‘Potential tragedy’: Major archaeological dig unearths history in Brickell, but will Miami save it?

MIAMI – A major archaeological dig at a Brickell construction site has unearthed thousands of years of Miami history, but some are worried the city isn’t doing enough to preserve the site.

The site is nestled within Brickell’s modern high-rises on the south bank of the Miami River, near the intersection of Brickell Avenue and Southeast 5th Street.

Developers are working to build three towers at the site, including the Baccarat Residences.

Artifacts and fossils dating back thousands of years, discovered at the site, of are providing a glimpse into an ancient civilization that once lived along the river.

The Tequesta people were believed to be among the first peoples to live in the area.

“There is a very important ceramic phase of this site so there is pottery, broken pieces of pottery, there are stone tools, arrow heads, projectile points,” Will Pestle, a bioarchaeologist and University of Miami professor who has visited the site, said. “(There are) abundant animal remains, deer and fish, but there are also remains of sharks. There’s remains of giant sea turtles, remains of whales, remains of an extinct kind of seal, the West Indian monk seal.”

Did you know? One of the @CityofMiami’s most significant archeological digs is underway right now in Brickell – take a look – video shot by @Chris_Gothner shows crews water screening soil, organizing artifacts, sifting through history. #MiamiHistory #archaeology #artifacts 🧵 pic.twitter.com/qWwsloXJYz

— Christina Boomer Vazquez, M.S. (@CBoomerVazquez) February 13, 2023

Pestle said the site dates back to prehistoric times — as long as 7,000 years ago.

“(It’s) older than the pyramids. It is older than the colosseum in Rome,” he said. “This is a site that has great antiquity.”

That shows that humans have lived in what is now Miami for much longer than previously thought.

He described the site as “an important story about the history and origins of the city that we call Miami.”

According to a 2021 report submitted to the city by Archaeological and Historical conservancy, Inc., which is conducting the archaeological assessment of the 444 Brickell Ave. parcel, the site is significant and they believe it to be “potentially eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places based on criterion D, that it contains well preserved cultural deposits that could contribute to our knowledge of prehistoric subsistence and settlement patterns of the Tequesta. The site also contains human remains that are subject to the provisions of Chapter 872.05, Florida Statutes.”

Archaeological assessment:

The group said archaeologists have “collected cultural material” to include “tools and ornaments manufactured from shell, bone, and stone. Ecofacts include faunal bones and teeth, and shells representing dietary refuse.”

“Other materials of importance are wood, seeds, and charcoal,” the report states “Historic artifacts include some objects associated with European contact, most likely Spanish dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other historic artifacts include those associated with the nineteenth century American settlers of Miami.”

They also say human remains were uncovered, to include a human tooth, ”fragments of a pelvis and long bone diaphysis.”

Pestle explained how the artifacts can provide a window into an ancient past, likening it to a “detective story:”

“For archeologists today, with the methods that we have, and the knowledge that we have, we can extract a lot of information by analyzing even a very simple piece of pottery, or a little piece of animal bone, right? Or a piece of a stone tool, we can actually talk about trade, you know, how are these people in South Florida 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 years ago, connected to other people throughout the American southeast, right?

We can talk about things like diet, we can talk about things like how they organized their societies by looking at even these kind of unimpressive and simple artifacts.”

-Will Pestle, University of Miami professor

Pestle said it’s also remarkable that the layout of the bedrock and water table have allowed archaeologists to find preserved organic artifacts like wood, which normally don’t survive in Florida.

He’s among those concerned that the city isn’t doing enough to adequately preserve the site.

“The real promise, the real potential, but the real potential tragedy of this site is that if people don’t see their history, they don’t appreciate it, and if they don’t appreciate it they don’t preserve it and if they don’t preserve it they can’t see it,” he said. “So it is this vicious cycle.”

