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Prehistoric Miami Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Mark Rose

Demolition of an apartment building in downtown Miami has led to the discovery and excavation of a unique site, a 38-foot circle cut into the limestone bedrock. According to Robert Carr, an archaeologist and director of the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Division, nothing like it has ever been found in Florida. Thousands of artifacts have been recovered at the site, all characteristic of the Tequesta Indians who lived in the area before the arrival of the Seminoles and Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s. Carr believes that the circle itself may be between 500 and 700 years old.

There are two types of holes cut into the bedrock: large, amorphous basins, of which there are at least 20, and small circular holes of which there are hundreds. Carr believes that the circle formed the foundations of a structure, perhaps a temple or council house. What is unusual is its apparent astronomical alignments. The structure's east-west axis seems to align with the rising and setting of the sun on the equinox. One of the holes on the eastern side is cut in the shape of an eye with a stone pupil. Other indications of the site's special nature are the remains of a five-foot-long shark and a sea turtle buried with their head to the west and tail to the east, as a human body would have been laid out. According to excavation director John Ricisak, they may have been offerings.

The site has yielded potsherds, stone axes, and beads as well as animal bones and sea-turtle remains. Ricisak says its location, at the mouth of the Miami River, would have been ideal for the Tequesta, giving them access to marine resources in the Atlantic and an easy route inland. Early press reports picked up on one local man's suggestion that the site was possibly built by the Maya, a claim that Carr and Ricisak quickly refuted. Carr says that two axes found there are made from a basaltic rock that does not occur in Florida but could come from Caribbean basin or Appalachian sources. There is, however, no evidence at this site or elsewhere that the Maya ever reached Florida.

That the site remained undiscovered and survived nearly intact until now is miraculous. It was unharmed during construction of a three-story apartment building 50 years ago, when a septic tank was put through its center. Plans called for construction of a 600-unit luxury high-rise condominium to proceed once archaeologists have finished excavating and documenting the site. If necessary, archaeologists would have tried cutting away the bedrock and reassembling the circular formation elsewhere, but on February 18 a judge in Miami granted a temporary injunction halting construction at the site. The injunction was sought by the Miami-Dade County Commission. County Mayor Alex Penelas told the New York Times, "I don't want to read a story about how Miami ignored its past and allowed bulldozers to destroy its history."

* Go to MiamiCircleSite.com for photographs of the Miami River Circle and artifacts from the site.
* See also "What was the Miami Circle," ARCHAEOLOGY Online, September 28, 1999.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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