Miami mystery carved in stone

Circle: A 38-foot-wide ring of holes has stopped a $126 million waterfront condo project and captured the imagination of a city.

April 30, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- Like the spokes of a wheel, they connect to the Circle: The high school drop out in search of a tan. A hippie-turned-teacher-turned-house cleaner with a dolphin tattoo on her right shoulder. The Messianic Jew who left his home in Oregon on a bicycle and has not stopped pedaling, five years later.

None of them can touch the rock with the strange carvings, protected as it is by 24-hour-a-day security guards, two chain-link fences and a court order. But people of all states of mind come to glimpse South Florida's answer to Stonehenge from the roof of the Sheraton Biscayne Bay parking garage.

Who built it? When? Why? And how, without moving, did it stop a $126 million waterfront development and turn Miami upside down?

"It's amazing that something this old and this holy was discovered in the middle of downtown," says Marty Jacobsen, a long-distance phone-service salesman with a double yellow head Amazon parrot named Keiku on his shoulder and sandals on his feet. "And it's even more amazing how Miami, with no history and all this modern architecture, has embraced it."

Only this much is known about the biggest mystery to hit Miami since serial killer Andrew Cunanan: It sits at the picturesque mouth of the Miami River, along a glitzy stretch of Brickell Avenue bank towers known as the Wall Street of South America. It consists of a series of symmetrical holes carved into the waterfront bedrock, four feet underground. Examined from above, the holes form a perfect circle, 38 feet in diameter.

UFO enthusiasts believe the Circle was made by aliens, though archaeologists say the circle was probably created by Miami's earliest known inhabitants, the Tequesta Indians. But for what? An astronomical tower? A trash receptacle? A temple? A sundial? A sports arena? Miami has been seized by these possibilities.

In the present, however, the Circle's status is unquestioned. The rock is Miami's most sought-after star, hotter than Gloria Estefan or Pat Riley. And the fight over its future has involved every faction of Miami, from an ambitious young mayor to underwater archaeologists, from the biggest unions to the smallest Native American tribes, from a politically connected developer to a lone stonemason.

"I have never seen an issue that has stirred more passion and outrage than the Circle," says Alex Penelas, the mayor of Dade County. "Miami is such a new city, that to stumble on something like this changes how we see ourselves. It's as though we discovered that we have a history."

Circle's origins

Five hundred years ago, about 10,000 Tequesta lived in Miami. They left behind a circle -- surrounded by pottery shards, tools and animal skeletons, including a shark's. No Tequesta survived to explain the circle's significance. The last few members of the disease-ravaged tribe were taken to Cuba after the 1763 Treaty of Paris transferred possession of Florida from Spain to England.

Modern Miami was built over the ruins. In the 1890s, construction workers cleared away Tequesta skulls to erect the Royal Palm Hotel. By the 1950s, the area was a bustling downtown; the circle stood at one end of the Brickell Avenue draw bridge, under several feet of sediment and a new apartment complex.

But by the mid-'90s, the complex showed signs of wear, and city leaders began plotting a revival of downtown, with new boat berths, a new performing arts center, and new residential towers. Michael Baumann, a developer with deep political connections here, decided to capitalize on the prime waterfront parcel, purchasing the apartment complex for $8 million.

In its place, he planned to build two luxury condo towers, with 600 units, a parking garage and retail space. Smelling a financial success, the pension funds of four of Florida's largest unions agreed to back the $126 million project. But because of a 1981 local law, county archaeologists John Ricisak and Bob Carr had to complete a survey of the site before construction could begin.

After sorting through pottery shards and arrowheads, the archaeologists discovered holes in the limestone at regular intervals. Ricisak thought they might be natural formations at first, but Carr, backed up by the surveyor T. L. Riggs, believed differently.

Mystery uncovered

One day last fall, Riggs pulled a can of spray paint from his truck and plotted the full course of a circle for a backhoe to dig up. He was right. The researchers, helped by teams of volunteers, unearthed 30 rectangular holes, each 23 inches wide and 19 inches deep. They found four prominent circular holes along the true north-south line of the circle.

"I can't tell you how exciting it was," says John Gifford, a marine archaeologist at the University of Miami. "Whatever it turns out to be, it is probably the most important archaeological find ever in South Florida."

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