A major archaeological discovery was made on the Miami River. Was it kept ‘under wraps’?
For the past year and a half, with scant public attention, squads of archaeologists digging at the Miami River site of a planned Related Group residential tower complex have unearthed remarkable finds, consisting of thousands of fragmentary prehistoric tools and artifacts, rare and well-preserved animal and plant remnants, vestiges of ancient structures and human remains — including some relics dating back to the earliest days of civilization on the planet.
Independent scientists say the findings, which include 7,000-year-old spearheads, are clear and abundant evidence of a continuous indigenous settlement in the area stretching much farther back in time than previously thought. The discovery, they say, may be the most significant in a series of archaeological finds made at the mouth of the Miami River in the past 25 years that include the Miami Circle National Historic Landmark, thought to be around 2,000 years old.
“There are artifacts going back sequentially over those thousands of years,” said William Pestle, an archaeologist and chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Miami, who is not involved in the excavation at the Related site but is familiar with the discoveries there. “This is like a continuous record, which is powerful and cool.
“You’re going back to the time of the emergence of the first cities in Mesopotamia. It’s thousands of years before the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. By any measure, this is an early manifestation of human activity. This is legitimately old.”
Although the dig is not yet complete, the finds at the site, on the Miami River’s south bank just west of the Brickell Avenue bridge, are already recasting what anthropologists and historians thought they knew about the presence of prehistoric and indigenous people at the mouth of the waterway, the birthplace of both ancient and modern Miami.
But the discovery and the lack of public exposure are also raising an urgent concern — that Miamians will never get to see any of it if Related buries the site in concrete as planned.
Some critics say they believe the developers and the city have attempted to downplay the discoveries to avoid the kind of public uproar and litigation that led to the preservation of the Miami Circle from condominium development in 1999, as well as another Tequesta circle and other antiquities across the river at the MetSquare development in 2014. Both circles consist of postholes in the limestone bedrock that scientists think outline the foundation of Tequesta buildings.
Related officials won’t talk about the excavation, strictly restrict entry to the site and won’t say whether they plan to preserve any portion of the site or display the discoveries to the public. After the company, founded by billionaire developer and philanthropist Jorge Pérez, declined a request for an interview with the Miami Herald, a Related spokesman asked a reporter for written questions. The company did not answer the questions, instead issuing a general statement that asserts Related “has followed all existing laws and regulations for any site in a designated archaeological zone.”
“For over a year and a half, we have performed the meticulous excavation, analysis, organization, regular reporting to applicable regulatory authorities and careful preservation of all relevant findings,” according to the statement, describing the excavation carried out by its archaeological consultants as “meticulous.”
Records show a Related affiliate paid $104 million for the property in 2013. In January, the company took out a $164 million construction loan for the first skyscraper, a rental apartment tower.
City officials mum
The city of Miami, which requires and regulates archaeological digs in designated zones and could require full or partial preservation of the site, among other mitigation measures, has taken no action beyond monitoring the dig and fielding reports from the excavation archaeologists. The city officials overseeing the dig, city archaeologist Adrian Espinosa-Valdor and historic preservation director Anna Pernas, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story on the significance of the findings relayed for several weeks through the city communications office.
On Friday, Pernas said she was “not available” for an interview, city communications official Kenia Fallat said. Asked why Pernas was declining to talk, Fallat responded: “I can’t ask her why she is not available.”
Fallat, too, issued a general statement outlining required procedures the city has followed, but not addressing the finds, their significance or the site’s future.
“Documentation and final reports of the findings are underway,” according to Fallat’s statement. “Staff continues weekly/biweekly site visits. In addition, the archaeologist working the site provides City of Miami staff and the State Archaeologist of the Division of Historical Resources weekly reports of the findings.”
Pioneering South Florida archaeologist Robert Carr, who is leading the excavation under a contract with Related, said he can’t yet discuss it under the terms of his deal with the developers, who are required by law to fund the investigations.
But in preliminary reports filed with the city, which are public records, Carr says the site — where he notes he first dug as a boy in 1961 — is important enough to potentially merit inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. He also suggests that intact sections of midden — ancient refuse heaps where many of the artifacts, bones and shells are found — could be “preserved as part of the development.”
The critics concede that Related has followed legal requirements for excavation and documentation of the site and the finds to the letter, and has likely spent a substantial sum on the painstaking project.
