The World According to Carr
It's been fourteen years, but Dade County's official archaeologist still remembers the dream. Bob Carr was standing in a place he had known since childhood -- on Brickell Point at the mouth of the Miami River. Just in front of him a ledge of exposed limestone projected from the bluff overlooking Biscayne Bay, and stacked on top of the bluff were piles of very old, clearly very valuable books. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a strong wind blew up. The books' covers flew open, and the wind seized their pages, ripping them out and sending them flying, stripping volume after volume until none remained intact. And then Carr woke up, shaken and wondering what his dream might mean.
Brickell Point had always held a special significance for Carr, as well as Miami. Occupied for more than 2000 years by Tequesta Indians, once home to William and Mary Brickell's late-nineteenth-century trading post, it had been one of Carr's first dig sites, excavated with all the seventh-grade seriousness he and a buddy could muster. At thirteen he'd haunted the land around the river mouth, picking up whatever he could find on the ground A pottery shards, stone tools, bone needles. He'd crawled under the Brickell house, left vacant by the death of the last family member a few years before, and gathered handfuls of glass beads used for trade with the Seminoles. Later he'd watched treasure hunters tear apart the same stately home board by board until it was beyond restoration.
But Carr knew that the people who destroyed the house had been searching in the wrong place. The real treasures of Brickell Point were still in the ground, and he and his school friend had barely breached the surface. However, he couldn't understand how his unsettling vision related to the site. Then came the day a few months later when his job -- at the time just a short-term commission to undertake Dade's first countywide archaeological survey -- brought him to Brickell Point. He found himself standing in the very place he remembered from his dream, looking up at the bluff. And where the books had been, there were now survey stakes, the first signs of the shape of things to come: a brand-new Holiday Inn, big enough to wipe out anything in its path.
This was in 1980, a year before Dade passed its landmark historic preservation ordinance and Bob Carr assumed the newly created and more substantial post of county archaeologist. In 1980 he had no statutory backup, no real authority of any kind. All that stood between an irreplaceable cultural resource and the hungry bulldozers were his powers of persuasion. If he could get the construction company to give him a little time, he might be able to mount a salvage excavation and recover most of the endangered artifacts. But lost time is lost money in the capital-intensive development business -- enough money to outweigh even the most powerful persuasion, one would think.
"I said, 'Look, this is really an important site,'" Carr recalls today in the same quiet, matter-of-fact voice he used with the Holiday Inn construction superintendent. "'You can't let this site be destroyed.' And he said, 'Okay, if you want to work here, we'll let you work.' He ended up giving us three months to work. I mustered about 50 students and volunteers, all volunteers. We worked for the whole three months, dug anything and everything we could, feverishly."
When the clock ran out, Carr's ad hoc archaeological rescue squad had saved boxloads of artifacts from the site, and filled page after notebook page with information about a culture that had been wiped out before history could take more than a glancing notice of its existence. And without knowing it, Carr had taken his first steps into the arena where he has spent the last decade and a half, dividing his talents between nationally recognized scientific research and the bureaucratic diplomacy he practices for Metro-Dade's Historic Preservation Division.
In his tenure as Dade County archaeologist -- a job he, in a way, created for himself by helping draft the ordinance that established the position A Carr has opened entire new chapters in the story of South Florida's past: digging some of North America's oldest human remains out of a sinkhole on the Charles Deering Estate, uncovering forgotten Seminole War battlefields, picking through the leftovers of 10,000-year-old big-game barbecues, pinpointing the location of Miami's first known homestead -- Carr has made a career of reminding his ever-growing, ever-changing hometown that its roots go far deeper than the day before yesterday.
Along the way he's made more than a little history of his own, becoming something of a legend in Florida archaeology and Dade County government. Words like "mind-boggling" tend to pop out when people talk about his Paleo-Indian excavations. One associate half-jokingly compares him to the Buddha; another refers to him as "the Henry Kissinger of historic preservation." Contractors praise Carr's ability to excavate without putting them behind schedule. Randy Nimnicht, president of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, likes to talk about Carr's talent for cajoling those same contractors into loaning him heavy equipment, and says Dade County is "going to be a heck of a lot better place" because of Carr's work.
