Monday, March 2, 2009

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Standing 100 feet above the valley floor, built into a large cliff recess is the Montezuma Castle cliff dwelling. This structure was built by the Sinagua people in the early 1100s CE and is 90% intact with only a small amount of preservation being done over the years using the same materials and techniques that the ancient people used. In fact, you can also still see the smoke stained ceiling of the cliffs today. This cliff dwelling has 4 floors and has 20 rooms which were believed to have housed up to 35 people. It took a series of three ladders utilizing different cliff ledges to get to the only door on the right of the structure. The path to the first ladder begins over 100 yards to the right of the structure where the Sinagua had to hike up to a ledge and follow it along to the first ladder.

Just a little distance to the west are the remnants of another structure built by the Sinagua people called Castle A. Unlike the cliff dwelling of Montezuma castle, this was a 6 story, 45 room Pueblo style structure built from the valley floor against the cavernous walls of the cliff. Today just the foundation and a few walls built into small caves behind where the structure once stood remain.

After seeing both structures and you can begin to image this activity community. The Sinagua people were farmers, so building these structures near Beaver Creek, groves of Arizona Sycamore trees (great for ladders and roof supports,) and the many fertile fields of the river valley made this location ideal to sustain a thriving community of people for centuries until the early 1400s CE.

There were many interesting items found at this site by archeologist but the one Brad found the most interest are stones that are larger that one foot in diameter and have a hole in the middle like a large doughnut. Similar stones in large numbers were found in ancient ruins in Mexico and known to be a sort of door to Macaw parrot adobe pens that those people raised in some cases in the thousands. So at Montezuma Castle, it’s believed that the Sinagua people traded for and possibly raised a few Macaws like their neighbors to the distant south.

How did this dwelling get this odd name? Well it seems early white settlers to this area thought the cliff dwelling looked Aztec in origin or was built by Aztec refugees in honor of their emperor, so it became known as Montezuma Castle even though the Sinagua people were not related.

This national monument is a must see if you are in or near this area. We found it truly fascinating to see how these people built these amazing structures and lived and all the while thriving in this harsh desert landscape. The short paved loop path takes you through the Sycamore grove and to both the ancient ruins.

At the site is a nice visitor center that has gifts and displays explaining what’s known about these prehistoric people. We particularly enjoyed the timeline which showed milestones of the Sinagua history comparing it to European historical events of the same time. This helped put the historical timing of these ruins into perspective.

1. The 1/3 mile paved loop path is wheel chair accessible.
2. If you are interested in seeing inside the rooms of the castle, then check out the large TV screen in visitor center for a virtual 360 degree tour. This is a program where you can select certain rooms and even other ruins.
3. The admission fee is $5 per adult; $8 if you also visit the Tuzigoot Monument in the same day (which is also $5 per adult), and free if you have one of the America the Beautiful Passes.

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