Montezuma Castle Archeology - Part 1: Excavations



The archeological paper which follows describes what was found in the excavation of a cliff dwelling in Montezuma Castle National Monument. This area is located slightly to the northeast of the geographic center of Arizona, and lies along the banks of Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Verde River.

The stories which archeologists uncover with shovel, trowel and whisk broom in the Southwest reveal many fascinating insights into the strange and complex Stone Age civilization which ebbed and flowed through many centuries before the white man first cast his eye upon this land. The Verde Valley was one of many dense centers of aboriginal population which reached a peak and fell into decline before the coming of the Spaniards.

LEGEND: 1. Sycamore Canyon; 2. Oak Creek Canyon; 3. Beaver Creek; 4. Montezuma Well; 5. Calkins Ranch; 6. Clear Creek; 7. Squaw Peak. (click on image for a PDF version)

Indians are often spoken of as nature's children. Let's see what Mother Nature did to set the stage for the prehistoric Indians who lived and loved and fought and died so long ago in the Verde Valley. We can't start with the beginning of time, but we can drop back several million years, at a time when the Grand Canyon of the Colorado wasn't nearly as deep as it is now.

There was a gradual sinking of a large oval section of country in eastern Yavapai County. On the west side of this sunken area is still visible the line where some of the slipping took place, and it could doubtless be found in other marginal spots. You can see where this slip, or fault, occurred when you drive your car through Jerome, Arizona. Part of that modern town, below the fault, is still sliding at the rate of several inches a year, while the other part remains stationary.

After this sinkage of the earth's crust, which started the Verde Valley, the extensive drainage of waters from southern portions of the northern Arizona plateau began. This started the erosion which has produced the upper canyon of the Verde River, Sycamore Canyon, the gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon, Beaver Creek Canyon, and others. During long ages the Verde River carried all its water and that of its tributaries, as it dashed along through the great sink and through a gap in the mountains at the south end, onward to the Salt River.

You might say the Verde Valley was a thing complete, as soon as the main subsidence occurred. But the valley's cross-section was far more rugged than at present. The great escarpment of the Mogollon Rim on the east was more extensive, and the frowning slopes of the lesser Black Range to the west far more imposing than now. Down the steep slopes toward the ragged gash of the river the young streams toiled prodigiously to establish milder gradients, carrying enormous quantities of rock, sand and mud away toward the sea.

Off to the southwest of the valley sat Squaw Peak; deep down in her core was turbulent heat. From her east side belched a fiery mass of molten lava which seethed and hissed its way down the slopes toward the river bed, filling the narrow canyon which the river had cut through the south end of the valley. You can imagine there was a great deal of steaming and fussing when the Verde River hit this molten dam, but there was no doubting the lava had temporarily blocked the right-of-way.

The river, effectively dammed, began backing up behind the barrier. The lake which was formed spread from the dam, about 10 miles south of Camp Verde, to about 10 miles north of Clarkdale, Arizona, and spread out until at one place it was 13 miles wide. Towards its eastern edge it included the territory around Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well.

The streams which fed the new Verde Lake were doing a big job besides that of carrying water. They were converting large portions of the northern Arizona plateau into fine silt, and depositing it by the millions of tons on the lake bottom. As Oak Creek, Beaver Creek, and other creeks worked their canyons deeper into the Mogollon Rim they cut through incredibly ancient limestone sea beds, now thousands of feet above the original level. This lime was dissolved and carried in solution into the valley. Since the lake had no outlet, except for flood drainage over the dam, it lost most of its water in dry periods by evaporation. This caused the concentration of lime and other mineral salts to become so heavy they sank to the bottom, to make a limey ooze.

Now let's take a look at a spot 6 miles southwest of Montezuma Castle, where a large whitish hill marks the site of the largest prehistoric Indian salt mine in the Southwest. What could have caused that salt deposit?

Climatic changes affected the water level in the Verde Lake. During some drouth eras the only water remaining was at the lower end, from the Camp Verde district southward. There were great concentrations of minerals in this small body of water. As evaporation took place the lime was first to settle, then various other mineral salts, and finally among the last to settle was the true salt.

After the salt beds were thus made, nature hustled herself and brought more water to the lake again, and more silt and mud, which formed a protective blanket for the salt. These beds were to remain covered as long as the lake lasted.

In the course of time the limey blanket of the lake bottom was built to a fair thickness (over 2,000 feet in the deeper spots) and had a fairly level contour from one end to the other, although the edges were deeply serrated by intrusions of igneous ridges from the mountains of the east and west. Then things began to happen again. You have heard the old saying, "He who laughs last laughs best." The Verde River had been frustrated by the lava from Squaw Peak, and had found it necessary to back up. But the old river wasn't quitting, it was just getting its second wind. As a lake, its flooding overflows gnawed at the lava barrier, and the rock began to weather and crack and get old. Perhaps nature threw in an earthquake or two to further hasten the inevitable. At any rate, the lake finally worked an outlet through the dam.