And Bob Carr himself? Well, on first glance he seems an odd figure to inspire such hyperbole. Vaguely fortyish, on the low side of medium height, like as not wearing beatup jeans and battered hiking boots, he looks as though he could be pouring concrete for a living. Which isn't surprising for a guy who spends a good chunk of his time either getting dirty on construction sites or rattling between them in a county Dodge with no air conditioning. What is surprising is the inward intensity with which Carr approaches his job -- an intensity so tightly concentrated it hardly touches his easygoing exterior. You can catch a glimpse at most, generally around his eyes, which are locked in a laserlike scan of the ground between three and six feet in front of his boots. Every so often you hear a trace of it in his voice, especially when he's on a site, directing the motley digging crews employed by the nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, which he helped found in 1979 as an independent conservation and advocacy group. But for the most part it stays hidden, humming quietly on a level that one Carr colleague, historian Bill Steele, equates to "the 220 wall socket, where the oven goes."
Carr possesses another quality that sets him apart from the 110-volt general population: He moves in a mental landscape that is a composite of present and past, where Mazdas share Old Cutler Road with mammoths, and Seminole War soldiers sack out next door to Madonna's mansion in Coconut Grove. Call it the Lost World of Bob Carr, a South Florida hidden just below the surface of the one known by most of us. Its gates are concealed, its monuments subtle and without inscriptions -- holes in the ground, most of them. But Bob Carr knows where they are. And better than almost anyone else, he knows what they mean.
Between Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Bay, next door to a house once owned by Dade County Commissioner Maurice Ferre, lies an enormous, gaping pit. Big enough to hold several semi-trailers, gouged twenty feet down into gray-green oolite limestone, it looks like something the Maya might have left behind in the Yucatan A an entrance, perhaps, to some long-forgotten underground city, filled with treasure missed by the conquistadors, just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid adventurer. In fact, the pit is just over a dozen years old, a relic of Miami's late-Seventies real estate boom. The true treasures here are buried in the small corner of land between the big hole, the bay, and the parking lot to the south.
Beneath a faded, fringed lawn umbrella, an unlikely looking, four-person crew scrapes away at the ground with shovels and hand trowels, carefully sifting through metal screens the dirt they remove. In comparison to the cavernous excavation just to the north (left behind by failed earlier developers), the results of their labors are positively Lilliputian A a few hundred square meters taken down to the limestone; several unusual holes in the exposed rock. Not much by the standards of Ugo Colombo, whose CMC Group plans to transform this site into a foundation for the 51-story Santa Maria condominium project, the last brick in the wall of high-rises between Brickell and the bay.
But this tiny dig carries a significance altogether out of proportion to its size. A little less than 200 years ago a Bahamian family of English descent raised a house here, supporting it on posts set deep into the rock. For almost 40 years the Lewis clan made their lives on the bluffs overlooking Biscayne Bay. Then as now it was a good place to live. There was fruit from the orchards they planted. There were fish from the bay. There was plenty of water from the springs that flowed from the bottom of the bluff. There was a breeze to cut the heat and the mosquitoes. And there were at most two other white families within 200 miles.
In 1835 a devastating hurricane and the outbreak of the Second Seminole War combined to drive the Lewises -- South Florida's first known homesteaders -- from their land. In the century and a half since then, almost all evidence of their existence had been erased. Then, six months ago, Bob Carr and his team set up shop on the Santa Maria site, prompted by its imminent makeover at the hands of Ugo Colombo.
As he walks toward what has become one of Dade County's richest archaeological sites, Carr bends forward slightly at the waist. The stoop is a Carr trademark. In the field or out, he habitually moves as though exploring a cave with a low ceiling. The archaeologist's stoop varies with the terrain underfoot; here, on ground already surveyed by his group and heavily chewed by earth-moving equipment, he leans forward only a little bit more than he does in his office. Instead of a briefcase, he carries an olive-drab satchel marked with the Israeli paratroopers' insignia -- a small concession to the common cliche of the archaeologist as adventurer, as Raider of the Lost Ark.
