Magic Primeval, Part 2
Bill Cooke

Magic Primeval, Part 2

Read Part 1 of this story.

Discovered in the fall of 1998 by Miami-Dade County archaeologists Bob Carr and John Ricisak and surveyor Ted Riggs, what came to be known as the Miami Circle quickly drew international attention, much of it centered on the possibility that it was some sort of celestial calendar, perhaps showing a connection between South Florida and the Mayan culture of Central America. It also became the center of a controversy pitting Baumann's right to develop his land against the community's need to preserve its past. That controversy seemed to have been resolved when a judge rejected a court challenge to Baumann's building permits, and the developer compromised with preservationists, giving archaeologists another month to investigate the site and agreeing to have the circle cut out of the ground and moved to another location.

But if Baumann thought these concessions would appease the opposition, he was profoundly mistaken. Two days after a Super Bowl Sunday hearing at Judge Thomas "Tam" Wilson's house, Carr's hunch that the county was about to jump into the circle controversy proved correct when County Manager Merrett Stierheim appointed a task force to tackle the issue. It was announced that the group would seek one of three possible outcomes: if all else failed, making sure the circle was moved properly to a public location (a proposal endorsed by Miami Mayor Joe Carollo); negotiating a land swap for the Brickell Park property just to the south; or, preferably, finding some way to buy the land and preserve it in the public domain.


Related Link:
Read Part 1

As tempting as the last possibility was, it also was fraught with difficulty. Baumann had firmly announced he was not willing to sell the site, and that meant that any purchase would have to be done through eminent domain. Carr found that prospect both exciting and disturbing. Although it would mean the preservation not just of the circle but of the largely unexplored site surrounding it as well, it also meant abandoning the methods that had served him so well for two decades. It meant going from negotiation to confrontation and doing so on unfamiliar ground: a hostile eminent domain takeover based on archaeology, which as far as he knew had never been attempted. (Later he would learn there had been an earlier example in Illinois during the Twenties.) "For us, for the archaeologists, there was no precedent," Carr reports. "There's no precedent in the history of archaeological public policy that says, you know, option two or option four is go after eminent domain. That wasn't even an option, because it had never happened before."

Now, though, it seemed it was about to happen. And something else was happening too, something Carr says he never expected to see in Miami. A genuine "people power" movement that cut across cultural, racial, and class lines was beginning to coalesce around the defense of the circle. At dusk on the Tuesday after Super Bowl Sunday, as the sun was fading behind the office towers west of Brickell Avenue, a group of about 40 people gathered outside the site, holding candles, singing, and listening to speeches. Organized by the Urban Environment League, the candlelight vigil was the first spark of what soon became a bonfire of public protests and demonstrations. In the week that followed, the fence around the property bloomed with signs and ribbons brought by anti-development demonstrators who visited daily to check on the site. At lunchtime on the Brickell Avenue Bridge, the committed and the curious alike mingled to watch the slow progress of the archaeologists. A group of Buddhist monks even scaled the fence, only to be run off by the police. And hundreds of schoolchildren were brought by their teachers, who wanted to make sure their students got a chance to see the discovery before it was destroyed.

All of this made for wonderful television, of course, particularly the images of the kids, with their worried little faces and earnest pleas for someone to help the circle. To Carr the whole scene was surreal -- "like something out of a Sixties B movie" -- and the coverage was close to overwhelming. "I've never been in such an intensive situation," he admits. "There was literally a daily appetite of news that had to be met, even with live cam-shots at noon for people homebound during the day. There were days where the helicopters were coming over us continually, fighting for airspace -- where the media were clamoring and crowded outside the fences, and we were having a hard time managing them. We were on the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, the BBC.... There were so many vying interests." Carr was in the middle of the maelstrom, the one person to whom everybody wanted to talk. Even though he knew that the situation now had more to do with emotions and politics than with reason, he did his best to project an impression of restraint and scientific detachment. With so much at stake and feelings running so high, it was important that the archaeologists maintain their credibility, especially since the county seemed about to come out in favor of preserving the site.