With the lake drained away, the river once again continued uninterrupted toward the sea. The old lake bed was now a whitish plain of limestone. The river and its tributaries worked tirelessly at making new stream beds, cutting them down for hundreds of feet into the lime. The channels widened, and after a losing struggle of two or three million years to hold its identity, the white plain degenerated into a valley border with limestone fingers sticking out between the curves of the broadened water courses. With the maturing of the streams and a lessening of the gradient, they meandered and deposited in their S-curves rich layers of volcanic soil which was brought down from the mountains. In this soil developed dense growths of grass, bushes and trees to fringe the water edges.

Rains and streams eventually uncovered the salt beds at the south end of the valley. The stage was now set for human occupancy, with a fertile valley abounding in vegetation and wild life, ample water for irrigation of the loamy river terraces, and salt for the human palate and health. Thus we complete a brief picture of the geological forces which made the valley a livable place.

Today the region of the old Verde Lake has a distinctly arid climate. From Camp Verde, near the lower end of this area, at an elevation of about 3,200 feet above sea level, to Clarkdale, near the upper end, with an elevation of a little over 3,400 feet, the average annual rainfall is around 11 inches, although as much as 27 inches in a year has been recorded, and as little as 7 or 8. The native vegetation is typical for this rainfall pattern, where temperatures vary 100 degrees during a 12-month period, reaching 112 above zero F. in summer shade.

Along the banks of Beaver Creek are dense growths of Arizona Sycamore, with liberal sprinklings of Netleaf Hackberry, Desert Willow, Fremont Cottonwood, Velvet Ash and some Arizona Black Walnut. The sand bars have great quantities of Watermotie, Single Whorl Burrobrush, and Desert Willow. Slopes leading down to the watercourse have, on north exposures, thickets of Scrub Oak mixed with Mesquite and Catclaw.

The native growth on the stream terraces consists mostly of dense Mesquite and Catclaw thickets. As these areas merge into the white bordering limestone hills the Mesquite becomes stunted and then dies out, being replaced first by Canotia (Canotia holocantha) and Creosote-bush, and a little higher by Juniper growth.

Seventy-five years ago early settlers in the Verde Valley found the Mesquite flats along the Verde and its tributaries grown so high in grass that they used to scythe it and use it for hay. Today, in the best farming areas, most of the native growth is gone and the fields are in modern crops of alfalfa, corn, wheat, oats, etc.

Early plowing of the terrace lands in the valley often revealed evidence of the pit house structures which were occupied by primitive Indians before they learned how to build walls above the ground. Charred hearth levels were found, and places where the dwellers had smoothly mudded the cut-bank walls of their pit structures. Hohokam pottery dots these vicinities. How early some of these homes may have been used is yet open to conjecture, but it is safe to imply that some of them are at least 1,500 years old. Later Indians constructed small surface houses with walls of mud and stone. And we see, through evidences crowning many low hills near the terraces, how need for protection from enemies forced the people to combine small houses into great community structures. Whether the first enemies of these people were outsiders, coming in to raid the harvests from their small fields of corn, beans and squash, or whether the danger was from other groups of farmer folk in the same valley, we do not know

Finally the communal dwellings, or pueblos, reached the classic stage of their existence, so that during the 1300's several hundred people might live in a single communal apartment house. Usually these pueblos occupied hilltops near the fields, so farm workers could retreat to their homes in case of sudden attack, and so they would live near enough to the principal source of their livelihood to be very short-distance commuters. Sometimes, when conditions were suitable, the communal dwellings were built against the faces of the limestone cliffs, which bordered streams in many places. Outstanding among these latter was Montezuma Castle, in combination with its large structure a short distance to the southwest, designated in the following pages simply as "Castle A."

Montezuma Castle is situated on the north side of Beaver Creek, about 200 yards from the present water channel, in a deep recess in the south face of a limestone cliff 150 feet high, overlooking a broad expanse of winding river terrace and low foothills in the valley to the south. A slope rises to the foot of the cliff about 50 feet above the level of the river bed, and 70 feet above this is the base of the structure. This considerable slope, directly south of Montezuma Castle, is partially covered with a deep trash fill, in which are signs of graves and older house structures.

One hundred yards southwest of the Castle, in a continuation of the same cliff face, in a similar large recess, is the fallen ruin of another cliff dwelling which, at one time, was more than twice the size of the Castle. This dwelling, Castle A, was the focal point of C. W. A. research activities on this monument. It is numbered N. A. 1278A in the survey files of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Castle A originally contained five stories, built into the cliff face over a base level of two tiers of rooms resting on a shelving ledge 10 feet above the present river terrace. When this building collapsed in prehistoric times, presumably because of the fire which destroyed all its ceilings, the crumbled mass covered the two lower floors and spread below and beyond onto the terrace.

Our task in 1933-34 consisted of the excavation and removal of fill from above these lower rooms, and partial restoration of weak standing walls; excavation and removal of fill from the section in front of the ledge, and test trenching on this level in search of graves or earlier horizons of occupation. In addition, some test trenching was done on the slope in front of Montezuma Castle (see folded map at end of this report).

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