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Mystery circle

By MIKE WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 1999


T.L. Riggs, surveyor, stood on a vacant lot at the mouth of the Miami River, peering into a shallow trench.

At the bottom was a shelf of limestone with several holes in it, each about the size of a bathroom sink. The holes formed an arc, like a parenthesis.

Riggs had a hunch. He grabbed a can of fluorescent red spray paint and drew a circle 37 feet in diameter. Here, he said. Dig here. His archaeologist friends -- the people who had asked him to take part in this dig -- did something archaeologists almost never do. They called for a backhoe.

The grunting claw carved along the painted line. The surveyor and the archaeologists stood back and absorbed what they had uncovered.

There it was: a series of holes in the limestone arranged in a perfect circle.

There it was: the footprint of an ancient Indian council house. Or the remains of the American Stonehenge. Or maybe -- someone would suggest this -- an alien landing pad.

There it was: a story written in stone.

From the start, the news media presented the story of the Miami Circle mostly as a fight between the developer and the people.

It wasn't a bad angle. Michael Baumann's plan to build a high-rise apartment complex on Brickell Point had its detractors even before T.L. Riggs and friends unearthed the Miami Circle.

Baumann, who had paid $8-million for the land, declared his intention to go forward. History buffs, New Agers, American Indians and UFO theorists rallied in protest. The site was sacred ground, they said, or a cosmic power source, or a link to an ancient Indian civilization about which we know almost nothing.

Just this month, Baumann agreed to sell the land to the county for use as a historic park. The story had an ending: The developer lost and the people won.

Congratulations! You owe Michael Baumann $26.7-million.

The tale of the Developer versus the People is a classic, long may it wave, but there is a larger story here. It is nothing less than the story of Florida.

Think of it: The 2.2-acre Miami Circle site was inhabited first by Indians, as was much of Florida. It was colonized by the Spanish then civilized by the English. It came into the possession of someone from another state, someone who came seeking a new life and changed the place forever. Sound familiar?

How about this: Over the last 1,000 years, the sandy spit at the mouth of the Miami River has been settled, worshiped, rediscovered and resettled, prayed over, bought, sold, built on, neglected, abused, bickered over and worshiped again. It has attracted locals, foreigners, business people, transients, dreamers, opportunists, politicians and countless other dubious characters.

The circle may or may not be sacred ground, but it makes a heck of a metaphor.

* * *

People who arrive in Florida by U-Haul are often astonished to meet people who have lived here their entire lives. The same was true half a millennium ago. The Spanish explorers were Florida's first newcomers

They "discovered" the Indian village of Tequesta, where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay, in the early to mid-1500s. The Tequesta were foragers and hunters, subsisting on roots, river trout, deer and birds.

"They also eat alligators and snakes and . . . many more disgusting reptiles which, if we were to continue enumerating, we should never be through," a Spanish traveler wrote.

Right away, the Spanish told the Tequesta what was wrong with them. To begin with, they weren't Christian.

In 1567, the Spanish built a mission across the river from the circle site. The Indians expressed their ambivalence about Christians by sacrificing about one a year. The Jesuits gave up on Tequesta.

Of course, the Spanish brought more than Christianity to what Ponce de Leon called La Florida. They also brought smallpox and measles. The Tequesta population, perhaps 20,000 when the Spanish arrived, had shrunk to 300 by 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to the English.

The remaining Tequesta fled to Cuba. There the last of them died, leaving no trace in Miami except broken pottery, sharpened animal bones and, perhaps, a circular architectural wonder.

* * *

Like the legions who followed him, William B. Brickell came to Florida from the North, his family and dreams in tow. It was 1871, "a time when the Indian and the jungle were in possession of the ground on which Miami now stands," Brickell's wife, Mary, would write.

"The Indian" was not the long-extinct Tequesta but the Seminole, who like Brickell had come from far away, though not willingly.

Brickell, who had done well in Australian real estate, bought land stretching from the mouth of the Miami River almost to Coconut Grove, several miles of waterfront property. He built a stately columned house and a trading post on what he called Brickell Point, in the former village of Tequesta.