As much as Carr might have wanted to keep things calm and rational, though, he couldn't avoid the craziness that had taken hold. He met with it regularly while skimming through the 50 or 60 messages that jammed his voice-mail every day -- messages from people like the woman who was convinced that the circle was an ancient UFO landing pad, or the man who called from Australia to announce that he had deciphered the Mayan glyphs formed by the circle's large basins. Wackiest of all, Carr says, was the caller who warned that the removal of the circle would disrupt a mysterious worldwide energy network and cause the spinning Earth to wobble like an unbalanced top. "It would destroy the Earth because the wobble would throw the axis off, and the North Pole would be where the equator is, and all kinds of terrible things would happen," Carr relates, sounding more than a little fascinated by the notion himself.

People espousing such unconventional theories made up a significant portion of those who thronged the site. New-age Maya fans took Ted Riggs's speculations one step further, seeing cryptic predictions of the future in the shapes cut into the rock. Devotees of Edgar Cayce, the so-called sleeping prophet who had claimed that a lost continent soon would rise in the Bahamas, wondered whether the circle might not be of Atlantean origin. And earth-energy enthusiasts -- dowsers, crystal-magic mavens, and followers of "ley-lines" linking megalithic sites -- rhapsodized on the supposed hidden powers of the circle. One fringe science figure made an impression on Carr: Richard Hoagland, a gray-bearded man with piercing blue eyes who had built a career out of claims that NASA was covering up evidence of alien civilizations.

Hoagland, best known for popularizing the "Face on Mars" photo and a regular on nationally syndicated talk-show host Art Bell's paranormal-theme radio program, arrived in Miami the first week of February, accompanied by his associate, Robert Ghost Wolf. The two set to work almost immediately, giving Bell's audience live updates from Brickell Point and arranging for a Website, complete with a "circle-cam" that would enable distant viewers to monitor the property via the Internet. At Hoagland's urging Bell's listeners flooded Joe Carollo's office with faxes decrying the mayor's support for the plan to cut the circle out of the rock, many fearing it would cause the destruction of a sacred site.

Carr found this concept of the circle's sacredness problematic, to say the least. The place perhaps had been sacred to its builders -- the sea turtle and shark burials and other apparent offerings argued in favor of that -- but the Tequesta were long gone. And their ideas of the sacred probably were quite different from those espoused by the new-agers flocking to the site.

One set of pilgrims, however, had a more direct connection to the Tequesta, and to the archaeologists, they seemed worthier of attention. Native Americans had been visiting Brickell Point ever since the first press reports on the circle appeared, in some cases traveling great distances to get there. Carr had encountered one of them before: Bobby C. Billie, spiritual leader of the Independent Traditional Seminoles, who rejected identification with Florida's federally recognized Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. In the past five years, Billie had emerged as a prominent opponent of archaeological excavation of Native American human remains in Florida, making no distinction between the bones of Seminoles and those of unrelated now-extinct tribes such as the Tequesta; Carr had been associated with a number of projects that the Independent Seminole leader had opposed. Billie (no relation to Seminole Tribe chairman James Billie, who limited his involvement with the circle to writing a letter to Miami-Dade County) stood silently amid the occasionally circuslike scene outside the fence, "just giving that stare, that angry native stare" as one archaeologist put it.

Other Native-American visitors were more vocal and visible. Geeta Sacred Song, a Mexican-born Mayan-Huichol Indian who had traveled to Miami from California, performed regular healing rituals outside the gate, dancing in front of the TV cameras in a loose white shift with rattles attached to her ankles. Paul Eagleheart, an enormous Apache, arrived from Tallahassee with his son and father and a booming kettledrum, which quickly became a major focus of attention. Although his tribal roots lay thousands of miles away in the Southwest, Eagleheart told Carr that he felt a strong link with the site. And he told archaeologist Danny Gregory, who spoke with him at the site almost every day, that there was more going on at the circle than met the eye. "He said they went up on the garage [at the Sheraton next door], and that they could see ancestral spirits walking around on the circle, Tequestas walking around," Gregory recalls. "He said the Tequestas would squat down and watch us digging; he was freaking me out." According to Gregory, Eagleheart also connected the circle with Native American apocalyptic beliefs. "Paul told me that the circle was an “Armageddon switch,'" Gregory says. "He said they'd had a long-held prophecy that this thing was gonna appear somewhere in North America, and he said it was some kind of prophetic doomsday sign or something. He said the survival of it was a test of mankind, of human values, and respect for the past and the ancestors, and if it was destroyed that was it, that was the end of everything."

