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Mysterious Miami Circle: Southern Stonehenge or Septic System?

The worst place in Florida to discover an ancient mystery is on prime real estate in downtown Miami. Not only is this story about an ancient mystery, it’s also a about a struggle to save history from the developer’s bulldozer. The Sunshine State has lost more historical sites to development than to any other cause, which is why local historians say “when money talks, history walks.”

In 1998, while demolishing an old building in downtown Miami to make way for a new high-rise condominium, a 38-foot-diameter circular pattern of holes was uncovered cut in the limestone bedrock. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Florida archeology, but there was a great big problem, it was sitting on a ten million dollar piece of property that was estimated to be worth twenty times that amount if the two-acre site was developed into a condominium complex. The location is in the center of the city on the south side of the Miami River. Archaeologists from the Miami-Dade County’s Historic Preservation Division examined the weird circle and determined that the holes were used to support posts for a large round council house. The circle was estimated to have been built between 1000 and 2000 years ago by the Tequesta Indians which had died out centuries before the Seminoles migrated to the Florida peninsula.

Not everyone agreed with the findings and argued that the circle was nothing more than the remains of an old septic tank and that the holes were overflow drain holes cut in the limestone. One man postulated that the Pre-Columbian circle was part of a worldwide system of ancient circles that were somehow connected with Stonehenge. This theory caused some to dub the circle “Limestonehenge.” Others claimed it was a sacred Mayan astronomical observatory for marking the passage of time. Opinions ranged from the circle having a connection to Atlantis to being a corner marker for the Bermuda Triangle. Media reports soon attracted New Age-types, historians, Seminole Indians, shamans, spiritualists, and school kids, all wanting a glimpse of the ancient discovery or to experience its “supernatural qualities.”

The Miami Circle was designated the Brickell Point archaeological site. It sits on land once owned by William Brickell, a pioneer who ran an early trading post. William Brickell’s weird mausoleum is nearby; I say weird because it is empty. When Miami began getting too crowded, Brickell’s remains were removed by his descendants and re-interred in a Dade County cemetery.

Excavating the ancient circle was not an easy task. Previously six two-story apartment buildings and a swimming pool had occupied the property and the ground was filled with rusty plumbing pipes, reinforcement steel, concrete, and other debris. After a tremendous amount of labor, the site was eventually cleared exposing at least two hundred other postholes cut in the limestone in addition to the ones forming the weird circle. Other features uncovered included a carving in the stone of a large eye motif, 24 rectangular basins, a complete carapace of a sea turtle, a shark skeleton, and teeth from an extinct monk seal and a human. The most curious items were fragments of copper and galena along with two small ax heads crafted from basalt. Since none of this material is indigenous to Florida it indicated that these early people had an extensive trade network 2000 years ago.

Several of the exotic artifacts uncovered at the circle led archaeologists to believe that the site was used for ritualistic or elite ceremonial purposes. This was supported by the shark and turtle remains that were found in what appeared to be an east-west orientation, perhaps deliberately placed for ceremonial reasons. A surveyor carefully calculated that solitary holes found 41 feet on each side of the circle’s center could predict the autumnal equinox and the summer and winter solstices. It added fuel to the theory that the circle was Mayan-built as a giant astronomical calendar or some kind of ancient almanac. And that eye motif carved in the limestone, that’s the Maya symbol for “zero.” The idea that the circle was a Mayan project is not so far-fetched when you consider how close the Yucatan Peninsula is to the tip of Florida and the Maya did in fact, build sea-going canoes. It would have been easy for Mayan mariners to ride the Gulf Stream over to Florida, although returning home may have been a problem.

The Miami Circle was indeed a great archaeological find that needed serious study, but it was standing in the way of a multimillion-dollar development. The press played up the events, which attracted so many people that the place had to be fenced off. For those who could not make it to Miami, a camera was fixed to the roof of a nearby high rise to beam pictures to the Internet. Soon there were two hundred websites carrying news about the Miami Circle and an online petition for saving the site. The 2000-year old Circle had evolved into a kind of shrine that was magnetically drawing attention from around the world. Maybe there really was something magic about this circle. Save-the-Circle groups held candlelight vigils while protestors made daily marches with signs demanding the site be protected against development. Thousands of letters poured into government offices requesting action from local and state representatives. Experts, in an attempt to save the circle, even studied the possibilities of making a gigantic plaster cast of the site, or sawing it up in sections and moving it to a safer location. At one point, due to legal proceedings, permission was needed from the presiding circuit court judge just to see the circle. In October 2003, Senator Bob Graham introduced legislation that would authorize a feasibility study for incorporating the prehistoric site into the Biscayne National Park.

When I visited the circle people were kept back by a security fence, and the entire site was covered by sheets of black plastic. Ultimately Miami-Dade County, using the law of eminent domain, claimed the 2.2-acre site and it was subsequently purchased for $26.7 million dollars with a combination of funding coming from the State’s Conservation and Recreational Lands Program, local contributions, and a loan from the Trust for Public Land. To preserve the site until more study can be made, the circle has been covered with gravel. The ancient people who once occupied this site could have never dreamed of the commotion their weird circle would stir-up 2000 years later in downtown Miami or that images their work would flash around the world on the internet. Perhaps the weirdest part of the Miami Circle’s case, is how the ancient past has collided head-on with the present. Maybe the ancients have sent us a message in this circle. If so, we just have to figure out what it is.

Weird Florida

 

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