"Here's the exposed limestone," Carr says, dropping his bag under the big umbrella and peering down at the pockmarked bare rock. "And this, interestingly enough A this is artificial, this is a post hole cut into the rock by hand, by people setting up a structure here." Even an untrained eye can discern the difference between natural solution holes in the soft rock -- dissolved by rainwater -- and the chiseled, square concavities being cleaned by shovel-wielding dig technician Don Mattucci. Despite the post holes' distinctiveness, some effort is required to puzzle out their pattern, to connect the dots into some kind of recognizable house, something that might offer a clue about Surles Lewis, his wife Frankee, and their three boys.
Field director Kim Heinz uncovers something that prompts her to exclaim, "Neat!" One gloved hand holds a nondescript object from the dirt she's been screening. "It's a gunflint," Heinz announces, turning the oblong pebble between her fingers. "Look, you can see the percussion crease right there." Smooth all over except where a piece has obviously broken off, the flint bears a small indentation at what would have been its business end -- the part that hit steel hard enough to spark powder and send a pistol ball on its deadly way nearly 200 years ago.
Powder and ball would have been indispensable to anyone trying to keep body and soul together on this wild coast in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries, whether that person was a member of the Lewis family, a British sailor, or an American soldier; all used flintlocks, and all left evidence of having occupied the Santa Maria site at one time or another. But life at what the old maps called Lewis Point was probably pretty peaceful, given what is known from historical accounts. And the spoils of the dig suggest that the people who lived here were doing well enough to bring in some of the more sophisticated touches of European civilization. Broken pieces of pearlware, a kind of china common in England between the 1770s and the 1830s, have turned up in large numbers, as have fragments of jackware found aboard British ships of the same time. Shattered gin bottles testify to one possible means of passing the time and medicating the mosquito bites. And part of a clay pipe -- along with Carr's comment that smoking wasn't uncommon among pioneer women -- conjures up an image of Frankee Lewis unwinding at day's end, puffing contentedly as a quiet night falls across Biscayne Bay.
That's a far cry from the picture Bob Carr got growing up in Miami during the Fifties and early Sixties, when he was, as he puts it, "very enamored with these stories of pirates." In those days, pirates loomed large in the popular consciousness of Florida history, and every bay and inlet had its bloody tale, every beach its buried treasure to excite youthful enthusiasm. Red-blooded boys all over South Florida, Carr included, ate up this stuff. But there was only one problem: Almost none of it was true. The tales were the products of people that Carr says "had no obligation to a past." In a Florida where nearly everybody was from somewhere else, the past could literally be created, built on the framework of whatever fantasy the region's hucksters thought would sell.
This worked fine for the folks pitching real estate, but for a kid growing up with a keen interest in local history it was intensely frustrating. "I remember dying to know, really wanting to know what the history of this area was," Carr says. "And all I could find out was that oh, there were some Seminole Indians. Nobody had any knowledge, no teacher I ever ran into had any knowledge about the earlier prehistory here." And then, in a seventh-grade classroom at Ada Merritt Junior High -- a few blocks from his current office in Little Havana -- Carr met his future in the middle of show-and-tell.
"One of the kids came in and he said, 'I have some artifacts that I found on the Miami River,'" Carr recalls. "And I couldn't believe that there could be anything like artifacts in Miami. I talked to this kid -- his name was Mark Greene -- and I remember I had to give up several days' worth of lunch money for him to share the secret of the great discovery he made."
Greene guided Carr to the site on the riverbank where he'd found the artifacts, and the boys' business relationship quickly turned into a friendly one. All year long they combed the area just upriver from Brickell Point, gathering piece after piece of the past. When summer came, they were ready for their most ambitious project yet, an excavation of the largest deposit of prehistoric material they'd ever seen. They'd found it on land now occupied by the Rivergate Plaza office building, a low hump about two feet high and fifteen feet in diameter, and they were certain they knew what it was: an Indian burial mound.
