THE MIAMI CIRCLE

From the Miami Herald

This article originally appeared in The Herald Jan. 3, 1999

By MARTIN MERZER Herald Senior Writer

In the shadow of the Sheraton in downtown Miami, within sight of the Brickell
Avenue bridge, scientists and volunteers are digging and sifting their way into
history in that rarest of South Florida enterprises: an urban archaeological
excavation.
This devoted band already has found a remarkable 38-foot-diameter ...
something.
Hundreds or thousands of years old, formed by stone carvings and post holes, the
circular formation near the mouth of the Miami River is stunning evidence of a
prehistoric culture. Experts believe it could be the remains of an astronomical
observatory or a sacred temple.
A few people believe it could be the first solid proof that Central America's
renowned Maya civilization gained a toehold in South Florida more than 2,000
years ago. The archaeologists also have uncovered primitive axes produced by
Maya or other distant tribes.
Others doubt a Maya connection. They believe that Tequesta Indians, indigenous
to South Florida, carved the formation into the limestone bedrock more than 500
years ago.
But the experts all know this: Nothing like this formation has ever been found in
Florida.
``We've discovered something substantial,'' said Robert Carr, an archaeologist
and director of Miami-Dade's Historic Preservation Division. ``Something unusual
was going on here.''
And still is.
Every day, curious laymen -- tourists from local hotels, business executives from
surrounding skyscrapers, high school students on holiday break -- are turning out
to help or watch sun-wrinkled Indiana Joneses.
The diggers arrive at sunrise. They depart just before sunset. Using shovels and
spades, brushes and whisk brooms, they work rapidly as bulldozers loom on the
horizon.
The immutable clock of development is tick-tocking. It's four weeks and counting
before the developers roll in and build Brickell Pointe, a twin-tower project of
apartments, businesses and shops.
Georges Solomon, a 17-year-old junior at Miami Central High, boarded the No. 27
bus in North Miami one day last week, then the Metrorail, then the Metromover.
Then, he walked a few blocks to the site.
Never before involved in archaeology, he ended up sifting shell, bone and artifacts
from the dark, densely compacted soil called black dirt midden. Why?
``I just wanted to know more about this,'' he said.
So do the experts. A lively academic debate is under way.
Mysteries remain
What is this thing? How old is it? Who built it? Why?
``It's like looking into a distant, hazy mirror,'' Carr said.
Whatever it is, it retains a magnetic hold on archaeologists and visitors.
Centuries or millennia after its creation, the formation still seems sacred -- partly
because of its apparent function as a temple or astronomical device, partly
because it has survived for so long, partly because it sits in the middle of a busy,
modern megalopolis.
People who now step here, step very gingerly indeed.
``I hear that a lot from people -- that they sense they are walking on sacred
ground,'' said archaeologist John Ricisak, the dig's field director. ``People say
they had no idea that anything like this could possibly exist here.''
The formation was discovered in recent months about four feet below the surface
of the 2.2-acre site, just east of the Brickell Avenue bridge, adjacent to the
Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel and across the river from the Dupont Plaza Hotel.
County archaeologists knew that the area could hold some secrets. It was prime
development land long before humans started building skyscrapers.
``The mouth of a river is the place to be,'' Ricisak said. ``You have access to
marine resources, you have a main transportation corridor inland, and it's
aesthetically pleasing. It's a very nice place to live.''
It began as routine
So, as contemporary developers awaited their building permits, Carr, Ricisak and
others began a routine dig that turned unique in a hurry.
The circular formation they found is created by 24 irregularly cut basins, ranging in
size from one to three feet. Some experts believe the basins depict the shapes of
sea turtles, sharks, manatees, shrimps and other marine animals.
Surrounding the basins are more than 200 post holes laboriously dug in limestone
called Miami oolite. Also found on the site were two stone axes made elsewhere
and the remains of a five-foot shark deliberately buried in the circle.
Particularly intriguing is this: One elliptical basin sits precisely on the circle's
east-west axis. It could be meant to represent a human eye -- complete with an
inserted rock that could be the iris -- gazing toward the sunrise.
And this: T.L. Riggs, a professional surveyor who works with Carr and discovered
the formation, performed mathematical calculations and predicted that significant
