|Building on the Past|
|Written by Tristram Korten -- Special to the BT, Photos by Silvia Ros|
The largest Tequesta site ever found has revealed remarkable evidence of a sophisticated ancient society -- which will soon be bulldozed
It doesn’t take Ryan Franklin much effort to slip into the reverie; to stand up from his crouch in the dirt and mud, wipe his hands on his dungarees. He looks southeast, between the buildings, to where Biscayne Bay lies rippling in the sun, and lets the concrete, asphalt, and glass recede through time.
Now he’s standing in a different world. The bay is still there, but its waters are lapping at the toes of his boots, and the shoreline around him is lush with plants and trees. What today we call the Miami River is also in front of him. A dugout canoe, carved from a single cypress tree trunk, rests on the shoreline next to him, rocking gently on the incoming tide. Inside it rests a hand-carved paddle and a wooden spear tipped with the bony barb from a stingray.
The air is redolent with the smoke of cooking fires. Directly to his left is a thatched-roof hut made of sapling pine trunks stripped of their branches and thrust into postholes carved into the limestone bedrock, then bent over to meet in the center. The hut’s floor is raised off the ground, and the center of the roof is open, allowing smoke from a cooking fire to escape.
Other huts are nearby as well, also elevated above the soggy ground. There’s a platform running among them; parallel rows of posts, with a walkway lashed to them so villagers can move from hut to hut. The dwellings fill the landscape south to the river and north to the edge of the hardwood hammocks. Behind Franklin to the northwest is a burial mound where ancestors are laid to rest.
But imagination can’t hold against the intrusions of modern life. A cement truck grinds its gears as it rumbles by. An impatient driver zipping along in a white BMW honks his horn. Construction cranes hum and whir in the morning sky. Franklin, who holds a Ph.D. in paleoanthropology from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, snaps back to the here and now, and crouches down to continue gently brushing away the dirt that covers artifacts at least 1500 years old.
There’s not much time for these musings anyway. The clock is ticking. This ancient world will be uncovered just in time to be buried again.
“It’s not hard to visualize this area back then, nothing else around other than these possible platforms and huts, right here where the bay and the river meet,” says Franklin, field director for Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, the nonprofit organization contracted by the developer of this property to investigate the site. “It would have been amazing.”
Bob Carr, the Conservancy’s founder and executive director, believes it’s the largest prehistoric site in Southeast Florida, and the largest Tequesta settlement ever found. Carr and his crew have been carefully excavating this two-acre portion of the site by hand, removing the topsoil down to the limestone bedrock.
That’s where, earlier this year, they found five circles -- holes carved into the bedrock in a circular pattern that the scientists believe were the foundations for dwellings. They’ve also uncovered two parallel rows of holes running between the circles, which they believe are the remnants of an early boardwalk used to stride above the marshy ground. It’s the first such discovery in Florida, Carr believes.
The excavation also uncovered evidence that the Biscayne Bay waterline at the time reached all the way up to where the postholes were found.
But the site, known as Met Square, is merely a portion of what lies beneath the streets of this part of downtown. Carr describes it as one slice of a pizza pie, only hinting at the full extent of the village’s footprint. Sample material from the site that has been carbon-dated indicates the settlement is as old as 600 A.D. But Carr notes that they’re not done carbon-dating the site. He suspects it could go back to 500 B.C., based on some of the evidence he’s seen. In either case, it is a significant discovery.
There are no records of what Tequesta villages from that time looked like, so this discovery was the first evidence archaeologists had of the possibility they used boardwalks. “It’s a settlement system far more sophisticated and elaborate than we had imagined,” he says. “This is evidence of far more than simple stick structures.”
Miami-Dade County’s staff archaeologist, Jeff Ransom, concurs: “This site is one of most significant in Miami-Dade County, or in Florida, for that matter.”
The findings are so significant, and the publicity around them has been so muted, officials and preservationists claim to have been caught off guard and not given enough time to debate the feasibility of preserving the site. Carr is required to file monthly reports on the findings with the city’s planning department, which then is required to submit them to the Historic and Environmental Preservation (HEP) Board. Whether those reports have been adequate is now being questioned.
Ransom, who once worked for Carr at the county, says he’s concerned that the full impact of these discoveries has not been adequately expressed to city officials in order to help them consider a plan for conserving them. Ransom adds that his office was not initially presented with reports of findings, as a city resolution specifies. That oversight was remedied in July.
“The more the county became aware of how significant the site was, the greater the concern,” Ransom says. “Since then, the county has been working closely with the City of Miami to make sure any actions taken are in the best interest of the site.”