Carr had heard similar, if less ominous things from other Native Americans, including one of the younger members of the Oklahoma Seminole delegation who had come to the circle with the medicine man. And as far as the Indians and others gathered to defend the site were concerned, cutting the circle out of the rock would be tantamount to destroying it. Carr held much the same view; to him removing the circle from the site surrounding it would diminish its scientific value enormously. And yet that was what he probably was going to have to help someone do unless the county managed to get its act together very quickly on eminent domain. This seemed unlikely. While one major positive development had come out of the first meeting of Merrett Stierheim's task force on February 5 -- Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas had announced that he supported buying the property -- getting the tens of millions of dollars needed for the purchase, convincing the rest of the county commission to go along with the plan, and overcoming the legal problems posed by a hostile buyout all loomed as daunting obstacles. In addition, by calling for county action that would stop a development in the city of Miami, Penelas was stomping down hard on the territorial toes of Joe Carollo, enraging the Miami mayor and stiffening his opposition to the preservation plan. The county would get no help from the city if it tried to force Baumann to sell the land; in fact it might even have to fight the city along with the developer. Considering all this, Carr recognized that the most realistic course was to assume that the circle was going to be removed, and do his best to make sure the delicate job was done right.

That prospect weighed heavily on his mind the night of February 10, as he spoke before an audience of more than 300 people jammed into a University of Miami auditorium. Spilling into the aisles and standing along the walls, the crowd listened to Carr's talk in rapt silence. But when he opened the floor to questions, anger and frustration boiled over. People demanded to know how it was possible that the community could allow such an artifact to be desecrated by power saws and jackhammers. One man claimed to be aware of a treaty protecting the sacred places of indigenous peoples and called for the federal government to step in and enforce international law. And although Carr counseled moderation, a number of speakers pushed for direct action to keep the circle from being cut out, talking of chaining themselves to bulldozers and invoking the spirit of Tiananman Square.

Ironically the man whom Baumann had hired to remove the circle was well acquainted with such actions. Coconut Grove stonemason Josh Billig, recommended by Carr as an expert in working with Miami's fragile oolitic limestone, also was a veteran of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. Billig's activism had been a natural outgrowth of the Grove's then laid-back scene. Twenty-odd years later, Billig still wore his hair in a ponytail and referred to a good day as one when his "moon was in the right place." But he also was a serious and successful businessman whose work could be seen in rock walls surrounding some of the Grove's most expensive real estate. He originally believed cutting out the circle would be an intriguing technical challenge, a difficult surgical job to be performed on a piece of limestone with all the structural integrity of day-old coffeecake. Confident that his plan -- slicing the circle up like a pizza into 20 or 30 pieces -- would succeed, he told Carr and Baumann he could be ready to go right away.

The news that Billig had agreed to remove the circle appeared in the Herald on Saturday, February 13, 1999. That morning, the stonemason's phone started ringing, and it didn't stop. "People really were very dedicated to the cause, and they called me and would spend like 45 minutes pleading with me on the phone and giving me their best arguments," he remembers. "They got me thinking more." That night Billig and his wife, Michelle, went out to celebrate his 41st birthday and Valentine's Day. "We were having dinner at the Big Fish, which is only a few hundred yards up the river," he recalls. "During that time somebody from the Herald called and asked if I knew anything about this backhoe that had been delivered to the site." Billig didn't, and the question aroused his curiosity, because he was supposed to be supplying all the equipment for the circle's removal. "Because we were so close, Michelle and I just decided to walk over there and look," he says. "I thought, Somebody's getting anxious. Let's see what's going on."

