The Southwest: October 2019 — Day 14


Montezuma Castle National Monument, AZ – 16 October 2019: This afternoon I headed out to visit the Montezuma Castle National Monument, another ancient native american site in the Sedona/Cottonwood area. Nestled into the rock walls, this cliff-dwelling construction by the Sinagua peoples is invisible from any roadway, and if you are looking for something like a “castle” standing out on the horizon you will never find it. The sight itself was only moderately busy when I arrived in late afternoon, and there was the haunting sound of native flute music echoing off the stone as I walked out of the visitor center onto the paved path. The music was courtesy of a man sitting on a shaded bench who I believe was also selling CDs or flutes or both. His music was lovely and gave a sense of special-ness to the place. As I took the short walk below the cliffs, I looked up at the crumbled white-beige rocky face for some kind of signs of an archaeological site, but was not prepared to see a fully whole construction in place tucked into an overhang that could have been the beginnings of an arch. In the shadows you would not even see the buildings, but with the light at that time of day, they were clear and seemingly could be inhabited still. Though we could not go up to them, we could see them well enough to get a sense of place. Montezuma Castle is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States. According to the NPS, the construction is 90 percent original, despite years of unauthorized excavations and attempts to collect artifacts. To the side were more buildings in less good shape, and it was clear that a whole community once lived here in the shadow of the cliffs, relying on the Beaver Creek for water…

After looking for a while at the main buildings, which have been reconstructed and repaired multiple times over the years, we can start to see other man-made stone constructions built into the cliff side where there were ledges and caves that has been left in a more natural state of semi ruin…

Beyond the main site is a second site that was uncovered by archaeologists in 1933 and called simply “Castle A”. This site is more of a ruin and approaching it through the trees and brush gives it much more of a feeling of “discovery” as does that fact that it is preserved in its “ruin” state, though cleared of brush and seemingly carefully curated with an appropriately placed grinding stone lying within the walls of a fallen home. Still it offers a more authentic experience as we can approach the edges of the ruins via the interpretive trail, and that proximity gives a better chance to feel the atmosphere of the ancientness of the place…

Beaver Creek was probably the reason the Sinagua chose to build here, as it provided a consistent source of water.

More from the National Parks Service information materials:

Montezuma Castle was not an isolated structure where people lived generation after generation, having little contact with neighbors. The Castle instead was a small, but very dramatic, part of a large community of people spread up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 people may have lived in the valley in small villages no more than two miles apart.

Montezuma Castle is located along Bea-ver Creek, possibly a final leg in a major pre-historic trade route from northern Arizona. People following this trail were seeking salt, cotton, argillite, and other minerals.

Montezuma Castle is built into a deep al-cove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top. Entrance to most areas was usually through a hole in the roof; a ladder made access easier. The 19 rooms could have housed 35 to 50 people, conserving precious farmland near the creek. Around the corner was “Castle A,” a site with 45 to 50 rooms that also hugged the limestone cliff. These people were certainly related, sharing food, land, and friendships: all ties that bind a community.

There is little evidence of conflict or war-fare, but perhaps people felt more secure liv-ing in the Castle. The series of ladders used to climb to the site could be pulled in for the night and there is a panoramic view of the riv-er and valley from the top parapet level. The remains of a small structure above the Castle, on top of the cliff, allows views of the entire countryside. A sentry would have advance warning of anyone entering the area. Just as important, the Castle is simply a wonderful place to live in all seasons. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The higher elevation gives some relief from biting mosquitoes, juniper gnats, and other pesky vermin. Daily activities, such as preparing food, were done on the roof, and most areas have an inspiring creekfront view!

Between 1380 and 1400, people began moving from the area, probably joining rela-tives in large pueblos to the east. As more explanations are offered for their departure, more questions arise. Stress factors may have included prolonged drought, disease, and nu-trient-depleted soil from growing corn

In 1874 some of the first Euro-American explorers to see Montezuma Castle were vet-erans of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). When they saw the great cliff dwellings and large pueblos with standing walls, they didn’t believe the local indigenous people had the knowledge or ability to construct such imposing structures. Instead, they attributed them to the Aztecs, whose magnificent ruins they had seen in Mexico. A popular Marine marching song of the time referred to the “Halls of Montezuma,” or Mexico City, center of the Aztec world. In-spired, the veterans felt the Aztec king had to have been somehow involved!

In 1933 “Castle A” was excavated, uncovering a wealth of information and artifacts that expanded our knowledge of the Sinagua.

From Wikipedia: Montezuma Castle National Monument protects a set of well-preserved dwellings located in Camp Verde, Arizona which were built and used by the Sinagua people, a pre-Columbian culture closely related to the Hohokam and other indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States,[4] between approximately 1100 and 1425 AD. The main structure comprises five stories and about 45 to 60 rooms and was built over the course of three centuries.[5]

Neither part of the monument’s name is correct. When European-Americans first observed the ruins in the 1860s, by then long-abandoned, they named them for the famous Aztec emperor Montezuma in the mistaken belief that he had been connected to their construction (see also Montezuma mythology).[6] Having no connections to the Aztecs, the Montezuma Castle was given that name due to the fact that the public had this image of the Aztecs creating any archaeological site.[7] In fact, the dwelling was abandoned more than 40 years before Montezuma was born, and was not a “castle” in the traditional sense, but instead functioned more like a “prehistoric high rise apartment complex”.[5]

Several Hopi clans and Yavapai communities trace their ancestries to early immigrants from the Montezuma Castle/Beaver Creek area. Archaeological evidence proves that the Hohokam and Hakataya settled around or in the Verde Valley.[5] Clan members periodically return to these ancestral homes for religious ceremonies.

Montezuma Castle is situated about 90 feet (27 m) up a sheer limestone cliff, facing the adjacent Beaver Creek, which drains into the perennial Verde River just north of Camp Verde. It is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, in part because of its ideal placement in a natural alcove that protects it from exposure to the elements. The precariousness of the dwelling’s location and its immense scale of floor space across five stories – suggest that the Sinagua were daring builders and skilled engineers. Access into the structure was most likely permitted by a series of portable ladders, which made it difficult for enemy tribes to penetrate the natural defense of the vertical barrier.[8]

Perhaps the main reason the Sinagua chose to build the Castle so far above the ground, however, was to escape the threat of natural disaster in the form of the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. During the summer monsoon season, the creek frequently breached its banks, inundating the floodplain with water. The Sinagua recognized the importance of these floods to their agriculture, but likely also the potential destruction they presented to any structures built in the floodplain. Their solution was to build a permanent structure in the high recess afforded by the limestone cliff.

The walls of Montezuma Castle are examples of early stone-and-mortar masonry, constructed almost entirely from chunks of limestone found at the base of the cliff, as well as mud and/or clay from the creek bottom. The ceilings of the rooms also incorporated sectioned timbers as a kind of roof thatching, obtained primarily from the Arizona sycamore, a large hardwood tree native to the Verde Valley.

Evidence of permanent dwellings like those at Montezuma Castle begins to appear in the archaeological record of Arizona’s Verde Valley about 1050 AD. The first distinctly Sinagua culture may have occupied the region as early as 700 AD. The area was briefly abandoned due to the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano, about 60 miles (97 km) to the north, in the mid-11th century. Although the short-term impact may have been destructive, nutrient-rich sediment deposited by the volcano may have aided more expansive agriculture in later decades. During the interim, the Sinagua lived in the surrounding highlands and sustained themselves on small-scale agriculture dependent on rain. After 1125, the Sinagua resettled the Verde Valley, using the reliable watershed of the Verde River alongside irrigation systems left by previous inhabitants, perhaps including Hohokam peoples, to support more widespread farming.[9]

Construction of the Castle itself is thought to have begun around this time, though the building probably was gradual, level-by-level, over many generations. The region’s population likely peaked around 1300 AD, with the Castle housing between 30 and 50 people in at least 20 rooms.[10] A neighboring segment of the same cliff wall suggests there was an even larger dwelling (“Castle A”) around the same time, of which only the stone foundations have survived. Its discovery in 1933 revealed many Sinagua artifacts and greatly increased understanding of their way of life.

The latest estimated date of occupation for any Sinagua site comes from Montezuma Castle, around 1425 AD. After this, the Sinagua people apparently abandoned their permanent settlements and migrated elsewhere, as did other cultural groups in the southwestern United States around that time. The reasons for abandonment are unclear, but possibilities include drought, resource depletion, and clashes with the newly arrived Yavapai people. Due to the very little human contact since abandonment, Montezuma Castle was well preserved.[5] It was heavily looted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though other Sinagua sites have remained more or less intact.