Magic Primeval, Part 2

On the eve of its permanent disfigurement, the Miami Circle unleashed its mysterious powers of survival

Bush greeted that figure with skepticism; he knew from experience that even if Brickell Pointe were a complete success, it would almost certainly not bring so much profit to its builder, who had paid only eight million dollars for the property. The governor gave more serious attention to Joe Carollo's grim pronouncement that preservation of the site would have a "chilling effect" on Miami's redevelopment, questioning Carr closely about the extent of archaeological sites beneath downtown Miami. Carr responded by emphasizing the unique nature of the circle as a nonremovable artifact, and that the investigation that uncovered it was the only one out of more than 30 he'd done downtown that had delayed a construction project. "We don't see this as the start of a large archaeological petting zoo across downtown Miami," Carr commented.

In the end the county succeeded in getting the Florida cabinet to commit to paying either 50 percent of the property's price or the land's total value as determined by a state appraisal, whichever turned out to be lower. The uncertainty reflected in that commitment was a product of the unknown cost of the site. Nobody knew how much money the eminent domain jury would decide the parcel was worth. In fact nobody knew whether the case would even get as far as a jury. First, the county had to convince a judge that it had the right to force Baumann to sell the land. It had filed suit against both the developer and the City of Miami, claiming not only that a seizure by eminent domain was appropriate, but also that the city had violated its own preservation law by issuing permits to a project that lacked a certificate of appropriateness.

This second claim -- essentially the same as that argued in the Dade Heritage Trust lawsuit -- had special significance for Carr. With it the county was going beyond the specific case of the circle and attempting to make the city live up to the commitments it had made to its archaeological legacy. Although Carr's approaching retirement meant he would never exercise the authority he thought the 1991 changes to the city's preservation law gave him, he wanted his successors to have that power. It would, he believed, both better protect archaeological resources and make life easier for developers, by ensuring that whatever excavation needed to be done on a site would be finished long before construction began. With many other new developments planned for the city's archaeological conservation areas -- particularly the giant One Miami project, slated to be built on land believed to have been occupied by a 1567 Spanish mission -- Carr considered such a legal framework essential to preventing future crises. "For me this was a major issue," he reveals.

Archaeologists Bob Carr (left) and John Ricisak: Their skill and professionalism succeeded beyond their wildest dreams
Bill Cooke
Archaeologists Bob Carr (left) and John Ricisak: Their skill and professionalism succeeded beyond their wildest dreams
Archaeologists Bob Carr (left) and John Ricisak: Their skill and professionalism succeeded beyond their wildest dreams
Bill Cooke
Archaeologists Bob Carr (left) and John Ricisak: Their skill and professionalism succeeded beyond their wildest dreams

But as the trial approached, another major issue arose, overshadowing the question of the city's adherence to its preservation laws. It was one that neither Carr nor anyone else involved with the dig at Brickell Point had anticipated, a challenge that struck at the heart of the archaeologists' concept of the circle. The challenge was issued by Jerald Milanich, curator of archaeology at Gainesville's Florida Museum of Natural History and a very big fish in the not-so-big pond of Florida archaeology. Its substance was simple: Milanich strongly doubted that the circle really was prehistoric. Picking up on a theory originally circulated on the Internet by James "Amazing" Randi, a Fort Lauderdale-based stage magician turned full-time pseudoscience debunker, Milanich argued that the circular pattern likely had a modern and all-too-mundane genesis. It had, he claimed, probably been cut out in 1950 as a drain field for the 900-gallon septic tank located near the circle's southern edge.

Milanich began making his views known in March 1999, telling colleagues he was worried that the state was about to spend millions to buy a 50-year-old sewage-disposal system. When word of what Milanich was saying reached Carr, Ricisak, and the other archaeologists who had worked on the circle, they reacted first with disbelief and then with dismay. One of their field's most influential and widely respected authorities was claiming that the stunning discovery they had spent seven months sweating over literally was full of crap. It would have been great comedy if it wasn't such a serious matter. They knew Milanich was wrong, but no one else did; with the trial imminent, it seemed possible that his opinions or even his testimony could be used against the circle in court, to devastating effect.

But instead of despairing, they were angered by what they saw as Milanich's arrogance. He had made up his mind without once visiting the site, passing judgment from an office 350 miles to the north. And so when he finally did come to see the circle in early April, just before the opening of the trial, Carr and Ricisak made sure they had plenty of ammunition waiting. Arriving with Jim Miller, head of the state Bureau of Archaeological Research, Milanich was presented with fact after fact contradicting the hypothesis that the circle had any connection to the septic tank. Ricisak pointed out the difference between the surfaces of the circle basins and post holes and the edges of the hole chiseled out for the tank; the basins and holes were coated with a calcium carbonate crust that geologists said took centuries to form, while the edges of the septic tank hole were as clean as the day they had been cut. He showed Milanich and Miller how the midden within the basins and holes had lain uniform and undisturbed, lacking any nonprehistoric artifacts that would suggest a modern origin. And finally he revealed what his research into this particular septic tank had turned up: that it had no drain field and that it originally was drained by a pipe that led directly to Biscayne Bay, a common practice before the city's sewage treatment plant came on line in 1970.

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