site himself. According to Carr in their later discussions, Eaton said she had provided a "verbal" certificate of appropriateness for the development, which also seemed strange and somewhat questionable; the notion of a verbal certificate was a new one for him.
To Carr it looked like an open-and-shut case. The city hadn't followed its own ordinance when it granted the permit for the demolition of the Brickell Apartments, and it wasn't following its own ordinance in preparing to grant Baumann's construction permits. Unfortunately there didn't seem to be any way to turn this information to the circle's advantage. Mounting a challenge to seven years of archaeological misconduct by the city would take time, and time was about to run out. As the final week of January began, Carr learned Baumann's permits were only days away from being issued. After that, Carr knew, the only way the circle could survive would be if it could somehow be cut out and reassembled at another location, a risky option that would destroy the artifact's archaeological context. Carr hoped he could convince Baumann to give his team a month to wrap things up and prepare for the circle's possible removal, but he already had been informed that the developer wanted the archaeologists out by February 1.
Then Carr received a phone call from Gary Held, an attorney working on the circle case for the Dade Heritage Trust. The DHT was considering legal action to keep Baumann from marring the circle, Held said, and he was researching the relevant law. Did Carr know anything about the archaeological provisions of Miami's historic preservation ordinance? Carr told Held what he knew, and Held used that information to file for an emergency injunction that would prevent the developer from doing anything that might damage the circle, basing his claim on the premise that Baumann's permits were incomplete.
The DHT's suit could not have come at a more critical time. As Carr had expected, the city had issued Baumann's foundation permit, and the developer had ordered the excavation team to be off his property by Monday, February 1. Fortunately Held had been able to schedule a hearing for Sunday at the Coconut Grove home of Judge Thomas "Tam" Wilson. All day Saturday the archaeologists worked frantically to make plastic molds of the circle and excavate a new discovery: the complete remains of a sea turtle that had been interred in much the same fashion as the Tequesta used for human burials, aligned like the remains of a shark found earlier, lying east to west. There to keep the crew company and even do a little digging himself was Baumann, who seemed genuinely excited by the new finds. At dawn the next day, the diggers were back on the job, and Baumann showed up to help out again. Then, at noon, he and Carr left for Judge Wilson's house.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, and Miami was hosting for the occasion -- "the highest secular holiday in modern America," Carr remembers thinking. Meanwhile in Judge Wilson's living room, a hearing was being convened that would determine the fate of a highly important relic of ancient America. Those attending -- Carr; Baumann; Held; and lawyers for the developer, the city, and the county -- were dressed more for the first event than for the second, and the atmosphere was decidedly casual. But that didn't detract from the significance of the proceeding. Both sides argued their positions, while Carr limited himself to answering scientific questions. In the end the judge ruled without prejudice against the injunction, on the grounds that the DHT didn't have enough money to post a bond matching the cost of Baumann's development loans. In the course of the discussion, however, the developer decided to give the archaeologists a break. He would allow the dig team an additional 30 days on-site, and he would pay for the circle's removal by a skilled stonecutter. #108;
This is the first installment of a two-part story. Next week: Indians invade Brickell Point, Joe Carollo goes ballistic, and a final showdown at the Miami Circle. From 1995 to 1999 Jim Kelly was editor ofFlorida Antiquity, the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy newsletter.