Miami Circle Reflections: Part 1–the Journey Begins

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

This series of blog posts—Miami Circle Reflections—are my memories of working on the Miami Circle project from fall 1999 through the construction and opening of the Miami Circle Park in February 2011. These reminiscences draw on my archived emails, newspaper-clipping collection, photos, publications, and, well, my recollections of the time. Florida’s Governor and Cabinet directed that my office, the Bureau of Archaeological Research, conduct an assessment to confirm the authenticity of the site (more on that to come!)l. Recently promoted to Archaeologist II, I had relocated from Gainesville to the Bureau headquarters in Tallahassee. I was nominated to lead the site assessment for several reasons: I was from southern Florida, I had studied the archaeology of the area, and no one else wanted to go. A six-week investigation of the Miami Circle property in October and November 1999 led to over a decade of involvement in research and publication, historic preservation and site planning, complicated permitting and politics, and ultimately the construction of the Miami Circle Park.

Two male archaeologists crouch down and examine water-filled basins carved in limestone bedrock. Dirt piles are behind them.
Miami-Dade County historic preservation director Bob Carr (left) examines the Miami Circle with County Archaeologist John Ricisak sometime in early 1999.

However, before I can tell about the events of fall 1999 I need to back up to the end of the previous year. December 1998 found me in Fort Lauderdale spending Christmas with my parents. Over breakfast one day just before Christmas, my father handed me the newspaper with a story about a mysterious archaeological discovery in the heart of downtown Miami. I scanned the story, which included claims of animal effigies carved in the soft Miami limestone and Maya visitors who brought stone axes to the site; I searched the story for the names and faces of familiar archaeologists, like Bob Carr, long time Miami-Dade County Archaeologist and then director of the county’s historic preservation program. Little did I know that the site described in that article—the Miami Circle—would change the direction of my career and dominate my professional life for the next decade. A week later, I shared the article with my colleagues back at the Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee. Over the first months of 1999, the Miami Circle ruled the archaeological news and each new day brought some new—often more incredible—claim. Most interesting, however, was the growing movement to save the site and the associated political twists and turns. Positioned at the very place where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay, Miami’s twenty-first century rebirth would begin at its heart, with the destruction of the Miami Circle site and construction of two 40-story hi-rise towers.

Three archaeologists work inside a circular excavation pit filled with holes and basins carved in the limestone bedrock.
Excavation of the Miami Circle feature by Miami-Dade County Archaeologist John Ricisak and a volunteer team, early 1999.

Archaeological investigations had first begun at the parcel known locally as Brickell Point in 1998 when a block of 1950s-era apartments were demolished and the property was being prepped for development by Michael Bauman’s company Brickell Pointe Ltd. Miami-Dade County has one of the most stringent local historic preservation ordinances, largely due to the efforts of long-time County Archaeologist Bob Carr. In the 1980s, Miami-Dade County enacted its ordinance and required that municipalities follow suit or develop even stricter historic preservation laws. The City of Miami tried to sidestep the requirement, but ultimately created its own historic preservation framework. Parcels in sensitive zones required archaeological surveys and could receive protective designations from the city’s historic preservation commission. In 1998, County Archaeologist John Ricisak took over the investigation of the Brickell Point site when it was determined that the developer’s contract archaeologist was doing substandard work. With a team of volunteers, Ricisak tackled what he believed would be a salvage project—the recovery of information from the site prior to destruction for development. However, local schoolchildren, followed by activists and Native Americans, began to insist on the preservation of the site. This led to tense moments in the field for Ricisak, including a plan by the developer to hire a stonemason to cut the 38-foot diameter Miami Circle feature out of the soft Miami oolite limestone and relocate it to a nearby park. Public outcry encouraged Miami-Dade County’s major, Alex Penelas, to sue the developer, citing eminent domain: the county planned to seize the Miami Circle parcel purely to save the ancient archaeological site. This action is almost unheard of in legal and historic preservation circles. The county feared that the court might accept the developer’s valuation of the property, exponentially greater than the $8 million paid for the parcel, while the developer worried that public sentiment might influence the decision, resulting in a punitively low value to be paid for the site. In this milieu, the developer and the county reached a compromise. The property would change hands; the sale price (including fees) was $26.7 million dollars. The county had to scramble, however, to secure the funds, or the deal would be off. Financial commitments came from the Knight Foundation, the Trust for Public Land, and the State of Florida. Contributing $15 million the State of Florida had several conditions—namely that the parcel would become state lands and that a state sponsored investigation could take place.