‘Importance of this site cannot be overstated’
But in January, frustrated scientists went to the city’s historic preservation board, which has oversight of the excavation and legal power to require concrete action from Related, to plead for greater public exposure and discussion of the dig, its significance and the need to ensure that at least some of the finds are properly exhibited. The board promised a fuller public airing.
“The importance of this site cannot be overstated,” Sara Ayers-Rigsby, southeast director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, which is based at West Florida University in Pensacola, told board members. She urged them to require better public discussion and documentation of the finds. “It’s a story of who we all are and where we come from.”
The board’s chairman, William Hopper, suggesting that previous presentations to the panel by Pernas and Espinosa-Valdor failed to make the site’s extreme antiquity clear, asked the city officials to schedule an updated presentation on the discoveries for its Feb. 7 meeting. He also asked the officials to invite the press to the meeting to ensure that word about the discoveries gets out to the public. A chuckling, clearly discomfited Pernas responded: ”I may not.”
The city has not issued any invitation or news release. And when the agenda for the Feb. 7 meeting was published, unusually late, on the previous Friday, the excavation topic was not on it. Fallat confirmed on Friday that the item would not be heard on Tuesday, but would come up at an as-yet-undetermined later meeting.
In an unexpected move, however, the preservation board on Tuesday, by an 8-0 vote, instructed Pernas to begin studying whether they should designate the Brickell site a protected archaeological landmark after Pestle and others showed up at the meeting at Miami City Hall to urge members to take action. That designation would give the city power to require developer Related Group to preserve all or part of the site or make accommodations in its project for public exhibition, and other measures.
Brickell residents also say the city and Related could do much more. The influential Brickell Homeowners Association has urged the city to consider requiring preservation of at least a portion of the site or for the developers to voluntarily do so, said Abby Apé, the group’s managing director.
“Preserving some kind of history is important to our neighborhood,” she said. “We want to see these artifacts preserved and we want the city to do the right thing. The concern is that perhaps they’re not taking the proper steps that code requires them to take. It would be beautiful if the developers could have an on site-park that the neighborhood could enjoy.”
Some neighbors are blunter. They say they don’t think the city or Related have been acting in good faith and have intentionally sought to keep the finds, as one resident put it, “under wraps.”
“The city of Miami is doing absolutely nothing to keep Related from covering it all up,” said Geoff Bain, whose Brickell on the River apartment overlooks the site. “Even our commissioners are unaware of the significance and have not been briefed. I understand no one can stop development, but they can preserve at least a small portion.”
Related has said it plans three towers on the site — formerly occupied by U.S. Customs’ Miami headquarters and an adjacent parking garage — that include the ultra-luxury Baccarat condo and a rental tower. The 444 Brickell building housing the Capital Grille restaurant is part of the property and will eventually be torn town.
No neutral party to assess environmental data
There’s yet another concern: The discovery of soil contamination on the site, once also home to Standard Oil tanks, prompted Related to briefly halt all excavation last month. Work has resumed on a portion of the property, but it’s unclear what the developers intend to do on the unexcavated section nearest the river bank, where the outside experts think some of the oldest and most significant material may be found. Related has proposed removing the soil off with backhoes and taking it elsewhere, they have learned, but it’s unknown what standard the company is considering to determine if continued work would be hazardous.
“Right now we have a developer who has every interest in the world to have the archaeology go away as soon as possible. You have archaeology companies working for the developer who want to keep doing archaeology,” Pestle said. “But there is no independent, neutral third party looking at environmental data and saying it’s too high or it’s not too high.”
Pestle, Bain and others note that Related knew full well that demolition of the Customs building would likely lead to archaeological discoveries. The site is part of a city-designated archaeological zone where developers are required by law to conduct carefully regulated exploratory digs, and to finance full-fledged excavations if the evidence suggests significant finds may lie beneath the soil — which is precisely what happened at the Related property.
Christine Rupp, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust, Miami-Dade’s leading preservation group, said Related should not have prepared detailed development plans until it had a better idea of what was in the ground, and the city should have halted permitting until a public process could be carried out to determine how the discoveries should be handled.
Instead, the city has allowed Related to move forward with preparations for construction on half the parcel where archaeology has been completed, with no apparent effort to ask or require the developer to modify designs to accommodate some degree of preservation of the ground — including patterns of postholes in the limestone bedrock like the Miami Circle and Met Square — or to provide public display or exhibition of artifacts.
“When someone buys property in a known archaeological zone, that that owner would go forward with such a huge planning process before the zone has been fully investigated, it’s really backwards,” Rupp said. “Once construction begins, that’s an afterthought. It should be part of the process right now.”