In a statement, property owner Related Group says the findings don’t require preservation of the site and will instead be preserved offsite:

“Related Group has followed all the regulations for a site in a designated archaeological zone. The areas along the Miami River and Biscayne Bay along Brickell Avenue are all designated as archaeological zones and as such, they have to be carefully monitored for any ground-disturbing activity. However, that does not mean that these sites are precluded from development and new construction activities, as the property owners have vested development approvals that protect their development rights.

For the past 18 months, Related Group has worked in close collaboration with archaeologists, the City of Miami, and the State of Florida to meticulously excavate the site and document any findings. What the media has not reported is that, to date, the findings do not require preservation on the site. They will be preserved offsite. While many artifacts have been found, they have been carefully retrieved and will be preserved and properly documented and ultimately donated to a museum or university for further research and study.”

-Related Group spokesperson

But Pestle thinks more could be done.

“The city could step up and they could say we are going to hold the developer, in this case The Related Group, to a higher standard more than just the legal minimum,” he said.

Pestle said he believes the city of Miami has an enormous responsibility — and opportunity.

“Let’s design the buildings in such a way that what is there can be preserved and seen by the public visiting, so when you walk into that Baccarat hotel, which is going to be on the parcel that is currently being excavated, you can see through a glass floor and you can see the ancient remnants of this city,” Pestle said.

In a statement, the head of the Dade Heritage Trust said the city needs to deal with archaeological sites more consistently:

“The City of Miami needs to have a set policy in place as to how these sites are dealt with which will provide guidance for the property owners and development teams. If you look along the Miami River, every known site to date has been dealt with differently: The Miami Circle – totally preserved; the MetSquare site – a mediation agreement was produced to require the developer to preserve and interpret the site; the Hyatt – the site, to my knowledge, was partially excavated and the developer was required to raise the pool so as not to disturb the site, and now the site known as 444 (Brickell) represents yet another hybrid scenario with building permits approved and no mitigation plan.”

-Christine Rupp, Dade Heritage Trust executive director

In a statement to Local 10 News, city of Miami spokesperson Kenia Fallat outlined the city’s current role in preserving the site.

“A Phase III excavation has been completed at the southern half of the parcel, documentation and final reports of the findings are underway,” Fallat said. “Staff has received a completion report, and reviews of the master permit for the new construction proposed in this area have been approved. As for the northern half of the parcel, a Phase III excavation is on-going.”

She said findings are being “properly stored and documented for a final report” and city staff are continuing to visit the site regularly and are working with state officials.

“A presentation will be made at the upcoming April 4th Historic and Environmental Preservation Board meeting of the procedures followed and significance of the two sites,” Fallat said.

Miami’s history

For added context about the general significance of the area, Local 10 News talked to Paul George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami.

“Miami has long had a knock for being too young to have a history. The reality is: humans have lived in the greater Miami area for more than 10,000 years,” George said. “In the area around the Miami River, on both banks, is probably the richest area in terms of archaeological fossils and artifacts.”

George said discoveries on both banks of the river have “enriched our understanding that there have been generations of people, let’s go back hundreds of generations, that have lived in Miami over time.”

#DigitalDeepDive – learn more about the Miami Circle dig and the Tequesta:

“The reality is humans have lived in the greater #Miami area for more 10,000 years.” Plus, learn more about the #Tequesta in this #DigitalDeepDive #MiamiHistoryLesson w/ @HistoryMiami’s resident #historian Dr. Paul George ▶️ 📸: in #DigitalVideo courtesy: https://t.co/CHt1j2jutW pic.twitter.com/fEy43PXAyx

— Christina Boomer Vazquez, M.S. (@CBoomerVazquez) February 14, 2023

For instance, George said artifacts found at sites along the river have shown that the Tequesta were prolific traders.

“They found artifacts there that came from places like South Carolina, which means they really roamed far,” George said. “We’re talking about dugout canoes on some really rapid waterways. You know, it’s beyond me how they could do this.”

He added: “We also know there was trade way down in the Gulf and places like that. So they were widespread people. They didn’t engage in agriculture. But technologically, they were very advanced. And they were tremendous traders. So there’s a lot of influences that come into the way they developed their culture.”

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