Image of newspaper articles spread out about the Miami Circle site.
A montage of the author’s newspaper clipping collection about the Miami Circle.

Much of the above happened on the periphery of my involvement. I tracked the story carefully and collected a file of newspaper clippings through the first months of 1999. One big development was the response to the outlandish claims made about the site. Remember the Maya traders bringing stone axes, or the fabulous carved animals? Those were tame compared to the Druids, Atlanteans, and Extraterrestrials offered as possible builders or visitors to the site. This was 1999 and the beginning of the Internet Age. The Web was in its infancy, but stories like the Miami Circle attracted considerable fringe interest. The Circle was a regular topic on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM paranormal-themed radio show. Richard C. Hoagland (of the faces on Mars fame), and one of Bell’s regular guests, visited the Miami Circle and set up a webcam in a nearby hotel. One could log on and observe the site at any hour (not much was happening, as the developer had shut down most work at the site). Magician and paranormal debunker James Randi (aka The Amazing Randi) issued a challenge in February 1999. Randi claimed that the circular features that formed the Miami Circle were, in fact, part of the Brickell Point Apartments 1950s-era septic system and not an actual archaeological site. There were other skeptics, including Florida Museum of Natural History curator Jerald T. Milanich, who championed the septic tank theory. In April 1999, Milanich visited the site with State Archaeologist Jim Miller and other state representatives in response to an application to acquire the site using Conservation and Recreation Lands funds. Miller returned with his impressions, and not long after archaeologist Richard Haiduven visited Tallahassee and briefed us on the site. Haiduven had volunteered on the county-sponsored excavations and provided the most detailed account of conditions at the Circle.

Two men--John Ricisak and Jerry Milanich--stand on the carved holes and basins of the Miami Circle site. Buildings of the Miami skyline and fluffy white clouds are in the background.
John Ricisak and Jerry Milanich at the Miami Circle, April 1999.

As the legal fight to acquire the Miami Circle wore on in the spring and summer of 1999, the site remained in the news. The big milestones came in May and June 1999. In May, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, gave acquisition priority to the Miami Circle in the ranking of Conservation and Recreation Lands properties. A month later Miami-Dade County won the right to acquire the property through eminent domain. A trial to determine the value of the property was set for October 1999. A lot happened in September that year. The county and the developer reached a settlement, as described above, and the State of Florida agreed to participate in acquisition, pending a state investigation of the site. Two other things happened. Jacqueline Dixon, geologist at the University of Miami, conducted a sourcing study of the stone axes found at the site during John Ricisak’s salvage project. They were made of basaltic stone from the vicinity of Macon, Georgia, and were, in fact, not of Maya origin. Ricisak was pushing back against the far-fetched claims. Influential Archaeology magazine published archaeologist Jerry Milanich’s critique “Much Ado about a Circle.” Milanich, as mentioned above, had taken up The Amazing Randi’s notion that the site was not real and his push intensified as it looked more likely that the county and state would save the site. I’ve always believed that Milanich’s piece gave the Miami Circle story a boost at a point where media interest had begun to wane.

Image of protest signs left in front of a chain link fence.
Signs left by protesters at the construction entrance to the Brickell Point property. Local shaman Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez frequently visited the gate and smudged visitors and archaeologists alike.

