Montezuma’s Castle

Our son Stef and his friend Charli came to visit us in Arizona. One fo the things they wanted to see was Sedona. So we headed out one day. Along the way, thanks to Chris’ insight,  we stopped at the badly misnamed Montezuma National Monument.

The Monument illustrates wonderfully the life of the southern Sinagua Native Americans who lived here hundreds of years ago. The Monument is located in the Verde Valley. The northern Sinagua people as well as the Hohokam people’s culture heavily influenced the architecture and farming that was developed here.

Ancestors of today’s Puebloan people started building the “castle” in the wall about 700 years ago. No one knows why they built their huge connected homes onto the side of the cliff, but there are various theories that have been proposed. Defence was likely part of the reason. Once the step-ladders would have been withdrawn it would have been difficult, but not impossible for invaders to attack. From the cliff the residents enjoyed a commanding view of the creek, the fields, and surrounding countryside. It was also a place where the occasional flooding of the Beaver Creek would not have cause serious problems. Having homes on a south facing wall would have been very advantageous in winter.

What is now wrongly called the castle, probably housed about 35 people. Including families in nearby pueblos and rock shelters 150 to 200 people may have lived here. It is a five-story 20-room building that occupies a cliff recess 100 feet above the valley floor. Early European settlers marveled at it and wrongly assumed it was Aztec in origin. That is why they named it after Montezuma. Very close to it was a  larger 45-room condominium that has most disappeared. Only the remnants remain. For most of the time it was occupied people found a reliable source of water in the creek below.

The indigenous people who lived here belonged to a network of villages united by kinship, agriculture and cultural traditions that stretched for miles along the nearby Verde River into which Beaver Creek flows.

There were scattered villages in the region ranging in size from about 600 to 1,100 people. By 1200 CE (Common Era) communities extended all along the Verde River and its tributaries, such as Beaver Creek. Around 1300 C.E., they were all part of a complex settlement network that is now largely lost on account of modern residential developments. 40 large villages in eh area. The flood plains below were used to grow crops. They were also used for travelling. About 6,000 people in the valley were connected to much large populations of Native Americans to the north and south.

Originally, Indigenous People roamed the region for thousands of years, hunting and gathering food. The area’s characteristic farming and architecture emerged later influenced by near by Hohokam and the Northern Sinagua.

The first permanent settlement is believed to have been established by Hohokam people between 700 and 900  (CE). These farmers grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton using sophisticated techniques like canal irrigation to draw water from large distances. These people were civilized!  I want to emphasize that. This is a them I intend to return to in my blog. They also produced their characteristic red-on-buff pottery and built ballcourts. They had one-room pit houses perched on terraces that overlooked their fields in the bottom-lands.

The people lived mainly by farming but supplemented their staple crops by hunting and gathering.  Game included deer, antelope, rabbit, bear, muskrat and duck. Corn was a very important food. They also mined a local salt deposit a few miles away. There is evidence that they traded widely. Likely salt was highly sought by indigenous people throughout the west. They lived a good life, probably a lot better than the Europeans who came to visit (and plunder).

Sinagua craftsmen and artists created stone tools like axes, knives, and hammers. They created manos and mutates for grinding corn. Other crafts included bone awls, needles, woven garments of cotton, and ornaments of shells, turquoise, and local stone (argillite) for personal wear.

Southern Sinagua builders used local materials for their pueblos. The cobble walls Chris and I saw a nearby Tuzigoot a couple of years ago, are very large but poorly balanced. The limestone at Montezuma castle is fairly soft and splits unevenly. Yet Montezuma Castle, protected as it is from the elements, stood for more than 700 years. I don’t think my house will stand that long.  It is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in the American Southwest.

By the 1950s the “castle” was no longer stable and visitations had to be prohibited. Until  then tourists could crawl around the homes.  In 1964 the ceiling had to be repaired. Maintenance now is constantly required.

Indigenous groups occupied the cliff dwellings between approximately 1,100 and 1,400 A.D. the area also contain a larger pueblo and many small alcove homes in the cliff face along Beaver Creek.

The buildings they built above ground and often on the cliff face, were masonry dwellings that started appearing in about 1125. At first these were small structures, but later they built pueblos. By 1150 they started building large pueblos often on hilltops or in cliff alcoves. Montezuma Castle and nearby Tuzigoot village, which Chris and I visited a couple of years ago reached their maximum size and population in the 1300s.

Various theories have been offered as to why the site was abandoned in about 1,400 a couple of centuries before the Spanish arrived. The leading theory is prolonged drought caused by climate change. Over population may also have been a factor, as is happening again in the much of the southern US. People tend to flock to nice places! Look at us. Diseases and conflicts between groups may also have influenced the move.  Some have speculated that they left for religious reasons. People do strange things for religion. Many southern Sinagua people migrated to the north to pueblo villages. Some likely stayed in the Verde Valley and returned to hunter gathering.

Today we enjoyed a brief but fascinating journey into the land of Native Americans of the region. It was worth the trip. Next I will blog about Sedona.

Leave a Reply