Usually when archaeologists discover a significant site containing 2,000-year-old artifacts, it is cause for celebration. But a major find in the heart of Miami has left scientists, developers, and government officials literally caught between a rock and a hard place.
The rock is a piece of limestone bedrock into which an ancient people carved a series of holes that form a perfect 38-foot circle. Archaeologists believe it is part of the foundation of a temple or council house for the Tequesta Indians who populated southeast Florida long before the arrival in 1513 of Ponce de Len, the first of the European explorers.
The problem is that the archaeological dig is in the center of a 2.2-acre piece of prime real estate on the Miami River's south bank, which is slated to house a $100 million high-rise condominium and commercial complex. The city of Miami already issued a building permit, and the developer is ready to start construction.
The dilemma: whether to preserve the site as an archaeological treasure or permit the developer to encase much of the site in huge concrete foundation slabs.
Efforts have been launched to find a middle ground, like the suggestion that the bedrock structure be cut free, moved, and reassembled at another location. Proponents of keeping the site intact suggest that the developer redesign his project to permit the archaeological exploration to continue undisturbed. Another proposal is to allow the developer to build his project on what is now a public park a block away and move the park to the dig site.
So far developer Michael Baumann says his land is not for sale, and he's given archaeologists until Feb. 26 to finish up before his bulldozers and cranes swing into action.
"This is a unique piece of human history that no one had ever seen before," says Robert Carr, Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Division director.
IT HAS been well documented that the Tequesta populated a major settlement on land that is now Miami. But all evidence placed the settlement on the north bank of the river. This is the first indication that the Tequesta maintained at least one building - perhaps a special temple or meeting house - apart from the main settlement. Estimates are that the circle is 500 to 800 years old. But some artifacts at the site date back 2,000 years.
Archaeologists have never before seen this type of bedrock carving at Tequesta settlements. Perhaps the discovery's most intriguing aspect is that the holes suggest an east-west alignment that matches the time of the equinox that occurs at this latitude. And at the eastern edge of the circle the stone is cut in a way that resembles a human eye with a black basalt rock inserted as the iris. Adding to the mystery is the fact that basalt cannot be found in south Florida. Whoever placed it in the circle must have brought it from someplace else, scientists say.
The circle was discovered last summer during a routine archaeology survey of the site after an existing building was demolished to make way for the luxury condo project. A small team of archaeologists has been working quietly ever since. The issue didn't hit the news until last month when the developer announced he was ready to begin construction.
The prospect that the circle and other artifacts on the site might be destroyed has triggered an outcry across the nation. But it remains unclear whether concerns expressed in Internet discussions and radio call-in shows will translate into enough private dollars to buy the land. Local officials are investigating whether state and federal grants are available.
Theories abound about exactly what the circle is or was. And the mystery has helped raise the issue into a major public policy concern in south Florida, and a hot topic of conversation.
It seems everyone in town has an opinion on what should be done. "I think it has to be preserved," says Ruth Hodges, gazing down on the dig from the third floor of the parking garage of the adjacent Sheraton Hotel. Her friend Fran Hunter nods in agreement.
Some believe the circle was built by the ancient Mayans and is a kind of celestial calendar. They say the circle may be a Miami version of Britain's Stonehenge and when analyzed in concert with other Mayan calendars it could open new doors to human understanding of the world and the universe.
County archaeologists say there is no evidence of Mayan influence at the site. But others don't believe it.
"The Mayans traveled the whole world and created an energy grid around the world," says the Rev. Al Fasani of the Center for Divine Oneness on Miami Beach.
Ms. Fasani says she felt a "strong vortex of energy" emanating from the archaeological dig and that it would be a mistake to move it or destroy it. "There was a reason this site was chosen."