When the two arrived at the mouth of the river, they were surprised to see a large crowd gathered, even though it was after 10:00 p.m. The Brickell Avenue Bridge was full of protesters carrying candles, and near the top Billig spotted one person he recognized: Bobby Billie, whom he'd seen on public television speaking before the county commission. "I thought, of all the people going up there [at the commission meeting], he was the only one who was not bullshitting around," Billig says. "He was very clear and to the point with his choice of words, and I thought then, There's somebody I ought to talk to." Now Billig was only a few hundred feet from Billie. "I worked my way up the bridge, and my wife -- she knew I was really itching to talk to him -- kind of deflected everybody for me, like a linebacker, but in a nice way," Billig remembers. "We had like five minutes to speak, and he told me to just wash my hands of it, to just not do it. If somebody else would do it, let them, but I shouldn't do it."

At that moment it suddenly occurred to Billig that he had been thrust into a position of power: "If I stepped out at this late moment, I knew it would give Alex Penelas some time, because he was already talking about stepping in."

The next day Billig continued to ponder what to do, eventually realizing that his mind had been made up since his meeting on the bridge with Billie. On Sunday night he called Baumann's office and left a message for the developer, saying he wasn't going to cut out the circle. "Then I called the Herald, since they were the ones who put me in the spotlight in the first place," he says. "I said, “Would you just do me a favor and print that I'm not doing it?'" Within the hour Billig received a call from Baumann, who had learned of the latest development from a reporter. "He was surprised that they were quoting me as saying I didn't want to “desecrate' the site," Billig says. "I don't know if those were my exact words, but that's the way they had portrayed it to him. He said, “Did you really say that?' He was surprised that I'd use that kind of terminology, because I guess that the worst thing for him would be that everybody would start saying this truly was a desecration about to happen. Which I understand. I mean, he truly was trying to do the right thing, Mike Baumann, all the way. He was always a perfect gentleman with me. The closest he ever came to anything negative was [when he said], “I can't believe you called it a desecration.'"

Billig's decision had caused a setback for Baumann, but the developer wasn't panicking. He and many others might have been, though, they had they known how close the situation at Brickell Point was to careening dangerously out of control. The arrival of the mystery backhoe on Saturday had prepared the more radical Indians to take their defense of the site to another level. "One of the Indians came over to Danny Gregory and told him that now that the backhoe was out there, at any moment they might have to seize the site," Carr says. "They told Danny that when they came over the fence, he would have to leave the site. “Don't be afraid,' they said. “Just get out quickly.' And at that point, they began to show him their guns."

According to Gregory, Paul Eagleheart had a .38 revolver strapped to his ankle and hinted that he had something bigger in the bag in which he had brought his drum mallets. "They were gonna throw down," Gregory says. "Paul was warning me, saying don't get in the way. We're not gonna check our field of fire." Gregory began thinking about the many holes on the site in a new light, considering which would be the best to dive into if bullets started flying. He didn't question the seriousness of the Indians. "They were really intense," he says. "I mean, if they believed they were stopping Armageddon, I'd probably shoot some people too if I believed that. What's the other choice? Everybody's dead anyway."

Gregory's nervousness about the potential for violence didn't keep him from showing up to work at 7:00 a.m. Monday. But as he turned into the drive leading from the Sheraton down to the property gate, he saw something that gave him some serious second thoughts. "There was like an ocean of people, easily 200 people," he describes. "That whole little driveway to the gate was shoulder-to-shoulder people, and the bridge was full of people." Just ahead of him was a small blue pickup truck whose driver, he realized, had come to run the backhoe. When the truck stopped in front of the closed gate -- decorated with a banner proclaiming, "Baumann = Cultural Genocide" -- the crowd closed in. "There were people all around my car, and I was right behind him, and they were rocking his truck while he was waiting for the gate to be opened. The security guard opened the gate, and he went in, and they were pushing my car around a little bit. I was trying to hold up my trowel like, “Hey, I'm a good guy; leave me alone.'"

Once through the gate, Gregory didn't feel much safer. With the Indians in front, the protesters pressed up against the fence, shaking and banging it, shouting at the backhoe driver, who had climbed up on his machine and started its engine. This, Gregory guessed, was it; Baumann finally had decided to act. "They were there to destroy it," he says. "They had their feeble plan of trying to cut it out in sections. It would've ended up a pile of white powder, but they thought it would work." Nobody on the archaeological crew knew what exactly the backhoe operator was supposed to do, but they assumed the worst. "We didn't say anything to him; we just looked at him," Gregory recalls. "Everybody out there, including us, was extremely angry with him. [The crowd] was calling him a sellout, saying it's not worth the money; we'll give you money if that's what you want. You don't have to destroy that thing. They kept telling him he knew it was wrong, he just had to think about it." Clearly intimidated, the driver held the earthmover in position and looked around at the wall of bodies up against the fence and the people packed two-deep along the railing of the Brickell Avenue Bridge above. He looked over at the Baumann-hired security guard and saw no help coming from that quarter. "The security guard looked like the most frightened person in the whole scene, I think," Gregory says. "He was slinking away from the gate; he would have run like hell. He wasn't gonna die for that thing either." There were no police in sight.

For about 30 minutes, Gregory and the rest of the archaeological crew waited, listening to the crowd taunt and abuse the backhoe driver, knowing that if he didn't back down, they might have to take cover. ("I thought a lot about swimming to Miami Beach," Gregory says now, chuckling.) Then, to the applause of the crowd and the relief of the dig crew, the man climbed down from the machine, got into his truck, and drove away, never to return.

The next day the struggle moved to a different location: the commission chambers at Miami City Hall. Once again someone working to cut out the circle -- in this case Miami Mayor Joe Carollo -- was pitted against a crowd of pro-circle partisans. Unlike the backhoe driver, Carollo had a way to keep his crowd under control; he had police officers to enforce the ban he imposed on applause and other outbursts from the audience. But he also had to contend with a new factor: the camera-beloved (and camera-loving) Alex Penelas, who had come to the city commission meeting to invite Miami to join the county's save-the-circle effort. While commissioners Art Teele and Tomas Regalado wanted to cooperate with Penelas, Carollo resisted his rival at every turn. Even discussing the idea was dangerous, he argued, for it might expose the city to a lawsuit by the developer. The "40-, 50-, 60-million-dollar" judgment that could result, he warned, would mean the end of the city of Miami as an entity.

Carr had accompanied Penelas to testify on the circle's archaeological value, and as the meeting wore on he noticed the county mayor becoming more and more frustrated. It was obvious the county wasn't going to receive even token support on the issue from the city. If the site was going to be preserved, the county was going to have to act on its own -- and act quickly. Thus Carr wasn't surprised when Penelas called a press conference the following afternoon and announced that he was going to ask the county commission to try to take Brickell Point under eminent domain.

Still, as the archaeologist sat watching the county commission meeting that Thursday, he couldn't escape his amazement at what was happening. It didn't seem possible that Miami-Dade County, of all places, was about to attempt a hostile buyout of private property to protect an archaeological site. It just didn't seem real. And as the room exploded in cheers at the commission's 10-1 vote in favor of Penelas's proposal, and circle supporters mobbed him with handshakes and hugs, a part of Carr remained untouched by the general euphoria. He knew that while far more had been accomplished than he or anyone else had dreamed possible, the battle to save the circle was nowhere near won. Two great obstacles still lay across the trail to victory: a court fight with the best legal talent the deep-pocketed Baumann could afford, and a quest for the tens of millions of dollars the land was sure to cost.

