The Southwest: October 2019 — Day 13


Cottonwood, AZ – 15 October 2019: I lucked out again with a great Air BnB in Cottonwood, that was just a super little private location with real home-feeling accommodations including a great little terrace…

Tuzigoot National Monument, Cottonwood, AZ – 15 October 2019: After work i decided to go drive out to one of the area sites I have never been to before, and archaeological site known as the Tuzigoot National Monument. It was late in the afternoon and I followed the route into what looked like just a bit of rocky terrain and hills, and I didn’t see it until I was practically just in front of it, the rocky structure built into the very top of a rocky hill so that it almost looked like part of the landscape. Though it was referred to as “ruins” it looked to be so carefully reconstructed that it could almost be modern. The structure is a kind of “pueblo” or village built by the Sinagua people who lived in the Verde Valley 1,000 years ago — one of the groups known as “ancestral puebloans” today. And I paid my entry fee and went for a walk up the hill and around the stone structure that kind of seemed more notable for the surrounding view than for anything incredible in and of itself. But I imagine that feeling was due to the fact that it had been so completely reconstructed it seemed more of a museum than a ruin, and as a museum it was pretty “empty” of context — any artifacts long ago removed and with the interpretive information all gathered down in the visitor center. Still there was some sense of mystery surrounding the ancient people who built this place originally. From below it had looked like a fortress of sorts, but according to the available information it was more like a village where artisans and farmers had once lived — in some ways similar in its vertical construction to the ksars of the Sahara and I wondered if there was a similarity in style because of something innate about the desert environment.

Tuzigoot is one of three sites classified as “National Monuments” within the Verde Valley. The valley, lying under the spectacular pine-clad cliffs of the Mogollon Rim of central Arizona, forms an immense biological transition between desert, grassland, and forest vegetation zones. The national monuments of the Verde Valley—Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, and Tuzigoot—protect and interpret the legacy of the Sinagua people who flourished in this area for centuries. Tuzigoot is the remains of a 110-room pueblo perched on a high ridge with a panoramic view. According to the National Parks Service interpretive information, archeologists with a Civil Works Administration crew excavated and stabilized the ancestral village now known as Tuzigoot in 1933 and built a museum to hold its material story in 1935. Current thought is that hunters passed through this area about 10,000 years ago, followed by farming peoples who built a way of life based around the available resources of land and water sometime before 1100 C.E. There is little definitive information about what happened to the people, though researchers have theorized based on knowledge of climate patterns: with marginal rainfall the crops may have depleted the soil nutrients after years of planting. By the time the people of Tuzigoot left the region around 1400 C.E., well before the coming of the Europeans, the citadel had housed perhaps 250 people in its 110 rooms. Artifacts confirm that the Sinagua traded for shells from the coast and macaws from the south. It was a city of its day. When the Sinagua abandoned this place or where they went afterwards is unclear, but the Hopi people of today tell, in their clan stories, of living in places like this before migrating to their present northern mesas and are likely descendants of this culture.

The Tuzigoot ruins are aligned on a limestone ridge that runs north-south. When standing on the roof, you are looking north if you are looking over the top of the museum. Looking this direction, you will see a series of other steep, highly eroded limestone ridges. These are the remnants of sediment deposited when the Verde Valley was an ancient lake. Old lacustrine limestone in the higher elevations was dissolved and transported into the lake where it precipitated out of solution as freshwater limestone.

The view from the north to the east includes the ridge which continues to wrap around the basin referred to as Tavasci Marsh. As you scan the east basin from north to south you will see different vegetation patterns starting with grasses which give way to open water surrounded by cattail, sedges, and other water-loving species. As you move south along the watercourse the vegetation changes to a few scattered cottonwood trees. It is possible that the vegetation of the east basin looked much like it does today prior to the arrival of agriculturalists into the Verde Valley. The Sinagua people cleared and farmed this rich bottom land extensively, growing corn, beans, squash, and cotton. After their departure, the area presumably reverted back to its natural state. From the late 19th century, the area was again cleared and farmed until around 1990. Once farming activities ceased, invasive Plants (native and exotic) began spreading through and changing the marsh area. The cattails that you can see resulted from artificially flattened pasture land and stable water levels.

The abundance of plant and animal species would have been considerably different when the Sinagua occupied the area compared to today. The last century and a half of development in the valley has taken a serious toll on our stream side habitat. The dominant species of the riparian ecosystem are deciduous trees such as cottonwood, ash, walnut, sycamore, willow, alder and many lower story shrubs and herbaceous plants. These trees provide important habitat for many wildlife species. Throughout the three centuries of Sinaguan occupation, the climate went through cyclical phases of dry and warm to cool and wet. This natural cycle of change would have altered the size and density of this ecosystem.