This is where my Miami Circle journey began. After the Governor and Cabinet authorized our office to investigate the site, I began planning for the project. Using the information provided by Jim Miller and Richard Haiduven, I developed a plan to investigate the remainder of the 2.2-acre parcel. John Ricisak had focused his efforts on the Miami Circle feature itself, and then been restricted by the developer from working elsewhere. The Circle was found somewhat fortuitously, with Ricisak and surveyor Ted Riggs noting that large, basin-like features in the limestone seemed to form a circular arc. They then marked the presumed path and excavated the 38-foot diameter Circle. Like other sites in the area, darkly stained archaeological deposits called midden (from the Danish word køkkenmøddinger for kitchen midden) capped the limestone bedrock. Midden deposits here are refuse and living surfaces left behind by the Tequesta Indians and their ancestors. I used maps of the site to plot a grid where we would excavate test pits. I hired a crew and planned to use a desk and phone in Bob Carr’s Archaeological & Historical Conservancy office in Little Havana, not too far from the Brickell Point site. The site remained fenced with 24-7 security guards and all entry required the developer’s approval. The investigation was relatively straightforward. We soon found, however, that a dense layer of construction debris capped the parcel. We abandoned gas-powered augers and the county loaned us a backhoe and a crackerjack operator, who carefully removed rubble to expose the old midden surface. We also cleaned profiles left from the demolition of the mid-twentieth century apartments, ultimately documenting three things: 1) about 70 percent of the 2.2-acre parcel had intact midden deposits and additional features carved in the underlying bedrock; 2) previous construction activity had removed the upper portions of the archaeological deposits, but left the lower layers intact; and 3) there were lots more carved holes to be found, including many in an area we dubbed “the Valley of the Holes.”

Black and white line drawn map of the Brickell Point property, showing the location of the Miami Circle and the extent of the limestone bedrock. The lines on the map are similar to those on a weather map.
A map of the Brickell Point parcel showing the elevation and extent of limestone bedrock at the site. The author made of series of these maps, which were crucial during the later park development at the property.

We also wanted to tackle some of the claims made by conspiracy theorists, namely that the site wasn’t real. We asked that the State Geologist’s office inspect the underlying bedrock and the carved holes and basins that formed some of the most interesting parts of the site. Harley Means visited and made some interesting observations, ultimately published the following year. He noted that the Miami oolite limestone (oolite is composed of minuscule balls of calcium carbonate—or ooids—glued together to form a soft limestone rock) had a laminated coating formed by the interaction of acidic groundwater and dissolved minerals. This was a normal feature of oolite, but it was clear that the crust, formed over hundreds or thousands of years, covered the carved holes and basins. This meant that the holes and basins discovered by the county and state archaeology teams were quite old and not from the 1950s! If this wasn’t enough, I decided we needed to locate and excavate another one of the 1950s-era septic tanks. One was coincident with the Miami Circle, which had fueled the claims of a recent origin by the Amazing Randi and Jerry Milanich. Using the septic plans that John Ricisak had located at the town engineering office, we pinpointed the location of another tank (a large, concrete-encased structure). In a phone conversation with Jerry Milanich prior to the launch of my project he suggested that if we excavated another septic tank on the site we would find another circle of carved holes in the adjacent limestone. We found the tank quickly, but no associated features were located. Jerry was undeterred. A few years later when we nominated the site as a National Historic Landmark he suggested the Miami Circle was the foundation for an early twentieth century gazebo that could be seen on an old postcard of Brickell Point. Other skeptics (there were many) suggested the large midden-filled basins were “banana holes,” a geological feature known in the Bahamas that also involves the dissolution of cavities in soft limestone bedrock. The pattern of the hole at the Miami Circle, however, did not support the “banana hole” theory. Excavations on the north bank of the Miami River a few years later identified a similar circular feature, also measuring 38-feet in diameter, and directly opposite the Miami Circle. This discovery clinched our second attempt to list the Miami Circle as a National Historic Landmark!