There is no evidence that Brickell ever saw the Miami Circle, which by then was buried in dirt and shell and bone. The idea of preserving Indian artifacts would have struck him as odd. He had come to conquer Miami, not study it. This, after all, was the ethic that built Florida.

Brickell's interest in Indians was mostly commercial. The Seminoles came by canoe to the trading post, unaware of what Brickell Point had meant to earlier indigenous people. They traded animal skins, plumes and pumpkins for silver coins, which they spent on flour, guns and the occasional luxury: Contemporary pictures show the Seminoles decked out in pocket watches and hats.

William Brickell died in 1908. More than 40 years later, a developer acquired part of the Brickell estate and built Brickell Point Apartments, six squat apartment buildings with a dock and swimming pool.

For almost 50 years, the buildings were home to a procession of middle-class folks who wanted to be near the water but couldn't afford to go upscale. In the late 1960s, a World War II veteran lived on the second floor of Building Four, right next to the Miami Circle, though of course he had no idea it was there because it was buried.

The World War II vet was a working man, a surveyor by the name of T.L. Riggs.

Riggs is not a believer in cosmic forces. He is not religious. As far as he is concerned, it is pure coincidence that he briefly lived in Building Four and later found the circle. No connection at all.

Try telling that to the New Agers.

* * *

A few years back, Miami's planning department concluded that Brickell Point would be "very difficult to redevelop" because it is accessible only by a narrow road.

The planners urged the city to buy the land, knock down the apartments and turn Brickell Point into a riverfront park. The city, concerned first and foremost about the quality of life of its residents, immediately did so.

Just kidding! The story of Florida is about frantic, ill-considered development, and no place proves it better than Miami. The city ignored the advice of its own planners and embraced the dreams of Michael Baumann.

Baumann wanted to build two high-rise towers with 600 apartments and many fancy shops. Brickell Point would become Brickell Pointe. People were going to pay dearly for that elegant "e": Brickell Pointe was sure to be one of the most desirable places to live in downtown Miami.

The towers would be rising over Miami right now if not for one thing: Brickell Point is in what the city calls an architectural conservation area. After Baumann started knocking down the old apartment buildings, county archaeologist Robert Carr told him he had to have an archaeologist monitor the work.

* * *

When the construction crew started churning up prehistoric artifacts -- ax heads, chunks of pottery -- Carr wanted to investigate further. He and Baumann made a deal: Baumann would let Carr and his people root around while he was getting his building permits, which was expected to take four to six weeks. When he was ready to build, they would have to clear out. The clock was ticking.

* * *

Carr put John Ricisak in charge of the excavation. When the Miami Herald referred to the archaeologists as "sun-wrinkled Indiana Joneses," it must have had the 35-year-old Ricisak in mind. Lean and broad-shouldered, he dresses like a laid-back grad student and rides his bike to work. Yet he has the measured, deliberate approach you'd want from somebody tracking the Ark of the Covenant -- or an arc of intriguing holes.

Ricisak and a group of volunteers laid out a grid of 5-by-5-foot squares and began excavating them, one at a time. When they dug through the construction debris they came to a layer of black dirt midden -- hundreds of years of dirt, broken pottery, decaying animal bones and shells. Beneath that was the limestone bedrock.

In it, they found hundreds of little holes.

Ricisak thought they were the natural result of rainwater leaching into the limestone. Carr disagreed. He believed humans had dug them, possibly as post holes for some kind of building.

Among the small holes were four large ones arranged in an arc. That's when T.L. Riggs sprayed a circle and called for the backhoe.

A front-page headline in the Miami Herald announced, "Archaeologists sift stunning evidence of ancient culture."

The archaeologists believed the circle was created 500 to 2,000 years ago by the Tequesta Indians, possibly as the foundation of a temple or chief's residence.

Inside the circle they found something decidedly unsacred: a septic tank. The builders of the old Brickell Point Apartments had buried it almost 50 years earlier. Without realizing it, they had torn up an archaeological treasure and placed their crap right in the middle of it.

As a metaphor for the development of Florida, that one's hard to beat.

* * *

People flocked to the site to gawk and pray and stuff their pockets with artifacts from Ricisak's discard pile. Web sites popped up touting the formation as a sacred site or interplanetary signpost. Preservation groups girded for a fight with the developer.

