|Today Larry, John, Joyce & I visited the Montezuma Castle National Monument featuring well-preserved cliff-dwellings. They were built and used by the Pre-Columbian Sinagua people around 700 AD. It was occupied from approximately 1125-1400 AD, and occupation peaked around 1300 AD. Several Hopi clans trace their roots to immigrants from the Montezuma Castle/Beaver Creek area. Clan members periodically return to their former homes for religious ceremonies. When European Americans discovered them in the 1860s, they named them for the Aztec emperor (of Mexico) Montezuma II, due to mistaken beliefs that the emperor had been connected to their construction. Neither part of the monument's name is correct. The Sinaqua dwelling was abandoned 100 years before Montezuma was born and the Dwellings were not a castle. It was more like a "prehistoric high rise apartment complex".
The castle was carved into the limestone of a high cliff. This shows that the Sinaqua were very daring builders. It took ladders to climb Montezuma Castle which made it incredibly difficult for enemy tribes to penetrate the natural defense of the vertical barrier. The five-story stone and mortar dwellings contain 20 rooms and once housed about 50 people. The walls are built of fieldstones held together with a mortar of mud and clay. "Fieldstones" are rocks that have not been worked, or that have been worked only to the extent that they may have been broken from larger pieces, or had some inconvenient nubs lopped off to make them fit more closely. Interior and exterior walls are covered with a layer of mud "plaster" about an inch thick, to produce a relatively smooth surface and protect the load-bearing components from weathering.
Internal floors are supported by large logs up to a foot in diameter and spaced three to four feet apart. A layer of smaller logs, four to six inches in diameter and separated by eight to twelve inches, is laid crosswise over the main beams; and then a solid layer of branches of one to two inch thickness is laid crosswise on top of that. This is covered by a mat consisting of grasses, bark and very small branches, and finally the entire arrangement is covered over with three or four inches of mud and clay. This technique produces very solid floors that have stood for the better part of a thousand years.
A natural overhang shades the rooms and sheltered them from rain. Another part of the cliff wall bears the marks of an even larger dwelling, which has not survived. Due to heavy looting, very few original artifacts remain. The discovery of Castle A in 1933 revealed many Sinagua artifacts and greatly increased our understanding of their way of life. The reasons for abandonment of their habitation sites are not yet known, but warfare, drought, and clashes with the newly-arrived Yavapai people have been suggested.
The dwellings and the surrounding area were declared a U.S. National Monument on December 8, 1906 as a result of the American Antiquities Act, signed earlier in June of the same year. It was one of the four original sites designated National Monuments by President Theodore Roosevelt. The National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
This is an easy monument to visit, a short distance off Interstate 17, exit 287. There is a paved trail a 1/4 mile from the visitor center along the base of the cliff containing the ruins. Although access to the ruins has not been allowed since 1950 due to extensive damage of the dwelling, 350,000 tourists still visit the site each year.
The visitor center includes a museum about the Sinagua and the tools they used to build the dwellings. It houses many artifacts, such as stone tools, metates used for grinding corn, bone needles and ornaments of shell and gemstone which prove that the Sinagua were fine artisans. There is also a gift shop. Worth a stop if you are in the area!