Montezuma’s Castle an ancient attraction - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Montezuma’s Castle an ancient attraction

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Posted: Sunday, November 22, 2009 6:46 pm | Updated: 3:04 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Many artifacts of ancient civilizations can be found throughout the Southwest and the nation, especially in Arizona. Unfortunately, many artifacts and fragile structures are being lost, damaged or destroyed by visitors. So what’s the big deal? Who cares about our past, and why should we care about this “ancient history”?

Many artifacts of ancient civilizations can be found throughout the Southwest and the nation, especially in Arizona.

Unfortunately, many artifacts and fragile structures are being lost, damaged or destroyed by visitors.

So what’s the big deal? Who cares about our past, and why should we care about this “ancient history”?

Our state is blessed with real connections to ancient cultures that offer clues to our past — and a celebration of the enormous accomplishments of these indigenous peoples. An increased understanding of the gifts of these cultures to our contemporary society will result in a greater appreciation for Arizona’s diverse cultural groups, and for the land that served as their homes.

Conservation of the fragile environment of our state, along with preservation of its natural beauty, has brought us Montezuma’s Castle.

Montezuma’s Castle, located five miles from Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. Early European settlers were so impressed by the magnificent structure that they thought it must be a palace built by Aztec refugees for their emperor.

We now know that Montezuma never strayed this far north from his home in Mexico, but the name has stuck.

So who built this five-story pueblo tucked into a cliff recess 100 feet above Beaver Creek? A culture known as the Sinagua (Spanish for “without water”) moved from the foothills and plateau beyond the Verde Valley down into the bottom lands around the year 1125. They occupied land that was vacated by the previous dwellers, the Hohokam, who had migrated to an area farther north.

About 1150, the Sinagua began constructing above-ground masonry buildings, an idea they may have borrowed from the Anasazi.

The Sinagua were peaceful village dwellers. They lived principally by farming; there was abundant water and fertile land in the central valley. They supplemented their staple crops of corn, beans, and squash by hunting and gathering. The Sinagua were also well off in the important commodity of salt, which they mined at a deposit a few miles from the present town of Camp Verde.

Life was good and they built their large, carefully constructed pueblos on hilltops and in cliffs. Montezuma’s Castle was home to 35 or so of these people. Why did they choose this particular alcove high in the north wall of Beaver Creek? It may have been for protection from the elements, defensibility against intruders, or for the benefits of daylong solar heat … or for a combination of these factors.

This farming community of perhaps 200 people prospered here for three centuries. Yet sometime in the early 1400s they mysteriously abandoned the entire valley. Was it disease, drought, or overpopulation, resulting in scarce farmland and game? Was it invasion or intergroup strife, perhaps conflict with the Yavapai?

Hopi Indian legends suggest that the Sinagua may have joined them on their mesas to the northwest.

Montezuma’s Castle was so securely built that it has stood for more than 600 years and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric structures in the Southwest.

Today you can view this pueblo high in a cliff recess at the site administered by the National Park Service. There are short, hard-surfaced walking trails, fully accessible to wheelchairs.

Visitors can take a self-guided tour to a second, larger pueblo at the base of the cliff. Once an imposing six-story apartment with about 45 rooms, it is now a ruin, much more deteriorated than the better protected “castle.”

There is a visitor center with exhibits describing the life of the Sinagua people. They were fine artisans who made stone tools, turned bones into awls and needles, and wove handsome garments of cotton. They also fashioned ornaments out of shells, turquoise and a local red stone for personal decoration.

After enjoying the exhibits, make use of the picnic area or have a meal at a restaurant in nearby Camp Verde.

To get there from Phoenix take Interstate 17 to exit 289 and follow signs for two miles. From Camp Verde drive north on Montezuma Castle Road for three miles. Take a right and travel for two more miles at the sign.

As you approach an archaeological site, stop for a moment and reflect on how you would want a visitor to behave if visiting the home of an elderly relative. Please exercise care and respect for the area.

The following guidelines are helpful when visiting an archaeological site:

Please stay on the trail and avoid walking along the base of walls built on slopes. Fragile walls that are stressed once too often can suddenly collapse. Please don’t use them as handholds when getting into a site, and don’t stand or climb on them.

Removing artifacts from an archaeological site is illegal, often under both state and federal laws. If you pick up an artifact at a site, please replace it where it was picked up from. Moving artifacts from one portion of a site to another makes it difficult to chart a site’s growth. Never keep an artifact from a site.

Refrain from touching or attempting to enhance (for photographic purposes) the rock art that is found at many sites.

New technology allows us to date rock art by analyzing the patina that has built up through the millennia. Touching or attempting to enhance the images can damage the patina and compromise dating techniques.

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