Magic Primeval, Part 2

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

It was a powerful response, but it had almost no effect on Milanich. Ricisak remembers that for most of the 20 or 30 minutes he spent on the site, the archaeologist hovered around the septic tank, asking many questions about it. Then, Ricisak says, Milanich announced he wanted to get lunch, so the archaeologists headed to Tobacco Road.

"We were sitting down, making small talk, and I turned to Milanich and said, “So what do you think?'" Ricisak recalls. "He said, “Well, I think we need to find the person who installed that septic tank.' And I was like, “Wait a minute. You don't really think the two are related in any way other than space?' He's like, “Well, I don't know.' I don't remember [what he said] exactly, but he alluded to the fact that 50 years of urine could have caused the rock to dissolve."

From across the table, Carr watched as Milanich went on about what would have to be done before he would believe the circle was prehistoric, and Ricisak went into a slow burn. When Milanich suggested that they needed to locate and excavate around a number of other septic tanks on the property to see if they had similar circles around them, Ricisak snapped. "John rose up from his seat," Carr says, relishing the memory, "and he said, “Look, there are people who think the circle is extraterrestrial in origin. Does that mean I have to dedicate time and money to disproving that, too? Because in my opinion this is an equally baseless theory.'" Carr and Miller moved quickly to calm things down, but Ricisak was seething. Months later he remained bitter. "I saw it as an attack on the integrity and professional ability of me and Bob Carr, as well as the other professional archaeologists who'd been out to the site," he offers. "I think being out here every day for almost seven months, watching virtually every spoonful of dirt get shoveled out of here, I was in a reasonably good position to judge whether his idea had any merit."

Ricisak's judgment of Milanich's idea wasn't the one that mattered most at that moment, however. What really mattered was what Circuit Judge Fredericka Smith would think if Baumann's lawyers were able to get Milanich to testify as an expert witness. Carr had heard they were trying, but when the trial that would determine the fate of the circle opened, it became apparent that Milanich would not be testifying. Carr, by contrast, became the county's star witness. He gave the judge a guided tour through the circle's discovery and excavation, explained the significance of various items found on the site (handing Smith one of the heavy basalt axes at one point), and provided a brief summary of the archaeological study of the Tequesta, with special emphasis on his own life's work. He easily deflected lackluster attempts by lawyers for the city and Baumann to cast doubt on the circle's origins (without Milanich present the septic tank barely rated a mention). And he presented his own take on the city's failure to enforce its preservation ordinance when it gave Baumann his permits, a failure that he characterized as victimizing the developer as much as it did the archaeological site.

On this last point, it turned out that Carr's testimony made no difference; as a tactical measure, the county decided to drop its challenge to the validity of the developer's permits. But on everything else he and Miami-Dade lawyers Tom Goldstein and Tom Logue carried the day, winning the right to use eminent domain and opening the way to a jury trial that would determine the price to be paid for the property. That trial tentatively was scheduled for October unless Baumann and the county could settle out of court. The two sides went at it throughout July and August; Baumann's side touted appraisals claiming the 2.2 acres were worth as much as $42 million, while Miami-Dade countered with figures as low as $15 million. Meanwhile the circle (which as a result of the original court action had been off-limits to both the developer and the archaeologists since February) was covered with a protective layer of white pea-size gravel. From the roof of the nearby Sheraton garage, it looked like a Zen rock garden in a nursery of newly sprouted palm trees, which flourished in the rich midden soil brought up by the dig.

On September 28, 1999, six days before the scheduled beginning of the valuation trial, the county and the developer finally agreed on a price: $26.7 million. Of that, $15 million would come from the state as a result of a last-minute plea for extra help. The cabinet had agreed to supply the additional funding with one condition: A team from the Bureau of Archaeological Research (BAR) had to be allowed to study the site, to make sure the State of Florida wasn't buying, in the words of Attorney General Bob Butterworth, "a $15 million septic tank." As for the rest of the money, the county set aside $3 million in parks funds and borrowed the remaining $8.7 million from the Trust for Public Lands, a nonprofit land conservation foundation, hoping to raise enough to repay the loan from other private sources. The deal was sealed when the BAR crew, led by Ryan Wheeler, found no evidence that the circle had anything to do with the septic tank. Their broad survey of the site had, in fact, uncovered large numbers of other holes carved into limestone well removed from the circle -- holes containing artifacts that posed their own questions, including a spearhead estimated to be between 5000 and 6000 years old, and a bead made from galena, a mineral whose closest source is in the Midwest. Brickell Point, it seemed, still had plenty of mysteries left to be probed.

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