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Once An Ancient Village, Soon An Entertainment Complex?

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As work began on one of the last pieces of undeveloped ground in Miami's fast-changing downtown, archaeologists uncovered the site of an American Indian village. It was already centuries old by the time Columbus arrived in the New World.

The question now for the city and the developer of the planned entertainment complex is how much of the site will be preserved.

To the untutored eye, the site doesn't make much of an impression at first. It's a series of six circles outlined by postholes cut in the bedrock. The circles are smaller versions of the Miami Circle, a similar site found 15 years ago and now preserved as a National Historic Landmark.

The Miami Circle is believed to be a ceremonial site built by the Tequesta tribe. This new site is something different. Archaeologist Bob Carr says it appears to be the remains of a Tequesta village.

"This is probably the earliest prehistoric town plan ever found in eastern North America," says Carr, who oversaw the discovery of the Miami Circle.

Carr was called in to survey this site, a 2-acre lot surrounded by high-rises. Nearby, one of Miami's electric rail cars passes overhead on elevated tracks.

On the ground, the soil has been scraped down to expose the limestone bedrock. Carr walks to the first of the six circles he found, one he calls the Royal Palm Circle. It's 36 feet in diameter with a double set of holes curving into a circle.

The postholes, Carr believes, anchored pine poles that formed the sides of structures, probably with thatched roofs, where the Tequesta lived, ate and slept.

The Tequesta structures were elevated, Carr says. And he's found signs they were all connected with walkways — the equivalent of village streets.

"We suspect that what these probably represent are a series of boardwalks or elevated structures connecting these circular structures," Carr says, indicating a series of postholes lined up in straight lines.

Carbon testing dates the site to 600 A.D. Carr says the Tequesta were still living in the area when the Spaniards arrived hundreds of years later.

"They probably encountered Ponce de Leon, who apparently did land somewhere near the Miami River," says Carr. "Menendez, who was the founder of St. Augustine, also encountered them and set up the first European mission and fort at this same location."

After first contact with Europeans, the Tequesta demise happened quickly, Carr explains. Within 200 years, a population of thousands dwindled to less than 300.

Carr found this first circle several years ago when he began working at the site. But then, with the real estate bust, the developer put the project on hold.

Carr had been talking to the developer about possibly lifting and moving the Royal Palm Circle so it could be preserved and displayed. But when Carr resumed work here recently, he discovered the site contained more than another Miami Circle — it held an entire village.

"It wasn't really until probably September that we began to get an idea of the significance of the find there," says William Hopper, chairman of Miami's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, the body that will decide how much — if any — of the Tequesta village should be preserved.

Hopper says the board is just starting to explore its options. And, he notes, whatever action it takes may be appealed to Miami's City Commission.

"But we want to see what we can do to preserve as much of that as we can, so that people in future generations can have an understanding of what happened there at the mouth of the river," Hopper says.

The developer that owns the site, the MDM Group, says it's pleased with the discoveries there. But it's still moving ahead with plans to build an upscale shopping complex. The company has said it has signed leases with tenants and plans to have it finished late next year.

MDM is in discussions with city and county officials about the site, and scenarios for preserving all or part of it.

Jeff Ransom, the Miami-Dade County archaeologist, has been in those meetings, and he's optimistic the site will be preserved.

"It needs to be preserved," he says. "Development and cultural heritage can coexist in this case."

Ransom says the Tequesta village takes up just about half of the 2-acre site. It's possible the site can still be developed and the six prehistoric circles preserved — perhaps even featured in the project's lobby.

But that would require the developer to redesign the final phase of a billion-dollar project and consider a question: How much is history worth?

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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