Atlantic Cities

An Important Archeological Site Was Just Uncovered in Downtown Miami

An Important Archeological Site Was Just Uncovered in Downtown Miami
Reuters

Downtown Miami is busy reinventing itself as a residential and retail playground for the 21st century. But construction of a 34-story complex, including shops and a movie theater near the Miami River, has hit a major snag -- the discovery of a significant ancient ruin on the spot.

According to the Miami Herald, an archeologist has discovered what appears to be the foundation holes for a 2,000-year-old village that was once occupied by the Tequesta Indians. As they explain:

"What's unusual and unique about the site is that it’s this huge chunk of land where a major part of this ancient Tequesta village site is preserved," archeologist Bob] Carr said in an interview. "It's one of the earliest urban plans in eastern North America. You can actually see this extraordinary configuration of these buildings and structures."

Carr, contracted by MDM Development Group to do the archeological survey of the site required under Florida law, has found Tequesta sites nearby before. His 1998 discovery of a similar round Tequesta foundation, possibly the site of a council house, halted a development slated for the south side of the Miami River. That area was ultimately sold by developers to the state for $27 million and turned into a park, though the "Miami Circle" itself, as the foundation came to be known, was reburied to preserve it, rather than restored for display, due to lack of funds.

The newest find was revealed when a surface parking lot that had covered the land for 70 years was removed in advance of the new development, and it appears to be even more extensive than what Carr excavated in the past. It includes eight circles where buildings once stood and what appear to be traces of boardwalks connecting the structures.Thousands of Tequesta artifacts, including tools made of shell and bone, have also been unearthed.


The restored "Miami Circle." Image via Ebyabe/Wikimedia Commons.

As many as 1,000 Tequesta, a hunter-gatherer people, may have lived here near the confluence of Biscayne Bay and the Miami River at the height of their settlement, before disease, migration, and forced resettlement drives by the Spanish decimated their population. By the mid 18th century, they were gone from their native grounds, with most survivors believed to be in Cuba.

The MDM Development site also encompasses archeological finds from later eras, including the remains of a 19th century fort used during by U.S. troops engaged in the Seminole Wars and architectural elements of the Royal Palm Hotel built in 1897 by Henry Flagler, the founder of modern Miami.

The fate of these latest finds will be determined by the city's historic preservation board and city commission in the coming weeks. The developers say that they would consider preserving a portion of the find for display, but that completion of the tower and movie theater is crucial to their plans for the larger neighborhood, which have been delayed by required excavations. But according to the Herald, the site is important enough that it might qualify for UNESCO World Heritage status, and more comprehensive protection.

One way or another, the place where the Tequesta once thrived will likely become a reminder of the people who called this spot on the Florida coast home, long before it was called Florida.

Top image: An archaeologist looks for ancient artifacts at a construction site in downtown Miami. (Zachary Fagenson/Reuters)

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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