Image of the author shooting pictures at the site. He is wearing dirty blue jeans and a green work shirt. He has closely cropped hair. The Brickell Bridge is in the background and piles of rock and rubble are present.
The author at the Miami Circle in fall 1999. We still relied heavily on film cameras at this time–shooting black-and-white film and color slides. John Ricisak had a digital camera, but the images were low-res.

On the ground in fall 1999, the project had a few unusual elements. Protests at the site demanding the preservation of the Miami Circle had abated, but we still had the occasional visitor. Mostly we had to talk with folks through the fence, as the developer had forbidden guests inside the parcel. Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez was a fixture at the entry gate. Catherine is a local shaman and Carib Tribal Queen, originally from the Caribbean. She had been actively involved in the push to save the Circle and had created an altar on and just outside the entrance gate. The altar included laminated photos of celebrities that had visited the site, shells, woodcarvings, and beads. Catherine stopped by frequently to check on us. On Tuesday afternoons, people would gather for a vigil. Catherine smudged visitors (and our field crew members) with sage. We met other interesting people too, including Ishmael Bermudez. Ishmael stopped by one day to share information on dinosaurs and the Fountain of Youth, both located during excavations under his nearby Little Havana home. He told me about being at the Brickell Point site in the 1970s and receiving an energy surge. He lamented that he could not enter the property anymore. I motioned him to follow me to part of the property adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel next door. Here was a place where a driveway cut down through the limestone creating an exposure facing the hotel. I suggested he could “plug in” here. He did and left very satisfied a little while later. Ishmael frequently stopped to wave at us from Brickell Avenue Bridge, which bordered the west side of the property. In a cavernous storage space under the bridge the Florida Department of Transportation graciously allowed us to store our gear and the artifacts and samples we were collecting on a daily basis.

A crowd of reporters outside the chain link fence at the Miami Circle site.
One of the press conferences held at the Miami Circle during the author’s investigation of the site. The author is somewhere in the middle of that throng of reporters!

Another unusual feature of our field project were the press conferences. Once the protesters were gone the daily media attention abated, but the county was interested in keeping the Circle in the spotlight, especially as they worked to secure funds for the acquisition—something that was still uncertain, despite the legal settlement. If I remember correctly, we had at least two of these, coordinated by Michael Spring, the head of the county’s arts programs. During one of these we agreed to share some of the finds, including the jaw of a massive grouper and an unusual object made from the primary ore of lead (galena). The fish jaw was local fare, and probably provided the centerpiece of an ancient Tequesta feast, but the lead ore had come from as far away as Missouri! I was worried about speaking and trying to share the objects, especially if someone decided to make a grab for one of them. I asked Victor Longo, a Florida Atlantic University anthropology student and one of our crew, to serve as “artifact wrangler.” In this capacity, Victor would share the objects on my signal, but was prepared to snatch them to safety at the first sign of trouble. He served admirably, and no artifacts were lost or harmed! This might sound a bit paranoid, but during the county’s investigation of the site a volunteer or visitor stole one of the exotic stone axes. Richard Haiduven, who had joined our crew, later related the story and his daydream of recovering the axe in a SWAT-type raid evocative of the Elián González saga, which was playing out just after our time at the Circle. Victor is now a successful realtor in Delray Beach.

Image of Richard Haiduven excavating midden soil at the Miami Circle.
Archaeologist Richard Haiduven excavates an unusual find at the Miami Circle–the burial of a five-foot shark. The five-gallon buckets protect the dark midden soil that contain the shark remains.

We concluded our investigation of the Brickell Point-Miami Circle parcel just before Thanksgiving 1999. I returned to Tallahassee to prepare my report and get back to my other projects, which had languished now for several months. Just before the year ended, the money changed hands and the Miami Circle officially became a state-owned property. And despite all the things that had happened since the discovery of the Miami Circle feature in October 1998, there was so much more to come! And since I had led the state investigation, I became the state Miami Circle guy. Stay tuned for my next Miami Circle Reflections blog where I detail the worst idea I’ve ever had.

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