Sedona, AZ – 15 October 2019: After leaving Tuzigoot I headed towards Route 179 for the Red Rock vistas as the late afternoon sun began throwing some of the magical light down on to the landscape. It is a part of the landscape that I’ve photographed often at different times of the year, and though it is over-touristed and crowded even in the “off” periods, the red rock never loses its magic for me, and that is one of the things I really love about this area — many times I worried that familiarity would kill the magic (and maybe it would if I was here every day) but it never has and everytime I feel like I must make my own personal pilgrimage to these rocks…

A bit more on the archaeological history of the region from NPS materials:

The Verde Valley we experience today is very different from what earlier inhabitants saw. Northern Arizona was once much cooler and moister, and the open range flowed with the deep, thick grasses favored by now-extinct large mammals such as prehistoric camel, giant elk, mammoths, and other big game animals. The earliest human inhabitants of the Southwest, the Paleoindians, killed these massive creatures with a distinctive stone spear tip called the Clovis point, and at least 16 of these extremely rare tools have been identified in the Verde Valley.

Over the millennia the climate gradually changed, and the vast grasslands disappeared along with the large animals that once supplied families with food, clothing, and other needs. People had to broaden their reliance to other plants and animals, as well as develop and strengthen a network of alliances. Besides creating a market to exchange minerals, textiles, jewelry, and other resources, such commerce also provided a mechanism to share new technologies and ideas while extending family and social ties. This interaction with people from what is now Mexico introduced changes that forever altered life in the Southwest. A new idea—agriculture—challenged thousands of years of a sustainable, hunting and gathering lifestyle and revolutionized the way people interacted with and transformed the land.

Two warm-weather plants native to Mesoamerica, corn and cotton, were hybridized over the centuries and traded into the desert southwest, gradually adapting to the short, arid growing season of northern Arizona. When properly tended and stored, corn, beans, and squash provided a nutritious, year-round source of food. People never gave up supplementing their diets with animals and native plants, but as larger game became increasingly scarce, the great hunts of the past were no longer a guaranteed method of survival.

Agriculture also changed the way human society was organized after thousands of years of hunting and gathering. Corn had to be planted and tended by people and could not survive as a wild plant. Accomplishing this required larger communities, enabling people to pool resources and provide the labor needed to weed their crops and process the harvest, not to mention enjoy new social and family connections. The earliest dwellings in these communities were partially dug into the ground and had roofs of timber, brush, and clay. By 600 C.E., small settlements of these pithouses ringed the edges of the Verde Valley and scattered along the waterways. One such dwelling, the “Pithouse Ruin,” can be seen at Montezuma Well.About the same time, durable pottery vessels for cooking and storage were first utilized, since fragile clay pots are impractical for nomadic people who are constantly on the move. Weaving technology, based on spinning cotton fiber into a thread and using a loom, traveled up the large river valleys from Mexico and was quickly mastered by the people of the Verde Valley.

Five-hundred years later, around 1100 C.E., people here constructed pueblos, solid masonry structures with mud-plastered walls. They also made distinctive, polished ceramics and produced some of the finest textiles in the southwest. Archeologists call this culture the Sinagua, one of several groups in northern and central Arizona which shared basic cultural traits.

Visitors to the Southwest encounter many names associated with these prehistoric American Indian cultural groups. Names such as Anasazi, Chaco, and Mesa Verde are familiar, but these groups encompass only a tiny portion of the prehistoric Southwestern cultures, which also included the Kayenta, Salado, Hohokam, and Sinagua. Even so, these are not the names the people gave themselves. Rather, they were coined by archeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries in attempts to define and describe groups of people who interacted with extensive trade connections, practiced similar lifeways, engaged in agriculture, and shared religious concepts and practices.

The Hopi people of northeast Arizona, some descended from those we call Sinagua, refer to their ancestors as the Hisatsinom, or “the people of the past.” As researchers have learned more about the relationships of prehistoric groups to modern Indian cultures, the term “Ancestral Puebloan” is being used more frequently and is the name preferred by the modern Pueblo people. It is also a way to recognize that even though these people of the past had their own unique cultures, they also shared core values that united them into a larger Pueblo cultural tradition. These concepts, such as a focus on corn, clan social structures, ceremonial societies, kivas for religious structures, the katsina religion, and pueblo architecture, are still vital to the modern Pueblo people of Arizona and New Mexico.

Many theories have been proposed for why the Sinagua left their homes in the Verde Valley to move to larger pueblos in the north and east. The great, centuries-old trade networks dissolved, ending commercial and social contact between people. A prolonged period of drought, starting in 1380 C.E., made farming a challenge in areas distant from perennial waterways. Disease, conflict, and depletion of resources may have been factors. The Hopi people of today say it was a migration of their ancestors, preordained to fulfill a covenant with one of their most important spiritual beings, and they stress the fact that they did not disappear. They are still very much here.Whatever the reason for their departure, one thing remains true to this day: the Verde Valley was never completely without people. The ancestors of today’s Yavapai and Apache people became caretakers of the land after the great Sinaguan exodus.

Montezuma Castle has been described as the best preserved and most dramatic cliff dwelling in the United States. Montezuma Well is a natural limestone sinkhole with prehistoric sites and several animal species found nowhere else in the world.