There was, it seemed, plenty of conflict ahead, and conflict was something with which Carr had never felt comfortable. And yet in this case he could see where it had been and could be useful, even necessary. He received perhaps his most unsettling exposure to this viewpoint not long after the commission vote, when he asked Paul Eagleheart whether he actually had been ready to lead an armed occupation of the circle site. "He said it was true, and I said, “You realize you would have created a confrontation with the Miami police and everybody else out there,'" Carr says. "And he said, “Well, I think this would have been a good place to die.'"

Developer Michael Baumann thought Brickell Point, a nub of land at the mouth of the Miami River, would be the perfect place for a pair of new apartment towers. He never suspected that the property he'd purchased for eight million dollars hid a priceless archaeological treasure: a 38-foot circle thought to be cut into the limestone bedrock by the vanished Tequesta Indian tribe.

In the weeks just after the county commission voted to seize the circle property and a judge granted an injunction temporarily shielding the site, Carr was front and center for the next skirmishes of the save-the-circle campaign. They took place in Tallahassee, at cabinet meetings presided over by Miami-Dade's most prominent ex-developer, Gov. Jeb Bush. Carr's mission was to support Commissioner Katy Sorenson in a bid for millions of dollars in state funds set aside for the purchase of archaeologically significant land. It was critical that a healthy portion of the money required for the circle buy be lined up quickly, partly to encourage contributions from private donors and partly because the county needed to be able to show it was serious when its eminent domain suit went to court. The funds also were necessary to head off an attack from an unexpected direction: The City of Miami had retained an independent law firm to look into legal action against the county, claiming that Miami-Dade had filed for eminent domain in bad faith because it had no hope of obtaining the money to pay for the site. In fact despite plenty of brave talk from county officials about potential funding sources, Miami-Dade had almost no cash on hand to buy the land, and Baumann's lawyers were claiming it could be worth $50 million or more.

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.

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.

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.

More of those mysteries are coming to light one morning in the middle of August 2000, on the next-to-last day of a dig at Brickell Point by University of Houston archaeologist Randolph Widmer. In the shade of blue tarps set up about 80 feet east of the circle (which has been exposed for the first time in months for further mapping and photography), Widmer's students scrape away at a gray moonscape cluttered with innumerable round holes.

John Ricisak and a visiting Ryan Wheeler stand nearby, talking about one of the last things Wheeler did at the end of his dig: He'd risked his neck to scale the billboard over Brickell Avenue and recover Baumann's Brickell Pointe luxury high-rise sign for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. (Incredibly the land Baumann has chosen for his next project, just south of the Atlantis condominium on Brickell, also harbors an archaeological site; fortunately for the developer, it is neither as significant nor as well preserved as that at Brickell Point.) Not far away, Ted Riggs leans against his green pickup truck, holding a scale model labeled "The Miami River Circle Calendar Almanac Ceremonial Site" and explaining the intricate workings of his theory to a pair of skeptical graduate students. He'd been wrong about the Maya, he says; now that radiocarbon dating has shown material from the circle could be as many as 2000 years old, it's obvious to him that the much older Olmec civilization constructed the thing. The students listen politely, only occasionally exchanging looks of disbelief.

The one person missing from this tableau appears a few minutes later, scuffling through the sandspurs with two BBC documentary-makers in tow. A year and a half after leaving his county post, Bob Carr looks, amazingly, ten years younger. No doubt the lower stress levels of his new job have played a part in his apparent rejuvenation, but most of the credit goes to a more striking physical change: He's shaved off the bristly blond-gray mustache that dominated his features for more than twenty years. By doing so he's uncovered the face of a kid, a face not too far removed from the teenager who got his first taste of archaeology only a few hundred feet away, digging on land now occupied by the Sheraton Biscayne Bay.

