America’s Stonehenge surrounded by condos and controversy

Story/photos by Sandra Hale Schulman
Miami, Florida (NFIC) 3-08

To anyone driving over the Miami Bridge, it doesn’t look like much. Blink and you miss the small billboard that announces the Miami Circle sits just below on the river’s edge – a dusty parcel of 2.2 acres surrounded by chain-link fencing in the shadow of the giant Sheraton Hotel and 30-story condos. At its center is a circle of pale limestone, 38 foot in diameter, pitted with what looks like post-holes. But to historians and archaeologists who excavated here furiously for months in the late 1990s, this is nothing less than America’s Stonehenge.

The archaeological site in the heart of Miami, revealing secrets going back at least 2,000 years, received an eleventh-hour reprieve from the developers who wanted to obliterate the “Miami Circle.” At the last minute county commissioners voted to borrow $8.7 million to help buy them off.
Two 40-story towers were to go up on the plot, at the mouth of the Miami River on the edge of Biscayne Bay. Thus the way was opened for a deal that will see the building of a cultural museum on the site.

Native American tribes are certainly not news in Miami and South Florida, as the entire state was originally inhabited by Seminole and Miccosukee.

The site, discovered when some apartment buildings were demolished, stirred excitement among archaeologists worldwide. Even more astonished was Miami itself: heritage in this ever changing, young ethnic city meant South Beach’s tourist infested Art Deco district, some scattered buildings in the black section of Overtown and the two decades old sprawl of Little Havana might change a bit.

Now, right in its heart, it has possibly the most important Native American treasure trove on the continent. Most experts believe the circle is the work of the Tequesta Indians, who for centuries roamed the lower half of the Florida peninsula.

The Tequesta were a tribe who were believed to be primarily nomadic, hunting fish and alligators in the Florida Everglades. They were known to be very aggressive, killing many early European settlers who attempted landfall in Florida, before eventually succumbing to the ravages of war and the many unfamiliar diseases brought by European settlers.

Experts think the post-holes supported the roof of a meeting house or even a temple – some of the patterns appear to have mystical alignments to the sun. Carbon dating suggests that the site, if not the circle itself, dates back at least 2,000 years or even beyond. Among artifacts uncovered are the remains of a 5 foot shark. “For many people in South Florida there is a sense of rootlessness and a lack of a sense of history,” said John Ricisak, a state archaeologist. “We know now there is history here.”

It is the only known evidence of a permanent structure cut into the bedrock in the United States, and considerably predates other known permanent settlements on the East Coast.

The site of the circle is 401 Brickell Avenue, named for William Brickell, co-founder of Miami in the 1870s, who had held an apartment complex there. Property developer Michael Baumann purchased the site for $8.5 million in order to build a luxury condominium, and in July 1998 he tore down the standing apartment complex. He was obliged to commission a routine archaeological survey of the site prior to commencement of building, and Bob Carr of the Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Division was called in to conduct the excavation.

In the course of the routine exploration, a number of holes cut into the Oolitic limestone bedrock were discovered. Surveyor Ted Riggs, on examining the layout of these holes, postulated that they were part of a circle 38 feet in diameter. Having calculated the center, he sprayed out the likely location of the rest of the holes, were there any to be found.

Excavation of the path he laid out revealed that there were indeed 24 holes forming a perfect circle in the limestone, and examination of the earth removed showed a large number of artifacts ranging from shell-tools and stone axe-heads to human teeth and charcoal from fires. A small number of historical artifacts were found at the Miami Circle, including iron nails, bullet casings and musket balls, glass bottle fragments, buttons, and historic ceramic shards like pearlware and stoneware.

stonehengehome-1.gifAdditional items that may have been placed in or buried under the structure were a complete 5 foot long shark skeleton, aligned east to west, a dolphin skull, and a complete carapace of a seaturtle. Four human teeth were also found, though no other evidence pointed to it being a burial site, which by law would have halted development of the condominiums automatically.

Artifacts like perforated coins and glass beads are probably associated with Seminole Indians who visited William Brickell’s store at the site between 1870 and 1900. Most of the historic artifacts date to the nineteenth century, though a few creamware shards may be earlier. Other historic artifacts include clay pipe fragments and a silver thimble.

Two galena artifacts were recovered from excavations at the Miami Circle. Galena is a mineral of lead sulfide that forms in cube-like crystals, with major deposits known in Missouri and the upper Mississippi Valley and in Illinois and Kentucky. American Indians used galena as a source of white pigment and as a raw material for making beads, pendants and other ornaments. It was a rare and highly prized mineral exchanged extensively by Native peoples in the Southeastern and Midwestern United States. Florida State University geologist Stephen Kish and his students made a spectrographic analysis of the galena artifacts from the Miami Circle and found that like most other Florida galena artifacts, the Miami Circle specimens share a source in central Missouri.

Study of the tools and fragments from the Miami Circle are important in understanding exchange relationships that were active some 2,000 years ago in the Florida area.

Also found were distinct patterns within the Miami Circle excavation area. The spatial distribution of artifacts like stone tools, pumice and shells show similar groupings, suggesting activity areas or concentrations related to prehistoric refuse dumping.

Tools were made from the deer foot bones, shark teeth and bones from a few other species. Most of the bone tools from the Miami Circle are everyday tools associated with weaving, processing leather, wood carving, and bone working. Decorated bone artifacts from the Miami Circle are rare, but include one small, round pendant of engraved circles.

The developer Baumann, keen to continue construction of his condominium, offered to pay to relocate the circle to another site for preservation, an idea that then Mayor Joe Carollo supported, saying that if the condo was stopped, “We would lose $1.1 million of property tax every year.” But public opposition grew, with groups ranging from archaeologists and Native Americans to New Agers and schoolchildren protesting that the removal could potentially destroy one of the most archaeologically significant finds in North America.

The plan to move the circle was going ahead, and Joshua Billig, stonemason of Rockers Stone and Supply, was brought in to carry out the relocation, but sensationally quit on February 14, 1999, having listened to arguments from the various protesters, particularly the Native American groups. Using the delay this caused, County Manager for Miami-Dade, Alex Penelas, went to the County Commission asking them to file a lawsuit to take ownership of the property, which they approved, and Judge Richard Feder ordered a temporary injunction against building on the site. Finally, following the suit, Baumann agreed to sell, but asked for $50 million, eventually lowered to $26.7 million.

In an unprecedented move, the State of Florida Preservation 2000 land acquisition program purchased the site from Baumann for that sum in November 1999, using both state funds and donations from various foundations and private citizens.

The “Brickell Point Site” was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 5, 2002.

Alternative Theories
Though the prime theory remains that it is the foundation print for a structure, built by the Tequesta, alternative theories abound. One that may have some credit is that it has some celestial significance, similar to the complex Mayan calendar, this theory supported by stones placed like pupils of ‘eyes’ at the cardinal points of the circle. Although this theory could be in line with the idea of it being a structure, the lack of Mayan artifacts and the lack of evidence that local people had any form of complex calendar cast doubt. Also it has been suggested that the holes were for either standing stones or totem poles, though there has been no evidence forwarded to support this.

Other speculation, similar to that which surrounds mysterious prehistoric sites such as Stonehenge in England, holds that it is evidence of such phenomena as aliens or the city of Atlantis.

So what was the mysterious Miami Circle, with its river edge location, circular foundation and sea life burial ground? Perhaps some mysteries are best left alone, quiet and unyielding amid the modern hustle and bustle of a city just as strange and complex.