Montezuma's Castle
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Frank Pinkley

Montezuma Castle is a prehistoric cliff dwelling located about 52 miles east of Prescott, Arizona, and can be reached from that city over the Cherry Creek or the Jerome-Clarkdale roads either of which leads into the old army post of Camp Verde from whence it is five miles to the ruins. The Castle may also be reached from Flagstaff, Arizona, over a road leading past Mormon and Stoneman Lakes and Montezuma Well.

The Montezuma Castle National Monument was created by a proclamation of the President of the United States in December, 1906, and is protected and administered by the National Park Service which is under the Department of the Interior. It is the best single example of a prehistoric cliff dwelling now standing in the Southwest. It is in a good state of preservation, easily accessible to automobile tourists and is visited by thousands every year. A good automobile road swings down to the foot of the cliff where one starts to climb the ladders to the Castle, and a camp ground, lapped by the waters of Beaver Creek, makes a delightful place to linger a while and dream of the days when white men were unknown and the brown skinned Indians, now long departed, swarmed through this airy structure.

"Montezuma Castle" is a misnomer. It is not a castle in the sense of being the home or habitation of a single owned, but was a communally owned apartment house. Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs far to the south, probably never knew anything about this structure and most certainly never owned or lived in it.

The known history of the Montezuma Castle is interesting because there is so little of it. The pathes of the Padres and early Spanish explorers laid far to the east of this part of Arizona. No mention of these ruins has yet been found previous to the Whipple Report of a railroad survey in 1854, the year in which Camp Verde was established as an army post.

The Montezuma Castle must have been abandoned at least 400 years ago. Had it been inhabited more recently than that we would have found in our work some evidences of contact with the Spanish civilization. That 400 years is a low estimate for the time of abandonment is indicated when we note that the Coronado expedition, which reached Zuni in 1540, heard no reports of the recent abandonment of ruins in this vicinity. Had abandonment taken place in the preceeding hundred years, reports of it would have been bedded in the folktales of the Zuni Indians who would have transmitted them to the Spanish. We think, therefore, a minimum date of abandonment must be set at 500 years ago.

The people who inhabited the Castle were, of course, Indians, for a cliff dweller was simply an Indian who built his home in the cliff.

From whence they came is hidden probably some two thousand years ago in the dim past, and the story may or may not be worked out by the shrewd student in this or some future generation.

They were not killed out in any final war because we have looked for, and failed to find, any evidences of final battles which would have left wrecked homes containing the unburied bodies of the last remnants of the fighters.

The same lack of evidence shows they were not killed by any plague or any cataclysm of nature as is so often suggested by visitors. The migration theory, which is also so often suggested as the final method of abandonment, fails to check out. Several thousand people in a migration would have carried their customs, arts and decorations to their new site and their descendents would have been located long ago by the student.

In the final disintegration of the culture, the people who inhabited these ruins probably moved out, scattering here and there, being absorbed by intermarriage and their blood probably still runs in the veins of some of the pueblo building tribes of the southwest.

Although this ruin can be seen from the camp, no mention is made of it in any of the several books written by the army men and women of that period. General knowledge of this cliff dwelling came only with the establishment of a road from Prescott to Camp Verde and thence to Flagstaff.

A little study will convince any visitor that the Castle was not all constructed at one time, but that it gradually grew to its present size by a series of additions.

For the purposes of this paper we will divide the building into the "front" and "back" sections.

The back section is the older of the two and stands three stories high. It is reached by a series of four ladders running up the cliff and the visitor enters what I shall call room B-1-2 (Back section, 1st story, room 2), when he leaves the fourth ladder and enters the building.

Room B-1-1, which is the fathermost room to the right on this tier as one faces the cliff, is a long, narrow room made by walling up a ledge of the cliff.

The original roof is gone but the walls show clearly that it consisted of a main beam running lengthwise across the room a little in front of the center line of the floor, and from it secondary beams were laid from the overhanging cliff, which roofs the rear half of the room, to the front wall. On these beams brush and mud were laid forming the surface of the roof.

Two small openings occur in the front wall just above the floor line. These may have been lookout holes. The floor of the room was originally leveled up with dirt, which has been removed. We have had to repair the east end of the front wall where it had been broken down by vandals. The remainder of the wall surface shows many finger prints in the plaster and the smoke and grime of many fires.

The back wall of this room is the cliff itself and is very irregular. A narrow horizontal cleft in the rock has been walled up for part of the distance, probably for use as a closet for storage. We have had to restore the doorway at the western end of the room; vandals had torn away the lintel and the wall was in danger of falling.

Room B-1-2 is the room the visitor enters from the head of the ladders. It is a small place and we question if it was ever roofed over. The front wall, at its east end, stops as a parapet a little over waist high and there are no signs that it ever went higher. At its west end, however, there are signs that it was bonded all the way up to room B-1-3. The doorway passing to the east into B-1-1 is the one we have had to restore. The doorway to the west entering B-1-3 is in practically its original condition.