"We spent that summer very laboriously digging, trying to do archaeology right. Of course, we were destroying this mound, this incredible mound," Carr says, and then pauses to let the magnitude of his teenage crime sink in. "Finally, just as the school year was beginning to unfold, we uncovered the secret of the Indian mound: a huge mass of rusted iron in the middle of the mound, which we later found out was a Model T. The Model T had been dredged out of the river, placed on the bank by the dredge with the sediments that were filled with artifacts. We hadn't damaged anything; the mystery of the mound was that it was just a dredge-pile."
Undaunted, he and Greene continued their digging, growing more sophisticated with experience. The two produced a written field report of their excavations at Brickell Point, borrowing its format from papers they'd seen in Florida Anthropologist. Carr still has a copy, and however fractured its junior-high syntax may seem, it compares favorably with attempts by much more mature researchers to write readable English: "Realizing the rapid approachment of the destruction of the Brickell Point midden site, immediate salvage excavations have been made...." The urgency of that opening sentence says it all. Then as now, the vulnerability of Brickell Point was clear.
One of the more remarkable features of Carr and Greene's Brickell Point paper is the quality of its illustrations. The carefully rendered bone tools and pottery fragments pop right off the page, their textures and shapes captured in perfect perspective. The draftsmanship is Carr's work, a talent that got him his first paying job in archaeology, drawing artifacts recovered from shipwrecks. This was at Florida State, where Carr wound up after undergraduate "meanderings" at the University of Florida, stabs at history and English majors that led to one meaningful realization: "I said, 'Y'know, even if there's reincarnation, I'm only going to remember one life at a time, so I'm gonna do what I want to do.' I decided to transfer to Florida State, and I did so in archaeology."
Carr has been making a living in the field ever since, getting by just fine in a discipline notoriously short on decent jobs. He picked up a series of grad-school contract assignments for the Florida Division of Historic Sites and Properties, beginning with a 1974 study of the tract that would become Arch Creek Park in North Miami. It was Carr's first real excavation, the first opportunity among several he credits to what he has called "archaeological pork-choppery," the strong North Florida bias of an academic establishment based in Tallahassee and Gainesville. The good ol' boys in charge ("They were real Florida crackers," Carr recalls) firmly believed there was no interesting archaeology south of Lake Okeechobee. "They looked at me and they said, 'You know, none of us want to go down to Miami,'" Carr laughs. "Of course, I was more than obliging and excited to go down to Miami."
After earning his master's degree, Carr took a job with the National Park Service, which led to the offer of a two-year stint as park archaeologist at Kentucky's Cumberland National Park. That forced him to make a difficult decision. He had just heard about a job to conduct an archaeological survey of Dade County; it was only a one-year appointment, but it was Dade County. "The project in Kentucky paid $15,000 a year. The project in Dade County paid $12,000 a year," Carr says. "In Kentucky I thought $15,000 sure could go a long way further. But I mulled it over for a few days and realized that my heart was really here, and that this is where I needed to go."
Even though he, his wife, and two-year-old son now live in Davie, an amazing amount of Bob Carr's working life has centered on a single small area in central Miami. The neighborhood he came to when he was eight years old contains both the school where he first got hooked on digging up the past as well as his base of operations today as county archaeologist, behind the massive white columns of the old Warner place (built in 1912) on Fifth Avenue. In structural terms, the old neighborhood hasn't changed much since Carr was a boy; in cultural terms, it has undergone a revolution, from cracker to cubano.
But Carr is still there, admittedly in better accommodations than many of the locals. His airy office on the building's south side brings to mind a giant glass display case housing a jumble of collections: in a plastic bucket, the leg bones of a mammoth; on a filing cabinet, a stack of U.S. Geological Survey maps; on a chair back, an assortment of ties suitable for county commission meetings. And in the center of it all, seated at a table piled high with file folders, the archaeologist himself -- exhibit one.
