Like a toadstool amid towering cypresses, Ishmael Bermudez's little wooden house is shadowed by a forest of steel and concrete and glass.
Most property owners in his downtown Miami neighborhood have already turned their eyes skyward, looking for profits. In the increasingly vertical city, Bermudez's 0.1-acre property alone is worth about $2 million and climbing.
But Bermudez's eyes are cast to that 5,000-square-foot patch of land under his feet. You can't really call it a yard anymore; he's long since removed the soil to expose the pitted undulations of limestone bedrock beneath.
The excavation project is his life's work. He's been digging away at it for half a century, since childhood — "first with a shovel, then a spoon, then a brush," says Terence Cantarella in a beautifully written Miami New Times article that seems, so far, to be the definitive piece written on Bermudez. (Click here or on a photo for a slideshow.)
Unlike most kids who go digging in their backyards hoping to find treasure, young Ishmael actually made some intriguing finds, Cantarella writes: arrowheads, artifacts, "mysterious holes carved into the bedrock." They were enough to keep him going in search of a freshwater spring that, legend held, the Tequesta tribe had used centuries earlier.
Eventually he did find a spring, along with a limestone wedge that appeared to have been fashioned as a kind of plug. He has named his discovery the Well of Ancient Mysteries. He also says he found a square hole carved into stone next to the spring, filled with bones. He thinks it's an altar.
Bermudez has come to believe that his property is an archaeological treasure trove of ancient and even pre-ancient artifacts. There's been no shortage of developer interest, but he recently declared to the Miami Herald that "there's not enough money that can buy what's on this land, because it's simply priceless." He said he'd consider selling only if he could be sure the site would be preserved, as perhaps a museum or landmark — "but in these difficult times, it’s hard to believe that someone would have a clean enough soul to do something like this, because people only care about making money."
There's some evidence to support his more modest claims. His home is, after all, within an area that the city has designated as archaeologically significant; that alone suggests there's a strong chance that his property was once part of a Tequesta site. Nearby lie two major Tequesta discoveries — one of them, six blocks away, thought to be among the most important Indian villages yet found.
"I think Ishmael's property is quite interesting," former county archaeologist Bob Carr told Cultured magazine last year. "It definitely is an important site, but how it fits into the bigger picture will require a lot more study." Carr has visited Bermudez's home several times, though always informally.
Yet other claims by Bermudez are fairly outlandish. "That rock there, that's a dino head," he asserted to the New Times' Cantarella. "Over here are the humanoids" — found in bedrock that would make them older than the area's earliest recorded humans by at least 100,000 years, when South Florida was underwater. (Bermudez, whose beliefs mix science and creationism, doesn't have a problem with that.)
Of Bermudez's prize find, the Well of Ancient Mysteries, current county archaeologist Jeff Ransom tells the New Times: "There's a natural spring there, no doubt about it" — which "is not uncommon really" — but the altar claim "is kind of a stretch."
Ransom concedes, though, that he visited only once, briefly, and that was 16 years ago.
Bermudez and his wife, Burke Keogh — whose colorful paintings cover pretty much any surface that isn't excavated, including the roof — lack the means to commission a professional study. They share the property's 900-square-foot house with his father, age 92.
"When I met Ishmael," Keogh told the New Times, "I thought it would take two or three years of telling people about the site and there would be wild excitement that this is something new on the planet that we can study and learn from. But a lot of people say, 'Why isn't National Geographic here? Where's the Discovery Channel? If this is really what you say, why don't I know about it already?'"
She'd like to have the limestone plug carbon-dated, "but we don't have a lot of money to throw around, and it seems like nobody wants to get involved," she says.
Bermudez doesn't particularly care. "That's just for the white world. I already know what's in here."
He believes he was destined to become custodian of the site. "For some reason, I was supposed to uncover this so I can teach others about it. Right now, this place belongs to the world. All I do is take care of it. ... It's yours. It's ours. I never say it's mine."
Inspired by his project, Miami artist Dara Friedman made a short film called "Ishmael and the Well of Ancient Mysteries," which screened at the city's renowned Art Basel show this past winter.
"He's made a commitment and really stays true to it," she told the New Times. "It's noble. ... Because that's a lot of temptation that I don't know who else could resist."
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A YouTube tour of the house: