In urban archaeology, the backhoe is a time machine: Scrape away a mountain of asphalt, dirt and rock near the river in downtown Miami, and the citys buried history, centuries of it, suddenly comes to light in a startling reveal.
Here are three smooth concrete steps leading down to a tiled floor, a remnant of industrialist Henry Flaglers grand Royal Palm Hotel, which gave birth to modern Miami and its tourism industry. There are the brick bases of the columns that once held up the hotels famed veranda.
A few more steps bring you to a pattern of ancient postholes bored in the bedrock, likely for Tequesta Indian village structures and likely well more than 1,000 years old.
And then perhaps the most remarkable find: the worn limestone of the original shoreline at the confluence of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay, long ago covered with fill as Flagler and his successors extended the downtown land mass for development.
When archeologist Bob Carr and his crew took away the dirt at that spot, they discovered, much to their surprise, a natural freshwater spring, still bubbling up from the acquifer after all these years.
Soon all of this will be gone again, removed or reburied after documentation in preparation for construction of the entertainment complex known as Met Square. Its the last piece in a multi-block development occupying historic Ground Zero, the place where civilization first took root 2,000 years ago in what is today a forest of skyscrapers.
That this has always been a prime location is evident from the thousands of objects we have found from the people who lived here, said Carr, whose nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy has been digging in phases on the Met Miami properties since 2005. Whats exciting about this project is you get to slice through time, from ancient times right through modern times.
What Carrs work has shown is that, while Miami may not be Rome, it has a longer and more layered history than many of the tens of thousands of downtown office workers who daily throng the area can imagine. Carr, who discovered the Miami Circle on the south bank of the rivers mouth in 1998, says he now believes the Tequesta settlement extended to both sides of the river, and may have reached as far west as Miami Avenue and as far north as present Flagler Street.
It was long known that the Tequestas, a tribe of hunters and fishermen, thrived on the north bank of the river for some 2,500 years before European disease wiped them out in the 1700s. To build his hotel, Flaglers engineers flattened and removed a Tequesta burial mound; those remains are probably buried under a nearby office building, Carr believes. An Indian midden, or refuse mound, is preserved beneath the pool deck of the Hyatt hotel nearby.
But that so much remains to be found is thanks largely to the fact that nothing but a series of parking lots was built on the site after the Royal Palm, erected in 1897, was damaged by the 1926 hurricane and subsequently demolished. And though the hotel was taken down in sections, pieces sold off, and the rest burned, its foundations, underflooring and other structural elements were left in place.
A city law requires archaeological assessment in certain zones before construction can proceed.
Since Carr began exploring the former Royal Palm site, he and his assistants have uncovered surprisingly extensive remnants of the hotel, which boasted the first sewer and fire-suppression systems, electric lights, elevators and swimming pool in Miami. Those finds include foundations, pipes, pieces of wooden walls still coated in Flaglers signature yellow paint, bricks still legibly stamped AUGUSTA, presumably for their origins in Georgia, and thousands of small artifacts such as hotel keys.