The circle was important. The circle had to be saved.

Or maybe it wasn't important. Some people did not believe all that hooey about ancient Indian sites. Their theory? The Miami Circle was nothing more than a drain field for the septic tank. The holes were formed by -- ahem -- runoff.

The theory's most visible proponent was James Randi, the professional debunker who calls himself the Amazing Randi. He circulated an e-mail suggesting the circle was a 50-year-old sewage system.

So why were Indian points and ax heads found on the site? Maybe somebody planted them, he wrote: "In archaeology, 'salting' of sites is not unheard of, especially when a great deal is invested in validating a 'discovery.' "

Ricisak thought the Amazing Randi was full of the same thing the septic tank was full of, so he called him up.

"I said, 'Hey, Amazing, what's going on here?' "

The Amazing Randi says now that he wasn't questioning the archaeologists' integrity; he simply hadn't seen proof that the circle was an important find.

After the Amazing Randi floated the septic tank theory, the Miami Circle archaeologists received a distinguished visitor: Jerald T. Milanich, curator of archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Milanich is the highest-ranking archaeologist in the state, if such things can be ranked.

He spent most of his 30 minutes on the site looking at the septic tank. Carr and Ricisak showed him the evidence that the circle is an ancient formation:

The holes forming the circle are covered with a gray-brown crust that took centuries to form. The trench for the septic tank has no crust.

The holes contained ancient artifacts but no modern ones -- no nails, no pennies, no Pepsi bottles. This suggests they were created by ancient people, not 1950s construction workers.

The holes could not have been part of a drain field because, according to the building plans, the septic tank didn't have one. After waste entered the tank, it flowed through a long pipe that emptied into -- what else? -- Biscayne Bay.

"Pertinent information, no doubt," Milanich would write in Archaeology magazine. "But I intend to remain skeptical until sufficient evidence is collected to prove that the Miami Circle . . . is not a twentieth-century artifact."

The whole thing makes Ricisak want to bang his head on his desk.

* * *

The septic tank theory was among the more plausible ones. One guy, writing on the Internet, called the formation "a key toward an understanding of an apparently self-referential, self-evident Unified Field."

One far-out theory came from T.L. Riggs himself. He believes the formation was created by ancient Central American people, perhaps the Maya, who made their way from the Yucatan to Florida by dugout canoe.

Riggs says the Miami Circle was an astronomical observatory, like Stonehenge. The holes that form the circle contained limestone monoliths. When the sun shone on the formation, the monoliths cast shadows that told the time of year.

The discovery of an American Stonehenge and a Mayan civilization in Florida would be quite a quinella, especially for somebody who's not even a scientist.

So where are the monoliths? Riggs says he has located them but won't say where until they are "secured.' And where is the evidence of a Mayan settlement? Probably wiped out centuries ago by a Category 5 hurricane.

Riggs acknowledges that his theory "gets a lot of laughs," but he asks some good questions. For example, Ricisak believes the Tequesta used part of a conch shell to dig the holes in the limestone. It would have been horrendously hard work.

Riggs' question: If they were digging post holes, why did they make them large and rectangular? Why do all that extra work when all you need is a small, circular hole?

Ricisak admits he doesn't have a clue.

* * *

There was a lot the archaeologists wanted to know about the Miami Circle, but they were running out of time.

Baumann was ready to start construction. He said he cared about historical preservation as much as the next guy, so he offered a compromise: He would slice up the limestone like a pie and move the whole formation somewhere else. He even found a stonemason to do the job.

The archaeologists believed cutting the circle would ruin it. Besides, who knew what other historical gems might be buried at the site?

Protesters waved signs reading, "Don't murder our past!" Schoolchildren wrote letters. The newspapers published pro-circle editorials.

Finally, at the urging of Mayor Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade County voted to take the land by eminent domain. A trial would determine its value, after which the county would have a fixed time to come up with the money. The state agreed to pay up to half the total cost.

The county's appraiser put the value of the land at $15-million. Baumann's appraisal was a bit higher: $42-million.

* * *

It's a breezy Tuesday night, time for the circle's most devoted supporters to conduct their regular weekly prayer vigil near the site.

