The Sinagua Indian families who lived within the massive walls of Montezuma Castle weren’t hiding from anyone. Their “castle” may appear to have been an isolated fortress, but six hundred years ago it was only one of the dozens of dwellings a flourishing community on the banks of Beaver Creek, in Northern Arizona. Centuries of wind and rain have all but obliterated the rest of the town; Montezuma Castle stands as a testimony to the great culture of the Sinagua Indian
Contrary to popular belief, Montezuma, the sixteenth-century Aztec ruler, was never exiled to Northern Arizona. Had such a fate befallen him, however, no more fitting domicile could he wished fro than the “castle” that today bears his name. Impregnably situated on the ledges of a sheer cliff overlooking Beaver Creek in the lush Verde Valley, this cliff dwelling is a striking example of pre-Columbian American architecture. Its seventeen rooms, which are in excellent condition, reach up to five stories, presenting a dramatic view from below.
The Sinagua Indian culture appeared in the Verde Valley around 700 A.D. Montezuma Castle, however, did not come under construction until the early 1100’s and was not completed for at least another century. By this time the region had become quite heavily populated. The people here grew corn, squash, beans, and cotton in fields that they irrigated from Beaver creek. The inhabitants of Montezuma Castle participated in wide spread trade-both foreign and domestic.
The Castle, protected by a deep overhand in the cliff’s face, is built of small limestone blocks laid in mortar and roofed by sycamore timbers overlaid by poles, sticks, grass, and several inches of mud. The outside rooms sit nearly flush with the high ledges and form a concave arc that conforms to the surrounding cave.
Two paths, one from the valley floor, which required the use of a ladder, and one from the side of the cliff, joined to enter the cliff dwelling. At the junction sits a small smoke-blackened room believed to have been a sentry post. Compact inner rooms with small doorways conserved heat and made hostile entry all but impossible. Two other factors enhanced heating: The site faces south and sits far above the colder air that settles on the valley floor below. While excavated remains of corn, beans, squash, and cotton are evidence of agricultural activity, other plant remains, such as seeds, nuts, and agave, indicate that the Sinagua Indians who lived there continued to forage for food.
The Castle had a relatively brief occupancy. Archaeologists do not understand why the Sinagua Indians left the Verde Valley, possibly internal dissentions, or disease was the reason.