It was a worry shared by members of the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board at its October meeting. Board members complained that city officials and Carr were not keeping them informed about the significance of the discoveries, and as a result not allowing them the time to plan possible approaches, up to and including preservation.
“I can tell you the board regards this as an especially significant site,” HEP Board chairman William Hopper said. “And they were concerned about the timeliness and depth of information we received, and the ability of the board to ensure that the right thing is done.”
Hopper and his HEP Board colleagues are scheduled to meet at Miami City Hall on November 5 at 3:00 p.m. (For more information, call 305-416-1453 or go to www.historicpreservationmiami.com.) State archaeologists are scheduled to visit the site soon and offer their own assessment.
Local preservationists, meanwhile, have launched withering critiques. “I think both the law (from what I know of it) and political pressure has been…eviscerating a critically important set of sites on the north bank of the Miami River to please developers,” wrote Greg Bush, an associate professor of history at the University of Miami and vice president of the Urban Environment League, in a widely circulated e-mail on August 22. “It’s sad but perhaps typical in Miami that this has happened in this fashion. Where has the Herald coverage and other media been in this process?”
Bush is right that media coverage failed to encourage any debate about preservation, and that the time to rally support is mostly gone. (Bush referred to his e-mail when contacted for comment.)
Looming like a skyscraper over any debate about preserving historical sites in downtown Miami is the cost of the real estate -- millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars. The price tag for parcels like the Tequesta site keeps climbing as time passes and the developer invests in architectural and engineering plans. The figures have been high enough to stifle the conversation from the start.
Carr himself has come in for some scrutiny. “I also question Bob Carr’s role in allowing this to happen,” Bush wrote. “He is a great guy but… Maybe I’m wrong, but not enough questions have been asked overall as this has developed.”
HEP Board members picked up that sentiment in October, questioning whether Carr’s dual job, as both consultant to the city and the archaeologist paid by the developer, poses a conflict of interest.
In his defense, Carr says his job is not a conflict; he is expected to excavate, assess, and report, all of which he has done in a timely manner. As for prohibiting anything from happening, he explains, he’s not empowered to do that. “I’m not the regulator. I’m the archaeologist,” Carr says. “I can’t prevent anything. It’s up to political officials to make a determination on any of these important sites.”
Furthermore, he adds, there is no conflict in his job because the city has used its other archaeological consultant, Janus Research, along with state archaeologists to review findings and recommend actions. “The state archaeologists will provide their recommendations sometime before the next HEP Board meeting,” Carr states. “We have never reviewed our own work.”
The scrutiny that Carr, South Florida’s most prominent archaeologist, is attracting now may derive from his previous role as the county’s staff archaeologist, in which he was an advocate. That was decidedly different from his position now as a consultant.
At issue is not only unique evidence of early architectural systems but also a treasure trove of objects, all providing greater detail about how some of the region’s earliest inhabitants lived.
In the karst holes -- spots where the limestone has been dissolved by water and acid from decaying organic matter -- the excavators have found evidence of a well-fed community: shark bones, turtle shells, numerous species of fish and ray bones, as well as mollusk shells. There are terrestrial animals, also: bones from deer and the now-extinct Caribbean monk seal and a wide variety of berry seeds and fruit pits.
There were artifacts too: conch-shell blades for axes; chert arrowheads probably obtained through trade, given that there was nothing but soft limestone to work with in this region. In addition, Carr’s team has uncovered piles of pottery shards and bone tools, such as ornamental hair pins, awls, and needles. Also perforated shells, likely used as weights for fishing nets. Thousands upon thousands of artifacts.
In sum, it is the detritus of a very large and bustling community that found this real estate as valuable and productive 1500 years ago as we find it today.
However, time does not stand still, and this property is indeed exceedingly valuable. When the archaeologists are done excavating the site, and the engineers are done digitally mapping it, they will leave the circles behind. Then the long-waiting developers, Miami-based MDM Development, will come in with backhoes, front loaders, and cranes to complete what they hope will be a bustling community of today -- a billion-dollar complex of office towers, luxury apartments, hotels, a Whole Foods market, and a movie theater.
One piece of the past definitely will be preserved. The easternmost series of postholes, called the Royal Palm Circle, will be cut out whole from the bedrock and put on display in the public plaza of the development so that we can marvel at how humans have sought to endure among the mosquitoes and heat for so many centuries.
“It would be great if we could have this set aside in an archaeological park in downtown,” Carr says. “But in the reality of Miami, the chances are very slim. So rather than see these features destroyed, I’d rather see them put in a place where the public has access to them and can interpret them. I’d certainly rather see it removed and preserved than destroyed.”
