Miami-Dade County

Developer: Tequesta site in downtown Miami is “hokum”

An archaeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures.
An archaeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Sharply changing tack, the owners of a downtown Miami lot where the remnants of a prehistoric Tequesta Indian village have been unearthed launched an attack Thursday on the archaeologists responsible, calling their conclusions about the site “hokum” and “a joke.’’

In an interview Thursday, an attorney for MDM Development Group, which plans to build a hotel and commercial project on the site, dismissed archeologists’ conclusions that hundreds of postholes carved into the bedrock at the site mark the foundations of circular dwellings and other structures that once made up a portion of a 2,000-year-old settlement at the mouth of the Miami River.

“It’s just garbage,” said Eugene Stearns, a top Miami civil lawyer. “Hokum. Made up out of whole cloth.’’

Stearns’ comments, which startled preservationists and archaeologists who have studied the site, came on the eve of a Friday meeting of the city’s historic preservation board that could help decide its fate.

The lead consulting archaeologist on the site, Bob Carr, who is being paid by MDM, said Thursday he stood by his conclusions that the site is historically significant and worth preserving.

“It’s hard to respond to something so ridiculous,’’ Carr said, referring to Stearns’ comments.

Preservation officers for the city and Miami-Dade County, as well as several preservation organizations, are pressing for a redesign of MDM’s project that would save and exhibit the finds, which take up about half of the two-acre property, and have been greeted as a major discovery.

MDM’s position, which Stearns said he will present to the board on Friday, represents a complete turnaround for the developers, who have not previously disputed any of the archaeologists’ conclusions. In an interview at the site last week, MDM director Ian Swanson raised no substantive questions about the archeologists’ conclusions.

Just this week, MDM submitted a proposal to the preservation board, which has legal authority over archaeological sites, to cut out and move one of the circles to a public plaza for display. The firm also cooperated in developing some alternative scenarios that would pull back the building and suspend it partially over the site, though MDM said that option would imperil the project’s financial viability.

Stearns said he does not dispute that the lot, dubbed the birthplace of Miami because it also was the site of the Henry Flagler hotel that prompted the city’s founding in 1896, has historic significance, nor that some of the postholes were dug by Tequesta indians.

But he downplayed the significance of the find, noting that historians have long known the Tequesta village was located in the area, and contending that the patterns discerned by archaeologists are “imaginary’’ and “fanciful’’ and do not warrant preservation.

“You’re being sold a bill of goods,’’ Stearns said, complaining that news outlets have credulously reported the findings. “There is no new discovery here.’’

Stearns said his criticism was aimed at Miami-Dade County archaeologist Jeff Ransom and at Carr, whose nonprofit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy has been periodically excavating a four-block development site on MDM’s behalf over 12 years. Because the area is a designated archaeological zone, developers must conduct extensive surveys before building.

“Bob Carr has gotten caught up in the sensationalism when the evidence doesn’t support it,’’ Stearns said, denying that the archaeologist represents the developer. “He’s not our expert. We don’t hire him. We don’t control him. We just pay his bills.”

Contacted by a reporter by phone, Carr was clearly taken aback by Stearns’ contentions.

“Of course they’re our client,’’ Carr said of MDM. “And they have never indicated any doubt as to the veracity of the conclusions at that property.’’

Miami-Dade preservation chief Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman said that Carr and Ransom’s evidence and conclusions have been reviewed and endorsed by several outside experts.

“We’ve had other internationally recognized experts review this site,’’ she said. “The state archaeologist has reviewed this site. And our archaeologist is more than qualified to know what he’s talking about.’’

The finds at the site, which MDM calls MetSquare, have multiplied rapidly during the past year. Carr, who first discovered a circular feature at the site in 2004 before the survey was suspended amid the real estate collapse, says his team has identified up to eight circles and multiple linear arrangements of postholes that may have been the foundation for boardwalks, and have uncovered thousands of Tequesta artifacts.

Though previous news reports had focused mostly on preliminary findings, a Miami Herald report last week outlining Carr and Ransom’s conclusions that the site is one of the most significant finds in the United States was picked up around the world.

Stearns said he will bring an outside archaeologist to Friday’s hearing to rebut Carr and Ransome’s conclusions, but declined to identify the expert.

Stearns, after initially claiming that “there are no circles” at the site, conceded the existence of some round patterns but posited other explanations to account for them — that the Tequesta installed benches around clearings where they held conclaves, or that roundabout features of Flagler’s hotel gardens coincide with some of the circles. He also said U.S. Army troops stationed at Fort Dallas in the 19th century also likely dug postholes for fences.

Stearns initially also called Carr and Ransom’s conclusions a “hoax,” but in a second interview Thursday back off the term, saying he doesn’t believe the archaeologists intended a deception but instead got carried away by the chance to announce a major discovery and burnish their reputations.

“I didn’t mean to say that. In my enthusiasm, I am guilty of overstatement, just like they are,’’ Stearns said.

But two University of Miami archaeologists who have followed the findings also said Thursday they believe Carr’s conclusions are sound, and Stearns’ alternative explanations unlikely.

The round arrangements of postholes, similar to those found in other Indian sites in the Caribbean and South America, are almost certainly sturdy foundations for Tequesta dwellings or other structures, said UM archaeology professor William Pestle, a specialist in prehistoric Caribbean and Latin American tribes who visited the site last fall.

“Those were load-bearing posts given the depth of the postholes. You don’t drill multiple times through 18 inches of limestone to put in something small,’’ Pestle said, noting that the holes are consistent in size and the manner in which they were carved. “That’s going to be a big post. The lawyer raises some good issues, but when you look at the entirety of the evidence, it’s an extensive, ancient inhabitation. The evidence is really overwhelming.’’

Traci Ardren, chair of UM’s anthropology department, called the site “highly significant.’’

“There is no other site like this,” she said. “This is one of the criteria archaeologists would use in deciding its significance. It’s unique in the true sense of the word.’’

But Stearns promised to demolish that case on Friday.

“I don’t believe they will survive the most basic cross-examination,” he said. “My wife sees faces in clouds. One of my partners said you could take these postholes and draw a Star of David and say they were Jewish.”