View from the Miami Circle at Brickell Point Site, from a balcony in a neighboring tower.

What is this Mysterious Ancient Structure Found in Downtown Miami?

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Downtown Miami, Florida is the home to a giant circle with hundreds of holes cut into the limestone bedrock. It is uncertain what the mysterious Pre-Columbian circle was made for – was an ancient structure once built there? Did the Maya or local indigenous population make the site? Or could it just be the remnants of a modern septic system?

The Miami Circle (known alternatively as the Miami River Circle or Brickell Point) is an archaeological site located in downtown Miami, Florida. This site was first discovered in 1998, when the plot of land the circle was in was purchased by a property developer with the intention to build a luxury condominium. The discovery of the Miami Circle came as a surprise for everyone and a number of different interpretations about the circle have been put forward. At the same time, funds were being raised in order to purchase the site from the developer so that it may be preserved for the future.

Miami Circle, Miami, Florida, USA

Miami Circle, Miami, Florida, USA. (Public Domain )

Remnants of the Area’s Early Inhabitation

In 1998, a plot of land in downtown Miami was purchased by Michael Bauman, a property developer. Bauman had planned to level an apartment complex from the 1950s and to build a luxury condominium in its place. It had already been known that this area of the Miami River was once inhabited by Native Americans.

The shell middens found in the area (until they were destroyed by development) were associated with the Tequesta Indians. As the last remaining shell middens at the site would be destroyed by the building project, a team of archaeologists from Miami-Dade County's Historic Preservation Division were given permission by Bauman to conduct some excavations at the site prior to construction.    

Bronze statue of a Tequesta warrior and his family on the Brickell Avenue Bridge in Miami, Florida. The sculpture was created by Manuel Carbonell.

Bronze statue of a Tequesta warrior and his family on the Brickell Avenue Bridge in Miami, Florida. The sculpture was created by Manuel Carbonell. (Averette/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The archaeologists, who were led by Robert S. Carr, had to first remove the remnants of the structures form the 1950s, which included concrete slabs, old pipes, and reinforcing rods. Below this layer were the shells middens. Excavating further, the archaeologists made an unexpected discovery. Beneath the shell middens was a layer of limestone bedrock.

Differing Explanations of the Miami Circle

On this bedrock, there were 24 large holes, forming a circle that is 12 meters (39.37 ft.) in diameter. Within this circle are hundreds of smaller holes. These holes (both the large and small ones) are rectangular in shape, with small, shallow, and round impressions at their bottoms. According to Carr, these holes are evidence of postholes, with the larger, external ones being anchors for posts that formed the wall of a circular structure.

Miami Circle, Miami, Florida, USA.

Miami Circle, Miami, Florida, USA. (Ebyabe/CC BY SA 3.0 ) Note the holes in the circle.

There are several problems with this interpretation. One of these is that whilst Pre-Columbian cultures in Florida are known to have built circular structures, there have been no known cases, apart from the Miami Circle, of postholes being cut into limestone. Another problem is that the postholes are rectangular in shape, though these are normally round or oval. Artifacts associated with the structure, which would provide for a more convincing interpretation of the circle as a structure built by the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the area, are lacking as well.

Miami Circle artifacts. Exhibit in HistoryMiami museum.

Miami Circle artifacts. Exhibit in HistoryMiami museum. ( Public Domain )

Other interpretations of the Miami Circle have also been provided. One, for example, is the controversial claim that it was part of a septic tank drainage system that was installed during the 1950s. Another theory claimed that the Miami Circle was made by Maya people who travelled to the south of Florida 2000 – 3000 years ago in huge canoes. Furthermore, this theory claims that the Miami Circle was supposed to have functioned as an astronomical observatory that was used to calculate the passage of time.

In any event, the circle was under threat and plans to save it were formulated. One, for example, was to have it cut out and moved to a new location. The stonemason hired for the job, however, backed out at the last minute. Moreover, it is unclear if the soft limestone would have been able to survive the move in one piece. In the end, enough money was raised, and the site was purchased from Bauman. Today, the Miami Circle is a National Historic Landmark visited by the public.

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