Jeff Ransom: Ancient-History Preservationist

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

When he was a 9-year-old Boy Scout, Jeff Ransom and his fellow troop members got lost in a Venezuelan cave. Flashlights were dying. Kids were crying. Even their adult Eagle Scout leader shed tears. Luckily, the future archaeologist of Miami-Dade County was there to save the day.

"I wasn't scared, and I remembered the way back out, so I got everybody out," Ransom, now 49, recalls as he sits in a 12th-floor conference room at the Stephen P. Clark Center. "I've always felt very comfortable in caves."

Rather than developing a serious phobia, that early incident sparked a lifelong passion for archaeology. Ransom returned to the caves while studying at Florida Atlantic University and later did graduate field work in Belize, where he documented ancient Mayan activity in caves for five years. But Miami called to Ransom, who wanted to be closer to Venezuela and his family. He began working as the county's official archaeologist in 2006. It's a tricky job that's part scientist and part negotiator. The science part happens whenever another billionaire developer wants to dig up Miami to put up a swanky hotel.

Ransom is the guy who makes sure there aren't any ancient artifacts that could be destroyed in the process.

And if artifacts are indeed found on the site, that's where the negotiating part of the job kicks in. Ransom found himself smack in the middle of the newsworthiest tug-of-war yet earlier this year after the discovery near downtown of a 2,000-year-old village where the Tequesta people reigned.

After months of work, Ransom and other preservationists persuaded developers to build around certain parts of the site, allowing for two of the 11 structural features to be preserved so that patrons can view them while visiting the entertainment and shopping center.

"It was an example of not getting everything we wanted but getting something we wanted," he explains.

When he's not trying to save ancient Native American villages from getting covered by corporate concrete, Ransom can be found around the county surveying the land, looking for Miami-Dade's archaeological past. His other big project these days is the continuing excavation of the Deering Estate at Cutler, which when finished will document Miami from long before its art deco days.

"It will give us another idea of the entire history of south Miami, from the fossils at the end of the Ice Age," Ransom says, excitement growing in his voice, "to the earliest presence of man to the Tequesta and then the early pioneers."

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Ray Downs
Contact: Ray Downs