The first to arrive is Nathaniel Styles, a tall, soft-spoken man in a dashiki. Styles is black but doesn't fit into any neat census category: He is part Cherokee and a tribal chief in the African nation of Ghana. He has come "to uplift and elevate" the spirits of the Tequesta. He has his cell phone with him.

* * *

Next comes Trinidad-born Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez, who identifies herself as a Carib Indian queen -- which, she hastens to add, is not a title you compete for, like Miss America. You're born to it. She grabs a broom and starts tidying up.

The last to arrive is Don Little Bear, a Cree Indian who served in the Marine Corps and worked as a consultant to police agencies. Little Bear holds out hope for a world in which people will live in harmony; for now he lives in a Miami Beach apartment with three locks and three guns.

Styles makes a circle out of stones and places burning sticks of incense in the middle. He tries to light a candle but the wind blows it out and he runs out of matches. He sifts corn kernels through his fingers as an offering to Mother Earth.

The worshipers join hands and close their eyes. This is an urgent moment: The eminent-domain trial is set to begin in a few days. Little Bear speaks first.

"This is Don Little Bear," he says, in case the Great Spirit doesn't recognize his voice. "We are here, happily here, to pray for the souls of our brothers and sisters. . . . Let this land stay forever the way it is." In a few days, the prayer will be answered: The county will agree to pay Baumann $26.7-million for the land.

Little Bear closes with these words: "We need this land."

We need this land. Hearing this recalls the wisdom of Robert Carr, the county archaeologist. This story, he said, is about people trying to find a sense of belonging.

For Little Bear, the Miami Circle site is sacred ground. For historians and archaeologists, it's a link to the past. For the guy propounding his theory on the Internet, it's "a major part of the ancient planetary archaeomatrix." (Can you prove it isn't?) For Michael Baumann, it's the perfect location for a couple of apartment towers. For the Miami Herald, it's a front-page story. For the Amazing Randi, it's an opportunity to debunk.

None of this is specific to the Miami Circle, of course: People have been defining Florida on their own terms for centuries. Ponce de Leon looked and saw La Florida. Miami pioneer Julia Tuttle saw a Magic City. Walt Disney saw a Magic Kingdom. The family rumbling down I-75 in a U-Haul sees a good place to start, or start over.

Maybe we should change the state's motto. Florida: It's Whatever You Think It Is.

The last prayer spoken, Nathaniel Styles produces a fistful of ginger candies from his pocket. He hands one each to Ramirez and Little Bear and drops one into the circle.

"We're feeding the spirits," Little Bear explains, placing his candy next to the smoldering incense.

"Yes," Ramirez says, popping hers into her mouth, "but I'll eat this one, okay?"

* * *

On Oct. 20, state and county archaeologists began what is expected to be a seven-week investigation of the Miami Circle property. According to a Department of State press release, the purpose is "to address the significance and potential" of the 2.2-acre site.

Experts also want to confirm that the circle isn't a drain field for a septic tank.

Clicks

www.miamicircle.org/

The site of Miami Circle Inc., "a not-for-profit trust established to ... protect Miami's magic Circle and establish through consensus guidelines for its peaceful use." News updates, pictures, links. One of the few credible sites.

www.randi.org/

(click on "James Randi," then on "Info List e-mail.")
Did the Amazing Randi really suggest the Miami Circle was a drain field for a septic tank? Or was he merely urging archaeologists not to jump to conclusions? Read Randi's missive and decide for yourself.

www.uniforce-spirit.com/miami.htm

A site put up by Geeta Sacred Song, a descendant of Maya and Huichol Indians who "tirelessly promotes expansion of light on the planet, the preservation of ancient traditions and the celebration of spirit." The site's a little thin but has good links

www.wolflodge.org/rising/sacred5.htm

A writer explains why the Miami Circle is "a major part of the ancient planetary archeomatrix." Don't miss this one

www.miamicircle.com/

"One of Atlanta';s liveliest design and decorating scenes, the Miami Circle cul-de-sac has become a "must check" for serious shoppers." Whoops! Wrong Miami Circle. This one's in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.

-- Mike Wilson