It's Our History, Dig?

Scott Lewis stands in front of the canned corn and peas in a middle aisle of the Hyde Park Market in downtown Fort Lauderdale, discussing the staples of prehistoric cuisine. The grocery store on the New River is an excellent place to conduct such a conversation. Lewis believes that six to ten feet beneath the aging linoleum sits evidence of human beings who probably began eating snakes, turtles, alligators, shellfish, birds, and small land mammals on the riverbank before the Egyptians were building pyramids. The prehistoric history lies below, untouched.

"Fortunately those people weren't too tidy; they just tossed the bones anywhere, like rednecks at a barbecue," Lewis explains. Along with other refuse they cast off pottery, broken tools, perhaps even the bodies and bones of their dead. Any or all of those treasures could remain preserved in the peatlike muck below the market -- in fact, anywhere along the river downtown -- and Lewis wants at it.

With other archaeologists, he bases his conjecture on evidence scattered elsewhere throughout Broward County and South Florida, in hundreds of other sites identified but infrequently analyzed. People have lived here for roughly 10,000 years, the evidence whispers. And nobody breathing air today, not even archaeologists like Lewis, knows that much about them. "We have too much to do just to identify the sites and stay one step ahead of developers," he admits, acknowledging the pittance of in-depth knowledge acquired so far. Lewis believes that the ground beneath Hyde Park could help turn a pittance into plenty.

Political opponents contested that ground in a rancorous battle that ended last week when voters decided to create a park on the site rather than let the Related Group, Inc. throw up a 38-story high-rise. Although voters agreed to spend $8 million from increased property taxes for the downtown green space, their goal remains uncertain. Related paid $2.5 million for the market two years ago but now insists that $36 million is a fair price if the public wants the land for a park; the company bases that figure on the income it might earn after erecting the high-rise. A court may have to decide a fair price, and an outcome, later this year.

When construction begins, no matter for what purpose, a county ordinance requires a licensed archaeologist to investigate the layers of history that lie beneath the market. Lewis helped write that ordinance in 1993, when he was hired as the county's part-time archaeologist. The bill for a site investigation, a few-thousand-dollar drop in the bucket of likely development costs at the market site, will go to the ultimate owner of the land.

Unlike many other archaeological sites in Broward County, the potential to discover "a really big piece of the puzzle" of prehistory may be great along the New River, Lewis claims. For millenniums before the advent of sleek yachts, motor cruisers, and plump tourists now visible downtown, the river teemed with food. Pushing up mud and silt, the steady flow of river water created relatively dry, high ground along its banks suitable for living except during flooding. And the river itself probably served as a prehistoric highway.

But the New River was also the first place 20th-century developers dropped anchor, paving over the past before it could become a storied part of the future. For that reason the 1.5-acre market site and parking lot may shelter a little-known history of native hunters, Indians whose cultures remain lost to history, replaced by the thousand-year Tequesta dynasty that stretched across southeastern Florida.

The Tequesta vanished in the 18th Century after the Spanish arrived to turn prehistory into history. But not before they captured a number of Spanish explorers, killing some in annual religious ceremonies that required human sacrifices, according to the accounts of survivors. The Spanish didn't enjoy such outcomes and left. The Seminoles followed in the 19th Century, driven into the region by American expansion and the U.S. Army; they were the last Native Americans to live along the river before development forced them out a single lifetime ago.

Hard on the trail of that vast history, Lewis casts a hopeful eye on the Hyde Park Market and the land beneath it. But is he a dreamer draped in fantasy, searching for evidence that doesn't exist? As Broward County's official archaeologist, he'll probably get the chance to find out later this year, when the old building and parking lot are peeled off the site and destroyed.

On a gentle March afternoon in the market's middle aisles, Lewis shrugs off political questions or doubts about his own competence and studies the building. Constructed with a common, 1960s-era technique called "stem wall," the market and parking lot form an archaeologist's dream, according to Lewis.

The usually laconic, Camel-smoking 46-year-old is an expert on modern construction techniques since they affect history, he says, becoming valuable to his work. Some techniques destroy the evidence below, and some don't. "This looks pretty bad," he says, eyeballing the building's square concrete façade. "But it isn't."

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Roger Williams