But county archaeologist Jeff Ransom is not so resigned. He believes there is still time for changes to be made in order to preserve the site. “The developer could be asked to redesign plans to include the features within the plan,” Ransom says. In other words, the site could be left intact, and the buildings would be constructed around it.
“This could be a heritage tourism site for Miami,” he adds. “This site is eligible for registry in the national register of historic places, and it also meets the criteria as a World Heritage Site.”
Bob Carr is a patient man. His job lends itself to taking the long view. He has worked diligently over the past three decades to unearth and preserve in some form South Florida’s ancient past through the boom-and-bust cycles of South Florida development. He served as Dade County’s first staff archaeologist, from 1979 to 1998, then became the county’s historic preservation director in 1999.
He has worked as an archaeologist with the State of Florida’s Division of Historic Resources and with the National Park Service. In 1981 he helped draft the county ordinance, and the city ordinance that followed it in 1985, requiring that all development in areas designated as archaeologically sensitive must first allow an archaeological assessment of the site.
Downtown Miami along the Miami River, the Met Square site specifically, has long been known as very archaeologically sensitive. It is not only the site of an ancient Tequesta settlement, but of some of the earliest European settlements too. Fort Dallas was constructed here in 1836 as a cantonment during the Seminole Wars. Later, after the military abandoned the site, Julia Tuttle rehabilitated some of the buildings to make her homestead.
“This was not a mystery,” Carr says. Everyone knew there was material under the land here. “As early as 1869 an archaeologist from Harvard landed there and found some artifacts.”
Jeffries Wyman, the first curator of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, sailed into Biscayne Bay on the yacht Azalea with the intention of exploring, Carr writes in his book Digging Miami, published by the University Press of Florida in 2012.
Wyman targeted Indian mounds at the mouth of the Miami River, and gave such precise coordinates that Carr is able to note exactly where his spade hit the ground. Wyman’s journal entries record “large quantities of bones pottery & shells…. Bones of fish, turtle coon, birds, deer, shark verteb. Very common -- ‘two pieces of worked bone’ & two or three chisels of conch shell.”
He also related battling rain, heat, and “great numbers of mosquitoes” in the process.
For the most part, Wyman’s work failed to inspire his colleagues. South Florida never rose very high on 19th-century archaeology’s list of priorities. The region was too remote, writes Carr, to sustain lengthy investigation. In the 1890s, Henry Flagler’s railroad made it easier to visit the area, but America’s academics didn’t exactly rush to study ancient Indian culture.
In fact, any evidence of sophisticated structures was immediately ascribed by many scientists to colonists from Atlantis, errant Phoenicians, or even Irish monks. “Most of these scholars believed that the American Indians were not capable of building mounds, and that all monuments and artifacts that reflected any degree of ‘civilized’ art, engineering, or thinking must have an Old World origin,” Carr writes.
If Miami was not going to be valued because of its past, Henry Flagler was going to make sure it would be valuable because of its future.
Once his railroad line was built, Flagler wasted no time breaking ground on the Royal Palm Hotel, the lavish, six-story structure that ushered in the age of South Florida tourism, which opened in 1897. The hotel featured electric lights, elevators, and a swimming pool. It had 450 guest rooms and a staff of 300, and it was built on top of the Tequesta village that Carr is excavating today.
To 19th-century magnates and their laborers, however, Indian remains and artifacts were at worst an impediment, at best a curiosity. Workers found copious amounts of objects that they unceremoniously tossed aside, including human remains.
At one point the workers gave or sold human skulls to Girtman’s grocery store on Flagler Street, where they were sold to tourists as souvenirs. The hotel was destroyed by termites and the hurricane of 1926, and its remains were just as unceremoniously covered over in 1930 to make way for the numerous iterations of downtown Miami to follow.
The demolition was occurring in the middle of an area designated as archaeologically important, which meant that an archaeologist’s presence was required by law. Yet the city’s staff apparently had neglected to mention this to developer Michael Baumann, who nonetheless agreed to pause construction and hire archaeologists to monitor the site during demolition.
County archaeologist John Ricisak and Carr’s Archaeological and Historical Conservancy began assessing the site later that year. When they cleared about 19 inches of topsoil and reached the bedrock, they found what became known as the Miami Circle, a 38-foot-diameter circle carved out of the solid limestone. Nothing like it had ever been seen.
Carr and others have hypothesized that the circle was a place of ritual, given the manpower needed to carve out the bedrock and the totemic nature of the items found there. Others, of course, were free to float their own theories, including one that posited it was an alien landing pad.
The discovery not only helped cement the importance of the city’s archaeology ordinance, it also inspired the community to act. Rather than lose this unique piece of history, a public campaign was initiated to raise $26.7 million in order to buy the two-acre site and preserve it as an archaeological park. The long shadow of that act may have inadvertently affected future discoveries.