The chaos swirling around Carr's desk is partly explained by the vacancy in the office across the hall, where the director of the county's Historic Preservation Division normally would work. Carr has been acting as director since Margot Ammidown resigned this past April. The extra administrative responsibility has brought down on him a blizzard of paperwork, and he makes it clear he'd rather be acting less like a director and more like an archaeologist. He's ready to finish the manuscript that sits in a box under his desk, the first of several South Florida books he'd like to write. He wants to be able to put more effort into the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy. Then, of course, there's his more-than-challenging real job: the protection and preservation of a 10,000-year cultural legacy in the middle of a booming metropolis.
Dade County's approach to archaeological preservation takes a page from urban planning, designating areas likely to contain artifacts and burials as archaeological zones. Biscayne Bay, the Miami River, the Little River, Arch Creek, and the Oleta River all are bordered by such zones, a reflection of the high value placed on waterfront property throughout South Florida's history. Outside the archaeological zones, the county's appointed Historic Preservation Board has the power to designate individual properties as archaeologically significant. Inside a zone or outside, any substantial digging in archaeologically important areas requires consultation with Carr's office. Legally he is not allowed to deny outright a permit to dig, but he is charged with setting the conditions under which digging may be done.
And therein lies one of the biggest secrets of his success. Rather than blocking individuals' rights to develop their property, giving rise to much bad blood and business for the lawyers, the ordinance requires property owners to work out with Carr a solution for protecting the archaeological resources. That solution may be a salvage excavation paid for by the property owner, like the one at the Santa Maria along Brickell Avenue. (The nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy offers its services for such excavations, as do for-profit consulting archaeologists.) Or it may be an agreement to leave specific archaeological sites untouched.
A lunch with Carr at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay on Brickell Point A the second incarnation of the hotel Holiday Inn built there A offers an example of the latter solution. In the center of the hotel driveway, beneath an unassuming decorative island shaded by sabal palms and live oaks, is a plot of undisturbed soil once covered by the trading post operated by William and Mary Brickell. Entombed and protected in that traffic island are thousands of artifacts; hundreds of people walk by it every day without giving it a second glance. "It's kind of bizarre to think that something could literally be under their noses like this, right against such a development," Carr says as people and vehicles bustle in front of the Sheraton. "A lot of what we've done here in Dade County can be measured by things like this, small victories." Scattered all over Dade, such small victories have an additional virtue. They preserve depositories of artifacts in situ for investigations by future archaeologists, who will likely have at their disposal more sophisticated techniques. "I can see a day where, with the development of DNA analysis, organic remains as relative to animal bones and human bones are going to be used for all kinds of incredible demographic health studies," Carr speculates. "Things I don't even think we can imagine now."
But what about the owners who don't want to cooperate -- those who couldn't care less about any cultural or organic data bank for the future, who just want to be left alone to build on their land? These days such attitudes are rare in Dade, Carr maintains, and his construction-site confrontations are few, but memorable. For example, there was the time a turn-of-the-century bottle dump was uncovered during the building of the Miami Arena. The out-of-town construction company wasn't particularly helpful. "I sent somebody out there and they locked him in their office trailer and wouldn't let him out," Carr recalls. "I had to drive out and force them to stop work. That was maybe the worst, the most uncooperative scenario." And as for the stereotype of the preservationist standing in front of the bulldozer, Carr has been there, too. "I'm happy to report I haven't had to do that very often," he says. "I confront 'em when I have to. But my strategy isn't to hit 'em over the head with a stick. I think it's more a matter of communicating."
Former historic preservation director Margot Ammidown has her own theory about Bob Carr's human-relations skills. Carr, she says, has always been a collector -- of archaeological artifacts (his boyhood archaeological finds now reside in the Historical Museum of Southern Florida), of Floridiana (postcards, historical memorabilia, and more), of comic books (among his treasures is issue number one of Uncle Scrooge), and of one more thing, says Ammidown: "I also think in a way he collects people."
