MIAMI – Archaeologists excavating two American Indian burial sites in downtown Miami say they have found hundreds of remains piled in limestone fissures, some of them stacked in stone burial boxes.
The remains are at least five centuries old and likely are the ancestors of the Tequesta tribe that met explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 when he claimed the land for Spain, archaeologists said.
"The idea of a crypt-like structure, that's never been observed anywhere in South Florida before," said Robert Carr, director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy.
Bone piles were discovered in at least five fissures on the former site of railroad magnate Henry Flagler's 19th-century Royal Palm Hotel, Carr said Thursday. The site is near a burial mound that was destroyed more than 100 years ago.
Two other burial boxes called ossuaries have been discovered in the area, but they contained the remains of no more than a dozen people, he said.
The tribe probably kept the bones aboveground for some time before burying them in mass — scooping out soil in the fissures, burying the bones and then covering the grave, State Archaeologist Ryan Wheeler said.
"In terms of the rest of Florida, we've never seen anything that's been the same," Wheeler said. "It's a very unusual mode of burial."
Archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2003. A condominium development is planned for it.
The second site under excavation, where another condominium development is being built, dates back about 2,000 years, and burials there appear to be individual, Wheeler said.
The site is near the original shoreline of Biscayne Bay. Carr speculated the Tequestas may have prepared bodies there for burial. The tribe was known to lay bodies on the beach to be "de-fleshed by the crabs and the vultures," he said.
Archaeologists will study and catalog the remains and re-inter them on the same sites.
They have long known that a wealth of archaeological material is buried under downtown Miami.
Archaeologists excavated a village on the north shore of the Miami River in the 1980s. The Miami Circle, a round limestone formation 38 feet in diameter believed to be the foundation of a prehistoric structure of the Tequestas, was discovered in the 1990s.