Carr has -- there's no avoiding the phrase -- come full circle. The irony isn't lost on him; it's part of a larger pattern in his life that strikes him as more than a little weird: his seeming inability to get away from downtown Miami. In his entire life in South Florida, he's either lived or worked within a one-mile radius of the mouth of the Miami River. "I find that really peculiar, because I'm definitely not trying to do that," Carr says, after handing off the BBC people to John Ricisak. "That's not one of my goals in life, to live or work in downtown Miami. It's very strange to have put in literally 40 years at the mouth of the river. I've seen the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold here. I've seen Hurricane Donna's wrath. I've seen so many things. I feel like I'm a part of that history now."

For Carr being part of history doesn't mean not being part of the present. His profile is even higher now than it was for most of his career with the county, in large part because of his involvement with the controversy over the city's attempt to sell Brickell Park, which lies just south of the Sheraton. (Carr's revelation that the tiny park holds both prehistoric and historic graves has forced the city commission to revisit the issue and substantially reduced the odds that the land will be sold for development.) At the same time, his Archaeological and Historical Conservancy has surveyed part of the One Miami site north of the river, finding -- no doubt much to the relief of Joe Carollo -- little of consequence.

Still, no matter how much more archaeology Carr takes part in, it seems unlikely that anything else he finds will ever match the simple circle of holes in the limestone that lies just below his feet. In all probability he will never again experience anything like the discovery of the Miami Circle; it too is part of history, an episode like South Florida had never seen before and probably will never see repeated.

Then again there are Tequesta bones buried all over downtown Miami. And if the ancestral spirits Paul Eagleheart saw are still loose, well, anything could happen.

The High Cost of Culture
By Jacob Bernstein

Despite the Miami-Dade County Commission's agreement to purchase the Miami Circle, efforts to pay for the site and ensure its future are far from over. "We have a ways to go to turn the property around," acknowledges Michael Spring, executive director of the county's department of cultural affairs, whose job it is to coordinate the circle's salvation.

Imagine a series of running relays stretched over a marathon-length distance. The runners may have visions of the finish line, but summoning the energy to carry them through to the end is a daunting challenge. And frustratingly, beyond each bend lies another and another. So it has been with the Miami Circle's financial struggles.

After much wrangling county officials and developer Michael Baumann agreed on a settlement price, the nice round figure of $25 million. They also threw in another $1.7 million to cover legal fees and related costs. The salient question then became: Where would the county come up with $26.7 million?

Before inking the settlement agreement, Mayor Alex Penelas met in a closed-door session with county commissioners to seek their approval to proceed. Several factors encouraged their acceptance of the deal. Firm commitments were in hand for at least some of the cash. For example on the day the agreement was reached, September 28, 1999, the oversight board of the Safe Neighborhood Parks bond program voted to earmark three million dollars toward purchase of the archaeological treasure. The State of Florida also seemed willing to ante up, though no specific amount had been pledged.

Additionally two possibilities had emerged for managing the site once the public took ownership. The Jay I. Kislak Foundation and Florida International University proposed to build and operate a museum they estimated would cost about ten million dollars. Kislak, a wealthy Miami Lakes real estate financier, had amassed a renowned collection of pre-Columbian art. The museum would be an ideal place to house the collection for public viewing. Another encouraging prospect had been announced six months earlier. On March 25, 1999, Sen. Bob Graham introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to explore the feasibility of annexing the circle as part of Biscayne National Park.

Armed with these possibilities, county commissioners gave tentative approval for Penelas to proceed. The mayor, Baumann, and assorted county officials promptly flew to Tallahassee to beg for money. In a unanimous vote the Gov. Jeb Bush and the state cabinet agreed to provide the county with $15 million toward the purchase -- contingent on a thorough archaeological review to verify its significance. (The review confirmed county archaeologist Bob Carr's assessment.) On October 1, 1999, in a special session, the county commission formally voted to approve the $26.7 million settlement.

County officials still faced a vexing problem. By 5:00 p.m. November 30, 1999, they were required to pay Baumann $20 million. As that deadline loomed, they had only $18 million in hand. Not only did they need $2 million in a hurry, within eighteen months they would need $6.7 million more as a final payment.

Where would the county find this $8.7 million to complete the deal? As usual with the circle, time was the enemy. "We started late out of the blocks," Spring recalls, "and we've been constantly rushing to catch up."