For four years Ammidown worked across the hall from Carr's office. Her version of Dade County's success with historic preservation is similar to his, if several shades less rosy; for the director, she says, "There are always crisis situations, there are always the big battles." But she consistently got a kick out of the odd parade of characters Carr seemed to draw to the office. Some came bearing gifts, items they thought would be of interest to the county archaeologist, such as the man who walked in carrying a human skull he'd found on a building site. Others came with information, bringing Carr word from the street, an archaeological version of Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars. And a few A some of them academically trained, others, in Ammidown's words, "just people Bob has plucked out of the woods someplace, with some innate characteristic he'd sensed" -- came to work, to join Carr's collection. "He just seems to attract the interesting and the bizarre," Ammidown shrugs. "He has something about him; stuff just comes to him."
Part of the attraction can be attributed to archaeology's image, the alluring mix of exotic adventure and scientific discovery promulgated by National Geographic and the Indiana Jones movies. Then, too, Carr's personal tolerance and even enjoyment of the idiosyncrasies of those around him tend to make people feel welcome, whatever their human weirdnesses. But something else keeps them digging -- something more than the momentary thrill of discovery. In a place largely unaware of its past, the mystery of what has gone before is doubly powerful. When you're adrift in what Carr calls "a newly created plastic world," it's hard to get a fix on where you are. And Carr has a sense of that -- a vision, if you will.
"Maybe my point of view is peculiar, but I don't see how any of us as individuals can't relate to a heritage for our community," he says. "We don't have to take a blood test or look at our family tree to try to find somebody Hispanic or Indian in it to feel connected to it. We can feel connected to it simply by sharing the land. In a sense, we redeem the land, because we're reusing a resource that's been used over and over now for 10,000 years. To me that's the connection. Maybe that's more difficult for other people to perceive, but I see that as part of my mission -- to make people feel connected to what's here."
Carr approaches his mission with a feeling that sometimes borders on the religious. He likes to speak of certain archaeological sites as "sacred"; he uses the word to imply a sanctification stronger and more general than that conferred by any one faith, a significance imparted through the sheer depth of human experience. By that measure, his holy of holies should be the Charles Deering Estate, where in 1985 he looked into a hole in the ground and saw a lost world straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
By comparison to the rest of 1980s Dade, the Deering Estate itself was more than a little like the Land That Time Forgot. Dense tropical hammocks, untouched stands of pine, and one of Dade County's three surviving Indian burial mounds had been preserved on the enormous property, the legacy of International Harvester magnate Charles Deering's love for privacy and nature. Large estates have shielded many of South Florida's finest archaeological sites by preserving tracts of land intact and undeveloped for years; the 400-acre Deering holdings had been left nearly in a natural state since Deering purchased and razed the tiny town of Cutler in 1916. But no one could have predicted on the evidence then in hand what Carr and his team would find when they launched a salvage excavation of one of the estate's most distinctive features, a fifteen-foot-deep sinkhole that private collectors had recently begun to pillage. And Carr was not about to mention the strange and rather unscientific premonition that had come to him almost a year earlier, standing in that same hole -- an eerie feeling that he was in the presence of some very, very old bones indeed. "I had no basis for thinking that," he says today. "I had an intuitive sense about what was there, that it could have been early man. But it was something I kept to myself."
He did not have to keep it to himself for long. About three feet down into the sediment at the bottom of the hole, his crew hit a layer of limestone rocks, some of them fire-blackened. The burn marks were of a distinctive type Carr had seen before, a type not produced in fires of natural origin. To be blackened in that manner, the rocks had to have been repeatedly exposed to flames in a manmade hearth -- which made sense, since they were mixed in with hundreds of charred bones from deer, rabbits, and extinct giant armadillos that had probably been cooked over that same hearth. It seemed Carr and company had dug themselves into the middle of somebody's kitchen. And, to judge by that somebody's taste in flatware A stone and bone artifacts found scattered throughout -- the kitchen hadn't been used in a long, long time.