Five years later, in 2002, MDM Development announced its intention to develop three parking lots downtown, between Biscayne Boulevard and SE 3rd Avenue, just north of the Miami River. This time everyone -- the developer, city officials, and archaeologists -- was aware of the laws requiring an assessment, and Carr and his colleagues were called in.
“We did an auguring study, where we dug holes in the parking lot,” Carr recalls. They drilled down into the ground and pulled up samples of soil and rock, and they found numerous artifacts. “We provided them with an assessment report, saying there’s a site there,” Carr says.
At that point the developers knew that before they began building in earnest, they would need to set aside some time and money to pay for the archaeologists to excavate and evaluate.
“MDM has been cooperating with the various agencies for more than ten years, throughout the entire construction process,” according to a statement from the company, issued through spokesman Israel Kreps. “Bob Carr and his team have documented the sites, and their findings will be donated to the HistoryMiami Museum.”
In 2004, MDM’s workers began “peeling away the asphalt,” Carr says, in the first of the parking lots. The archaeologists would swoop in to assess a site while workers prepped another site for them. When the archaeologists finished, they would move to the next area as construction crews moved back to the vacated site. Their initial finds were exciting -- voluminous amounts of artifacts and food refuse, providing an ever more detailed picture about life in prehistoric Miami.
But in 2006, when Carr’s group began sifting through the ground in the lot northwest of the current five circles site, they found it rich not only with artifacts, but human remains. They uncovered five solution holes, depressions in the bedrock, that were each roughly 15 feet across. In each hole they found the fragmentary remains of about 100 people.
It’s a sign of how far we’ve come that instead of hawking the bones to snowbirds, the developer and archaeologists contacted the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes (actually, it’s required by state law now), and arrangements were made to rebury the remains at an undisclosed location. (Neither tribe is a direct descendant of the Tequesta. By the 17th Century, after contact with the Europeans, the Tequesta people were wiped out by disease, battles, and slavery.)
Despite the discoveries, the site’s “lethal price tag,” as Carr describes it, prevented anyone from thinking about preserving the site. Carr even inquired of state officials if there was a certain threshold in the number of graves that would trigger automatic preservation of the site. The answer was no.
The archaeologists worked until 2007, when the great recession stalled backhoes from here to Los Angeles. For another five years, the remaining parcel lay dormant as the loans for big construction projects simply dried up or died with the banks that folded. Without the developer to underwrite the dig, it wasn’t until October 2012 that the archaeologists got into the field again. This time it was “Parcel B,” the last of the former parking lots MDM planned to develop.
After the backhoes had scraped up the asphalt and the fill underneath it, Carr and his crew divided the parcel into quadrants, and began gingerly sifting through the remaining topsoil with hand trowels, and screening the dirt. The process was painstaking, and the developer wanted them out as soon as possible.
The first finds were parts of the brick foundation for the Royal Palm Hotel’s veranda. Then the team began finding ancient Indian artifacts. Eventually they had cleared all the soil down to the bedrock. Then they began assessing all the different depressions and holes in the limestone to determine which were manmade. Ryan Franklin then plotted them on a graph. It was like the old game of making a picture by connecting the dots. When the map was complete, suddenly the patterns were apparent.
“Ryan was able to connect the dots, and that’s when we realized there were circles,” Carr says. That’s also when the pattern of two parallel lines, previously unseen in any Tequesta site, revealed itself. “When we got to the 3rd Avenue Circle, it was sort of a eureka moment,” Carr recounts.
Nothing could be truer. Just as the type of work Pereira did in Cuba was expected to fit the socialist narrative, the work here, in the shadows of office buildings and hotels, is completely guided by the demands of the marketplace.
By September 27, the archaeologists had packed up their trowels, mesh screens, and maps. The civil engineers from Biscayne Engineering finished taking digital coordinates for a 3D laser map of the site. The loud grumble of engines waited in the wings to take over.
Miami is a young city, and this youth is evident in its enthusiasm for the new. That comes at the expense of our past, say people like historian Greg Bush, when we’re unwilling to protect our heritage. Even if that heritage comes with a price. As Bush asked in his e-mail: Where were the civic groups and the rest of the concerned citizens when this site was found?
It may just be, as Carr has noted, that a recession-wracked economy in a city facing significant budget woes represents a reality too challenging to overcome. Could some ancient artifacts really stop a billion-dollar development providing jobs and revenue?
Preservation advocates certainly hope so. One lesson from modern archaeology in Miami -- efforts largely pioneered by Carr -- is that history won’t stay buried forever.
Volume 14, Issue 8, October 2016
The late Andy Sweet’s photos bring to life a bygone era
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