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Mystery of the stones halts Miami condo

MIAMI IS considered young, barely 100 years old, a baby even by North American standards. Most Americans believe it dates effectively from the late 1940s, the Art Deco boom years, when wealthy New Yorkers and other northerners poured down here to bronze their ageing bodies.

So it came as a shock when construction workers preparing the ground for the latest series of skyscraper monstrosities they call "condos" unearthed a circle of stones, shells, animal bones and flints that appeared to have been in place for up to 800 years.

It is the first such monument found in the eastern half of the US: a flattened stone circle, akin to Mayan designs, angled in line with the points of sunrise and sunset. Archaeologists think the circle, a little smaller than the centre circle of a football field, was laid by Tequesta Indians who inhabited the lowlands that are now Miami and the Florida Keys for 2,000 years until Spanish and English sailors arrived in the 16th century.

Some believe it may have been the foundation of a "temple". One rumour insists it is an ancient UFO landing site. Security guards have been hired to keep hundreds of curious visitors at bay.

The question now is: will the circle be unbroken? That looks unlikely. At best, it appears it will be broken up, moved elsewhere and re-assembled as a museum piece. It has become something of a political football, with distinct racial connotations in this melting pot of a city.

It was discovered late last year by workers preparing to build a $100m complex of apartments and shops. The developer was on the point of demolishing it when local preservation groups showed up to demand it be left intact. Seminole Indians in headdresses and brightly coloured outfits did tribal dances at the scene last week, carrying signs saying "Save the Circle".

Joe Carollo, Miami's Cuban-American mayor, suggested the circle be broken up and moved elsewhere as a tourist attraction. He did not want to upset the developers of a building project bound to provide millions of dollars in taxes to the financially strapped city. No one suggested politicians may have been paid off to get the project under way in the first place but, if they were not, it would be the exception rather than the rule in Miami.

Then, last weekend, Alex Penelas, mayor of Miami-Dade County, the area which surrounds the city, suggested the circle be left where it is. "The circle may be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in south Florida. I would like to see it preserved," he said. Some of his aides suggested the plan should be seized from the developer if necessary. In the murky world of south Florida politics, analysts noted the following: as county major, Mr Penelas cares little about lost tax revenue in the city of Miami. On the other hand, he is said to favour the city's incorporation into the county, and is known to be ambitious.

To move forward, he has to bow to Florida's powerful environmentalists, many of whom are outraged at the thought of breaking up or moving the "Miami Circle", and its black community, many of whom have taken on the issue out of solidarity with native Americans. It is a black Floridian, Enid Pinkney, who is leading the fight to preserve the circle. "This would ruin Miami's image of preserving its heritage," she said.