Exactly how long was hard to say; that answer would have to await the results of radiocarbon tests on charcoal from the ancient fires. But as Carr's team dug deeper, it quickly became apparent they were seeing farther into South Florida's human past than anyone had ever before. Below the burned rock was another layer of bones, some charred, many from beasts that had not been seen in the Americas for more than 8000 years: mammoths, primitive bison, camels, horses, and pony-size dire wolves. A few feet away, under a limestone ledge that overhung a small cave, were more bones -- not all of them from animals.
The people whose skeletal remains Carr found in the cave (at least five individuals) hunted for a living. They shaped the tools of their trade -- delicate, deadly Dalton and Bolen projectile points, the Florida hunter's ammunition of choice 10,000 years ago -- out of flint they obtained from upstate. Local limestone, heat-treated for hardness, would do for things such as hide scrapers and knives, but flint was what you needed to bring down big game. And these early people were obviously after big-game animals, holdovers from the most recent Ice Age, roaming a Serengeti-like landscape.
In the picture Carr began to put together, the Cutler Fossil Site (as it became known) had begun as a temporary hunting camp between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago, a time when lower sea levels broadened the Florida peninsula, cooler temperatures prevailed, sparse rainfall made water hard to come by, and the extinctions that would sweep mammoths, horses, and camels from the continent were not yet complete. Primeval as they seem today, the Everglades were still thousands of years in the future; the people who came to Cutler stalked their prey on the cool, dry plains that preceded the River of Grass, bringing kills back to their base in the sinkhole. After some time the hunters moved in permanently, staying on even after the gathering forces of extinction (the changing climate? humans themselves?) thinned the great beasts' herds and forced two-legged predators to substitute deer and rabbit meat for vanishing bison and mammoth. The year, determined by carbon dating of charcoal from the Cutler site hearth, was about 7700 B.C.
Ninety-seven centuries later, Dade County residents and the Florida archaeology establishment greeted the news of Carr's discoveries with astonishment and more than a little incredulity. Short of discovering a Viking longship under Biscayne Bay, it was difficult for many people to imagine anything more improbable than the recovery of 10,000-year-old human bones from South Florida. (North America's oldest human remains were found in Texas and are estimated to be 15,000 years old.) And yet there was the evidence, including an intact skull protected by carefully placed rocks, piling up in the hands of specialists from around the nation and the world -- botanists examining plant remains and pollen, paleontologists working over the fossils, physicists using particle accelerators to check the age of bones and other organic material. Project assistant Bill Johnson was even doing heat-treatment experiments on limestone to see if he could harden it to match artifacts found at Cutler. The past had spoken, and the present was forced to take notice. "I think a lot of people were really shocked," Carr says today. "Not only people who lived down here, but even scientists. Because this idea of South Florida being kind of a backwash of humanity is shared by many scholars and archaeologists. I think that's part of the problem, when you have even the intellectuals, the scholars, perceiving this place as disconnected from the past."
Carr still wonders at the persistent power of the Cutler Fossil Site, ten millennia after the first people took shelter in it. Before starting work there, he found Santeria offerings on the site, and an altar set up inside the sinkhole. Just below that was "the marijuana horizon," as he calls it, "a [cultural] horizon that dealt with the 1960s. It's always had a certain magnetism," he says of the Cutler site. "You know, people would say, 'Oh, look at that, kids would go down and drink beer and smoke pot.' Everybody who lived in the neighborhood has been there. All kinds of rites of passage were performed in that hole on top of the dead bodies of dire wolves and jaguars, little knowing that the whole history of their biological impulses was just below them. The base animal instinct of survival. Life and death in one hole."
There are holes all around today as Carr picks his way across the cratered limestone floor of South Dade's Monkey Jungle. Small holes, just the right size to cripple you; big water-filled holes, just the right size to drown you. From atop the wire-mesh cage where the tourists are kept, the small, gray kings of this jungle watch with jaded detachment as Carr proves he, too, is a primate, scrambling down the steep, slippery slope of a medium-size hole. "Here's one we haven't been in yet," he says, pulling up short of the bottom, where the hole seems to turn and twist off into a horizontal passage. "There's a lot of sediment exposed. This is definitely a cave." Thinking better of proceeding on the wet limestone, he turns to carefully climb back out.