post holes would be found 41 feet on either side of the circle's center along the
east-west axis.
Solitary holes were found exactly where he predicted.
Drawing lines from these points to and beyond the circle, Riggs mapped the
precise outlines of the autumnal equinox (the time when the sun crosses the
equator, making night and day equal in duration) and the summer and winter
solstices (the northern and southern extremes of the sun's seasonal travel through
the sky).
2,000 years old?
That and other evidence makes him believe that the structure is an astronomical
observatory, calendar and almanac.
And that it was created 2,000 to 3,000 years ago by Maya, the populous and
accomplished tribes of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize and other
parts of Central America.
The Maya were known for their mastery of astronomical calculations, abstract
knowledge and hieroglyphic writing, and there is some evidence that they roamed
close to Florida -- perhaps even settling in Cuba -- more than 2,000 years ago.
Many of their descendants are alive today in Central America.
``The Maya were obsessed with time, with the passage of time,'' Riggs said.
``They would record different seasons, when the sun would be at certain points.''
In addition, the two axes found at the site were made from basalt, a volcanic
material not found in Florida. Two very similar axes were found years ago on the
north side of the river. The Maya were known to use such axes.
``There's no other way to explain the Maya tools found here and across the river,''
Riggs said.
He said the elliptical shape that could represent a human eye also is reminiscent
of the Maya symbol for the number zero.
A Yucatan connection?
``Most people pooh-pooh this [Maya connection], but these people were
completely marine-oriented,'' Riggs said. ``They traveled in huge canoes. They
easily could have reached here from the Yucatan.''
Riggs, 72, has a special feel for the place. He once lived in Building 4 of the
six-building Brickell Apartments project that sat on the site until it was demolished
last year.
``Maybe the vibrations came up and grabbed me,'' Riggs said.
Other authorities agree that it is theoretically possible that Maya reached South
Florida, but they say there is virtually no other evidence that they did. The axes
could have been brought here by ancient traders, they said.
``I don't think there is a connection,'' Ricisak said. ``We've not yet found any
evidence that really supports that theory. We're still gathering data. We won't have
any answers for at least a year.''
Where Riggs sees basins that look like marine animals, Ricisak and Carr see
basins, period.
``You can see shapes in clouds, too,'' Carr said.
He and Ricisak think the formation more likely was created by the Tequesta, a
community of about 10,000 people who once ranged from near present-day
Deerfield Beach to Key West and westward through much of the Everglades.
Evidence of Tequesta
The Tequesta liked to live near the mouths of rivers. They worshiped animals and
the sun. They believed that humans had three souls that resided in their eyes, their
reflection and their shadow.
The archaeologists have found pottery shards and other evidence in or near the
formation suggesting that the Tequesta occupied the site 500 to 800 years ago.
They believe that the formation served as a temple or a chief's residence and that
its undeniable astronomical alignment simply signifies its special place in the
Tequesta scheme of things.
``If nothing else, this shows that the indigenous people of Florida had the intellect
and the capacity to create this feature,'' Carr said. ``It took a lot of hard work.''
As does decoding what has been found, and finding -- quickly -- what hasn't yet
been found.
No state law protects such sites unless human remains are discovered, which has
not been the case.
Something special
Carr and Ricisak said the developer, Brickell Pointe Ltd., has been generous in
time and money thus far, and might shoulder the cost of cutting out the formation in
huge chunks and moving it elsewhere for further study, if that proves feasible.
The archaeologists hope that it does. They know they have something special
here, something capable of capturing many imaginations. They hope to employ
carbon dating techniques in the near future.
``This is a thing to appreciate and consider,'' Ricisak said.
``For many people in South Florida, there is a sense of rootlessness and a lack of
a sense of history. But we know now that there is history here.
``When you walk on this, you are walking on something that no one has walked on
for hundreds or thousands of years.''
Herald senior writer Martin Merzer can be reached by e-mail at
mmerzer@herald.com
Copyright © 1996 The Miami Herald

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