Deciding the Future of the Past:

The Miami Circle and Archaeological Preservation

Executive Summary

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By Richard L. Stroup and Matthew Brown

The 1998 discovery of the Miami Circle, a 38-foot wide land formation in downtown Miami, sparked a debate about the ability of modern society to preserve and appreciate past cultures and their history. The $8 million waterfront property was reserved for a multi-million dollar residential and commercial complex until an archaeological find halted construction. The developer offered to move the site after artifacts were discovered, but preservationists demanded that the new construction be prohibited and that the Circle be preserved in place. After a long and often contentious year of political and legal wrangling, the Miami Circle was purchased from the developer with state and county funds for $26.7 million.

The controversy over the use of eminent domain powers to preserve the Miami Circle archaeology site rather than to move it occurred amidst talk of further development projects. The delay and potential stopping of such projects raises serious questions about the future of development in the state.

Likewise, the government's purchase has done little to clarify how future archaeological finds on private land in Florida will be preserved. The Circle's high price raises doubts that it will be politically feasible to routinely preserve future finds this way.

The discovery of archaeological treasures can pose serious problems when property rights are threatened. In contrast, they can be appreciated as cultural treasures when property rights are secure and when exchange is voluntary. This Backgrounder intends to show that any future problem of this type can be turned into a real plus.

Because people around the world increasingly come into contact with remnants of past cultures and civilizations, disputes about preservation are not limited to Miami or to Florida.

Most nations have developed laws and regulations in an attempt to prevent the destruction of historical records from construction or looting. However, these have generally failed to curb looting, and have applied a great deal of pressure on the limited resources of archaeologists who try in vain to stay ahead of the farmers, developers, plunderers, and the forces of nature. These regulations, together with a code of ethics that strongly discourages archaeologists from marketing properly researched artifacts, often have unintended side effects. They encourage the hiding or even the destruction of artifacts by builders and others who see them as a burden. They also discourage landowners and developers from cooperating with archaeologists. Lastly, they contribute to the demand for looted artifacts by reducing the supply of legitimate ones.

To remedy these problems, an approach to preservation that relies on markets and their resulting incentives to find, enhance, and share newly discovered knowledge and artifacts can supplement or even replace regulatory dictates. First, clear and defendable property rights in artifacts should be granted to landowners. Next, an open international market should be developed to allow ancient treasures that are properly researched and well-marketed to be traded. Doing so could help ensure that more artifacts are found, studied, and preserved, and the market activities that result could build public interest in and support for archaeology.

Richard L. Stroup is a Professor of Economics, Montana State University, Senior Associate, Political Economy Research Center, and Research Associate, The James Madison Institute. Matthew Brown is a Research Associate, Political Economy Research Center and a Research Associate, The James Madison Institute

This Backgrounder, Policy Report #26,  was published July 2000 by The James Madison Institute. Permission is granted to quote from this publication with appropriate acknowledgment.

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