Given the global outpouring of support for the Miami Circle, one might think $8.7 million would be effortless to raise. Not so, say county officials. "We have boxes and boxes of letters begging us to save the circle, but the contributions have not been commensurate," says Erica McKinney, an aide to Mayor Penelas. "I don't know why people haven't come forward."

Most local fundraising efforts, while heartfelt, didn't amount to much. One example was an October 1999 event held by citizen activists at Fairchild Tropical Garden; it netted a mere $20,000. Many donations have come from schoolchildren, according to McKinney. One fourth-grade class contributed $200. But the county needed millions, not hundreds. "We are past the point where $5, $10, or $20 can help us out," notes McKinney.

As November 30 neared, Baumann himself offered to lend the county the full $8.7 million at twelve percent interest. Instead, just before the deadline bell rang, a San Francisco-based conservation group, the Trust for Public Land, offered to lend the money at 8.5 percent interest. With one day left, county commissioners voted to accept the loan. And so Michael Baumann exited the tale of the Miami Circle.

New deadline clocks began ticking immediately. The county had one year to make an initial payment of $2 million on the loan from the conservation group, and the countdown for the remaining $6.7 began. Due date: November 30, 2001.

Mayor Penelas and county officials had hoped the stopgap provided by the Trust for Public Land would buy them enough time to raise the rest of the money, but that proved to be a source of frustration. "Donor cultivation is a miserably slow process that requires staff, resources, and time," says Spring. "Government doesn't do it very well." One thing that has made it particularly difficult is the uncertainty regarding the precise fate of the circle. Technically the 2.2-acre site is owned by the State of Florida and managed by the division of historical resources, which must approve any future plans. The Florida secretary of state is putting the finishing touches on an advisory council that will review proposed uses and management plans. Council membership will likely be announced in December, but the entire process could take more than a year, according to state officials.

This past March the county snagged donations to cover the initial repayment to the Trust for Public Land. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) each kicked in one million dollars. But objections were raised by several members of the MPO, which deals principally with regional transportation issues. Among the dissenters were Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, who believed the circle had nothing to do with the MPO's primary mission. But arguments that the circle's acquisition would add to plans for a Miami River greenway corridor carried the day.

Having cleared its ledgers of this initial payment, the county now has twelve months to raise the remaining $6.7 million it owes the Trust for Public Land. The absence of a concrete plan for the circle continues to present a problem in attracting donors, though two possibilities do exist. The one that initially seemed strongest, however, now appears to be the least likely. The proposed partnership between the Kislak Foundation and FIU seems to be foundering, according to county officials. "It's a long shot," concedes Spring. Three steps would be required to consummate that relationship: First the two parties must come to an agreement on their respective responsibilities; then they must seek approval from the secretary of state's advisory council; and finally they must raise the money. "Step one may be a killer," Spring reports.

The other possible scenario for the circle's future involves Senator Graham's efforts to incorporate it into Biscayne National Park. On October 17 his bill passed the Senate. A companion House bill authorizing a feasibility study found a sponsor in Rep. Carrie Meek, but it has since stalled. Speculation among Department of Interior staffers lays the blame for that on Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who may be seeking payback for the park's refusal to budge on continued private ownership of the Stiltsville homes south of Key Biscayne. (Repeated calls to the the congresswoman's office for comment were not returned.)

Neither operational plan -- the National Park Service or a Kislak Foundation-FIU partnership -- would likely help the county pay back the money it owes. Spring and others seem to be placing much of their hope for that in recent appropriations by Congress to help states pay for historical preservation. Regardless, county officials are optimistic they'll find some way to raise $6.7 million before November 30 of next year. "With this issue nothing has ever been simple," says mayoral aide McKinney. "There are so many twists and turns. We have a year. I'm confident it will work itself out -- just painfully."

This is the second part of a two-part story. From 1995 to 1999 Jim Kelly was editor of Florida Antiquity, the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy newsletter.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >