Montezuma Castle

Ancient Cliff Dwellings of The Sinagua Indians

Photo of Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle
© Mike Koospen

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Located near Camp Verde, not far from Sedona are the well-preserved remains of Montezuma Cliff Dwellings. Built into the cliff overhangs above Beaver Creek, Montezuma Castle and surrounding ruins stand as a monument to the ingenuity of the ancient people.

Archaeological evidence points toward the Sinagua peoples as designers and builders of Montezuma Castle. Without natural evidence to assist them, explorers were left only man-made artifacts from which to determine the history of these ruins. By examining pottery, tools, and construction techniques, it was the ancient Sinagua Indians that built Montezuma Castle.

All signs suggest that this community survived and flourished through farming and hunting. The residents harvested every resource, and utilized practices learned from other tribes to grow and maintain successful crops of beans, squash and corn. Medicines, clothing, and tools were gleaned from the many plants that grew in the area. Over time, trading with other tribes came into practice, to obtain other needed items.

Montezuma Castle, said to have been built by the women, consists of limestone blocks, mud, grass, sticks, and Sycamore trees. Excavations have unearthed at least 60 rooms, demonstrating that comfort and protection were major concerns back then just as they are today. The walls, 3 feet thick, were constructed at a curve to ensure stability. Doors were angled and cut to provide maximum protection from drafts, and to control inside temperatures. Seeking the utmost efficiency, storage, burial, meeting areas, and work stations were factored in to the design and the Castle was built to provide for all these needs.

As with many of Arizona’s ancient settlements, Montezuma Castle, and the surrounding community were completely abandoned sometime around 1425 A.D. Many have concluded, as with the Wupatki National Monument and Walnut Canyon abandonment, that the inhabitants were forced out due to changes in climate and ecology, or that they simply sought better lives elsewhere. Conflicts with the Yavapai tribes may also have contributed to the disappearance.

Over the next several centuries, ancestors of the Yavapai and Apache Tribes resided in the area, and eventually Spanish and American settlers found their way in Verde Valley, stumbling upon the majestic wonder of the castle in the cliffs. Antonio De Espejo’s Spanish expedition may have been the first recorded discovery of the deserted compound in the late 1500’s. When American settlers entered the area, Montezuma Castle remained hidden from view until 1853. During a railroad survey, Lieutenant A.W. Whipple and his crew toured the remains.

In 1856, the first scientific research of Montezuma Castle was conducted by Dr. Edward Palmer. However, not until 1864, when King S. Woolsey’s expedition came through, were the main water supply and other dwellings discovered. Once again finding Aztec connections, this natural formation was named Montezuma Well. Over the next several decades, as people moved through, the ruins were constantly looted and vandalized.

As it stands today, protected, preserved and proud, the Montezuma Castle National Monument provides a fascinating examination of Arizona’s prehistoric past.

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