Site occupied by indigenous settlement in 5,000 B.C.
The newly uncovered evidence, Pestle and other independent archaeologists say, suggests that the Related site was occupied by a succession of indigenous people starting in what’s known as the Archaic period. For 2,000 years or so until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, it was home to the Tequesta tribe that is likely responsible for the Miami Circle, today a state park at the mouth of the river.
The finds also demonstrate that the Tequesta village on the river, the tribe’s principal settlement, was far more extensive than previously believed, they say. Spanish accounts put the settlement only on the river’s north bank. But the finds at the Related site, just steps from the Miami Circle, indicate that at its peak hundreds of years ago the Tequesta town spread along both banks of the river.
It may have been home to perhaps 6,000 people, though no one has yet attempted a formal estimate, said Traci Ardren, an anthropologist and archaeologist at UM who is an expert on New World prehistoric cultures.
What is clear is that people who lived by hunting and gathering settled on the spot about 5,000 B.C., drawn by the abundant natural resources at the confluence of river and bay, including fresh water, wild plants and fish and seafood. Among the evidence: Archaic stone points that have never previously been documented in this part of Florida, Ardren said.
“The mouth of the Miami River was the capital of a significant settlement of people that has been there thousands of years,” Ardren said. “What we know now is that it’s a whole indigenous Southeastern settlement.”
Other unusual finds, she noted, are bits of nets and twine made of plant fiber, and a wooden device used to start fires, all materials that usually do not survive for long. That they did is likely because they were found in natural holes in the limestone filled with water, called solution holes, which better preserves them, Ardren said.
Human, animal remains uncovered
Also found on the site were numerous fragmentary human remains, most of them teeth. At least two gravesites with skeletal fragments were uncovered, and one cranium, possibly belonging to a woman who was 45 years old at death, that may have been part of a ceremonial burial. Unusually, one human molar had been carved with incisions and grooves, and one humerus bone had been deliberately “cut on both ends, polished, and hollowed into a tube,” according to a report filed with the city.
The report notes that whenever human traces are found, work is stopped while the remains are documented and removed. Under state rules, human remains found in indigenous sites are turned over to the Seminole tribe for reburial in undisclosed locations to prevent looting.
Among the most abundant finds at the Related site are postholes cut into the bedrock to support buildings and boardwalks, as well as animal bones and shells, seeds and wood, pottery shards, and stone tools used to make wooden structures and canoes. Also found were animal bones, including perforated shark teeth that would be attached to wood to make knives, that were used for fishing and hunting, as well as shell ornaments.
“All are fragmentary, but their intricate engraved surfaces present evidence of artistic intent,” a report notes.
Most of the animal remains are of fish and reptiles, but also include deer. Some highly unusual animal finds include whale vertebrae and a whale rib, likely used for offerings according to a report, “modified” bear teeth, teeth from a now-extinct Caribbean monk seal, and a “battered” Megalodon tooth.
In Miami-Dade, Pestle said, only the Cutler Fossil Site at the Deering Estate in Palmetto Bay holds finds going back 7,000 years, but those are not nearly so well preserved as the discoveries at the Related condo development site.
Findings unearthed, shelved and forgotten?
The new animal finds are likely evidence of ancient feasts and ceremonies at the site, Pestle said, “giving us a window into different aspects of the past.”
“Everyone knew that when the building on the site came down there was going to be archaeological material unearthed,” he said. “But the richness of that material has been surprising.”
That makes it especially important that the site and the finds be made available to the public in some form, Pestle and Ardren, his UM colleague, say. They’re worried that the artifacts collected will end up like most of the Tequesta and older material found in previous discoveries on the Miami River — shelved out of sight and forgotten. Though the HistoryMiami museum has some on display, they say it has run out of storage space.
That means much of what Carr and his teams have unearthed over the past quarter century now resides in a crammed warehouse in Broward County. Pestle likened it to the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where the Ark of the Covenant that’s the object of the film’s action ends up parked in a vast warehouse.
“The inaction by the city is really concerning,” Pestle said. ”What happens to the material? There are hundreds of boxes of material. And there will be more before they’re done here.
“Building permits should be contingent on there being a plan in place for the long term to preserve, document and exhibit, display, disseminate this material. There are places in the world where you walk into a building, walk over a glass floor and see the building that was there before. But we keep losing portions of this Tequesta site to one development after another and soon there won’t be anything left.
“We can’t just dig it up out of the ground and put in a box somewhere. The residents of the city deserve better.”