Montezuma Castle Archeology - Part 1: Excavations


Findings of Reconnaissance

Two test trenches were dug in the trash and dirt fill of the hill slope directly in front of Montezuma Castle. Both started near the existing road level, and ran toward the cliff to the north. The purpose of these trenches was to locate a possible burial ground or indication of house structures under the surface.

The western trench, just a few feet east of the old trail to the foot of the Castle, was stopped at a depth of 6 feet, 35 feet north of the road. At this point, 3 feet beneath the surface of the trash fill, was found a fragment of a stone wall running east and west. The wall was traced for 6 feet, and the base was found to be 6 feet below the surface. No floor was found, so the trench was evidently on the outside of the wall.

Forty feet east of the first trench a second one was dug, starting 10 feet north of the road and about 2 feet above its level. This trench was dug to a maximum depth of 7 feet, and extended toward the cliff about 40 feet. From top to bottom of this cut, the soft lime soil was filled with large boulders which had fallen from the cliff, while great quantities of potsherds and charcoal fragments were scattered through out. This slope had evidently been the refuse heap for the Castle dwellers.

Five feet below the surface, centering about 40 feet north of the road, this trench revealed the upper ends of the clay walls of a pit house. This house was excavated to a depth within 6 inches of the clay floor, but was not cleaned. All traces of superstructure were gone, and the north and south walls were broken down. The west and east walls stand about 18 inches high, slanting slightly outward. The room measures 12 feet north and south by 11 feet east and west, the long axis lying northwest 20 degrees by southeast 20 degrees (approximately).

Six inches above the floor, in the northwest corner of the room, was the burial of an aged female. The supine body was oriented east and west, head to west, extended, with the head and feet slightly elevated above the center of the body. The left ankle was crossed over the right foot. Head was tilted forward.

The bones were in good condition, and the skull was excellently preserved. Occipital deformation was extreme, resulting in a strikingly brachycephalic index.

No artifacts were found with this burial, and it had no connection with the pit house occupation, belonging to the later period of occupation which deposited the deep trash fill. We believe the people who buried this individual had long since forgotten about the pit house ruins underneath, and in seeking soft soil for the grave accidentally came in close contact with the floor of the old structure.

Because of lack of funds and time, this pit house was not cleaned, the 6-inch layer of dirt being left on the floor as a protection from the elements.

Age of the Ruins

It is to be regretted that no single definite date can be given for Castle A, or, in fact, for any other ruin on the monument. Dendrochronology has as yet devised no means of dating the Sycamore and Juniper timbers used in the cliff dwellings here, and we have found no specimens of the wood of datable conifers.

Dating on the basis of sherd analysis is also restricted at this site. Stratigraphic tests at Castle A were useless, for the only trash mound used by the occupants of this building was on the river terrace level in front of the structure, and this repeatedly must have been swept away by floods of Beaver Creek. As was brought out in the section on pottery, pottery here shows widely heterogeneous trade influences, and may in some cases represent survivals or carry-overs. However, on the basis of pottery and other evidence, we can assume Castle A was occupied in early Pueblo III and that the latest period of its occupation carries it well into the early part of Pueblo IV. This could have been as late as 1425 A. D. It cannot be doubted that by far the most important period, culturally speaking, of the Castle A peoples, was toward the end of their occupation; material artifacts, of an advanced type, as exemplified in stone work, weaving, and jewelry, all point to late Pueblo development.

Structurally, Castle A presents points of interest, but not necessarily of significance as regards probable time of building. The presence of pit house style of ceiling supports, as has been remarked, is suggestive of carry-over of pit house structural ideas. As a general rule, rectangular pit houses having rounded corners and ceilings of this type belonged to Pueblo II, but not always. There is no doubt that in some instances pit houses were occupied contemporaneously with pueblo community type structures of Pueblo III period. Tradition need not necessarily have played any part in the usage of multiple-post roof supports in Castle A; if small master beams and small stringers were used, or if the ceilings became old and weakened, the use of the many supports would not have been at all incongruous in any period.

Likewise, use of wattle partitions, as indicated in Rooms 5 and 2a, need not have belonged to an early house period; wattle partitions were easier to build than stone walls, and took up less room; and the use of room partitions could as easily have been a late cultural desire to insure greater family or individual privacy of quarters, as an early one.

The Abandonment of the Castles

We know the inhabitants of Castle A reached a high cultural level before leaving the Verde Valley. We also know they were extensive traders. As to the antiquity and place of their origin we could give nothing safer than a guess. Practically no archeological work has been done in early sites in the region, but such little evidence as we have at hand shows no sign of a cave-dweller forerunner of the unbroken Pueblo sequence in central Arizona. All of the prehistoric human remains from this section, insofar as is known at present, tie in admirably with the characteristics of their putative descendants, the Hopi. Legends of the Hopi Indians of modern times, especially those of the Water Clan, strongly imply an earlier existence in the cliff dwellings to the south of Hopi Land.

Castle A fell from the cliff as the result of a great fire which razed the structure from top to bottom. It was at first believed that this fire was the cause for the abandonment of the building; research here has shown this not to be the case. The weight of evidence, as seen in the silt accumulations underneath the charred ceilings, shows the ruin to have been abandoned, perhaps for a considerable time, before the firing occurred.

Various ideas have been advanced in the past as to the probable reason for the departure of Pueblo peoples from the Verde Valley, a land which, because of its rich farming possibilities, should have appealed to an agricultural people as the place for a permanent home. Since Castle A, along with Montezuma Castle and most other ruins in the region which belong to the late Pueblo period, could easily have been turned into a fortification on short notice, it has been suggested that the peoples may have been harassed by warlike, nomadic groups, Yavapai or Apache, who would raid the farmers' homes and fields and lay waste, stealing their women and their crops. That such persecution could eventually drive the peaceful ones out of the country has been held tenable. However, in our opinion, it is very unlikely that the Pueblo people left the Verde because of defeat by nomads. Such a large population as this region must have boasted, intent on retaining its land, would have required a more intense and organized opposition to be driven out than the haphazard methods of occasional marauding bands of enemies could have given.

Drouth could have caused wholesale departure from a home region but it seems to us that if drouth assailed the Pueblo peoples they would have flocked into, rather than out of, this valley.

Pestilence could have been a clause. Insanitary living conditions might have rendered these peoples susceptible in great numbers to fatal diseases. However, nothing was seen in the excavation of Castle A to indicate a precipitous departure; rather, the relative scarcity of artifacts remaining in rooms would suggest a leisurely leave-taking.

No single satisfactory reason for the abandonment, in the fifteenth century, of the Castles and of other Verde Valley sites can be offered at the present.

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Last Updated: 04-Mar-2008
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Western National Parks Association