About 60 yards away, on the other side of the enclosed tourist walkway, is a very large, water-filled limestone cavity that Monkey Jungle employees call the "alligator hole." They call it that, logically enough, because alligators live there -- two very big ones slowly patrolling the confines of their rocky pool. Ancient as they may seem, the alligators are only the hole's latest tenants. Last spring Carr began finding extraordinary things in sediment dredged from its bottom in the late Sixties and dumped behind the nearby orangutan compound. There, with the help of weekend volunteers from a local archaeology club, he has been operating what amounts to a fossil mine.
It spreads out to the left as Carr emerges from the forest, a hummocky strip of bare ground stretching about a hundred feet along an electrified monkey-containment fence. The reddish dirt that occasionally surfaces in the spoil piles offers a hint of its richness; the same red soil, laid down tens of thousands of years ago, toward the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, yielded many of the Cutler fossils. Carr zeros in on a screening box half-full of it, a prospector seeking color in a streambed, digging in with his fingers. "Here's some bone fragments -- see the marrow on it?" he says intently. "There's part of a little mammal jaw there. This is a scute, part of the external skeleton from an extinct armadillo. All these little brown fragments, they're almost all [bone]. It just shows you how much stuff is here. Mostly small stuff, but we have found some things that are -- look at this!" He holds up a squarish, sharp-edged bone. "It's a horse's tooth. From an 11,000-year-old horse!"
Carr, turning away from the screen to scan the ground, is bemoaning his failure to bring a bag. "I should have known there'd be lots of stuff after these heavy rains," he mutters from full stoop, grabbing bits of brown bone from the moist earth like a two-handed vacuum cleaner. "Here's a green break," he says, running a finger over a shattered bone. "Those are the kind of breaks you get with a carnivore breaking the bone and leaving that kind of pattern.
"Hoo boy, this is interesting!" Carr cries. "This is great, these little burnt rocks. This has got to be cultural when it's that intensely charred. We've found a number of those. Look at this! This is a burnt bone that looks like deer. I pay a lot of attention to those because it'll help us with the cultural element." From a crouch, he sweeps the area in front of him with his hands. Last month excavators found this site's first fragment of an early Floridian -- a tooth -- and Carr is hoping he'll get lucky and stumble on something really exciting, like the dig's first projectile point. It's difficult, however, to imagine him any more excited than he is right now, scrambling through the wet soil and exclaiming over each tiny treasure: "Oh my God, look at this! Holy shit! That may be from a bison. Lying right up here on the surface!" Carr's hands are faster than the average person's eyes A by the time you've noticed a bone, he's already digging it out. The man is in his element, picking up the pieces of a lost world.
Heading back up Old Cutler Road from Monkey Jungle, Carr shares the front seat of his county-issue Dodge with a Styrofoam cup full of hundred-century-old bones. His animation in the field has given way to a more subdued demeanor, which prompts a recollection of something he had said earlier that day while driving down the same road. He was attempting to respond to this question: What does it feel like to make a major archaeological discovery, to stand on the brink of the Cutler Fossil Site pit, to peer into dirt and see the Lewis homestead at the Santa Maria, or an ancient hunter's campfire, or an impossibly old human skull? For a moment he had stared out the window at the suburban landscape passing by -- the Atlantic coastal ridge, sloping off into what once was freshwater prairie and marsh, and before that a dry savannah. Then he answered: "You feel like you have just made a connection with some unstated part of yourself, of your culture, of your society. I have to say that that is a great feeling.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Former Hurricane Brett Romberg Calls Jonathan Martin "a Piece of Garbage"
Thu., Sep. 3, 6:35pm
Fri., Sep. 4, 11:30am
Fri., Sep. 4, 6:35pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 11:30am
- There Are a Lot More Educated Young Women in Miami Than Men (Which Is Why You're Single)
- The Sane (but Sort of Lazy) Person's Guide to Early Hurricane Preparation