B-1-3 is a good sized room whose rear half is roofed by the overhanging ledge. A main beam runs lengthwise of the room carrying the rear ends of the rafters. The front ends of the rafters go through the front wall and the projecting ends show that they were burned off. We don't parapet a little over waist high and there are no signs that know why these ends were burned because the rear ends of these beams next to the cliff show the marks of a stone axe.

The main beam is now carried on a supporting post which was put in by the original inhabitants but not, we think, at the time the house was built. This beam is charred nearly one third of the way through just above the support and it looks like some family living in the room above had carelessly let a cooking fire burn through the floor and char the beam. The weakened beam was then supported by the present prop.

The original ceiling shows in the northwest corner of the room as a small fragment, the rest having been torn out many years ago. The ceiling in this case was of small brush, probably willows, with the mud laid directly on top; no intervening grass or reeds.

The second rafter from the west end of the room has been pulled out and the present ladder runs up through the opening to the next story. Four or five rafters are missing at the east end of the room. The prop, beam and rafters are all of sycamore.

The left of the above picture is the top showing door opening onto ledge from the second floor.

The north wall is the original cliff, very much smoked, and has two small pockets at the floor line. These pockets appear to have been dug out of the fairly soft cliff with stone tools.

The east wall, which is the partition wall between B-1-2 and B-1-3, is in a fair state of preservation and its upper half is covered with finger prints in the original plaster.

The south wall in plan curves inward and its surface is well covered with finger prints.

A little to the left of the center of the south wall is a trace of a design drawn in the plaster while it was still fresh. It was about 30 inches square, extending from the floor upward, and consists of an outer border of three straight lines made probably with the first three fingers of the right hand drawn from the floor upward, across to the left and down to the floor again, all in one motion and keeping the lines as straight as possible. The three fingers were then set inside of this border and were again drawn up, across and down but this time with a wavy motion, running them back and forth latterly as they moved forward. The hand seems then to have been dipped in water and the edge of the palm used to stroke the interior of the design to as smooth a surface as the rather granular material would allow. Possible this interior square had some painted design upon it, but the wall is so blackened and so much of the finish has scaled that we may never be able to prove the paint.

The design reminds one of the altar paintings still used by the various Indians of the southwest and may indicate ceremonies in this room, though we do not wish to infer from this that it is a ceremonial room in the sense of a kiva.

A little to the right of this design, and about 6 inches above the floor, is a lookout hole.

The west wall is covered with finger prints and has a very pretty T shaped doorway untouched by restoration, leading west into B-1-4.

The floor has a trace, two feet west of the prop, of a raised ridge of clay about 2 inches high and about 6 inches wide crossing from the cliff to the front, or south, wall.

The rear half of the floor is made of the ledge but the front half is a back fill between the ledge and the front wall made of loose dirt packed up from the ground below.

Room B-1-4 has its floor raised more than a foot above that of B-1-3. This is probably due to an irregularity in the ledge where the room was built and, being unable to cut the high spot of the ledge down to grade with the other floors, they filled the low spots up with dirt thus raising the level above the floors in B-1-3 and B-1-5.

B-1-4 is roofed by two main beams of sycamore crossing from north to south, carrying three sets of sycamore rafters running from east to west. The main beams are approximately 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Their south ends are bedded through the south wall but the north ends are supported on sycamore props about 12 inches in diameter. The reason they used props is that the cliff wall on the north side of the room overhangs some and is pretty hard material; they either could not dig holes in it to bed in the beams or were afraid the weight would break away the overhanging cliff and let the beams down. The props are both planted small end down reversing the normal position. The west beam is cushioned on top of the prop, the cushion being about 1/4 inch thick and appears to be of straw or reeds.

The west beam at its north end has a notch cut around it about an inch deep. Possibly they tied a rope around in this notch so they could haul the beam up the cliff.

On top of the rafters willows were laid close together and held in position by strands of yucca woven over and under. The mud of the upper floor was laid directly on these willows.

There was a manhole in the center of the ceiling leading to the floor above but it was abandoned and closed in ancient times. The one rafter now crossing this place was inserted at that time by slipping it over the eastern beam and trying to slip it back over the western one. It proved thicker than the rafter on either side and would not go through the narrow space between the beam and the willows. They got it far enough on the main beam to bear weight and let it go at that. Willows were broken short enough to lay across the manhole and straw laid on top of them. Mud was the last layer forming the floor above.

Some attempt was made to straighten up the rough cliff wall at the rear of the room and there are traces of a rock and mud veneer north of the west prop post. In the northeast corner a seam in the cliff was wide enough to be walled up and used for storage.

The east, south and west walls are well built, covered with finger prints, and each has a T shaped doorway near its center. The whole room is much smoke blackened and appears to have been long used.

To the west side of the south doorway there were 21 small holes about the size of a lead pencil and about half an inch deep cut or bored into the plaster. We have never been able to work out a reason for them.

The floor in this room was divided into three parts by mud ridges similar to the one described in B-1-3. These ridges ran from north to south and traces of them can still be seen near the prop posts.

This is the last room in the B-1 series of the original construction. B-2-2, above it, dates from the same period and so, we think, does B-3-2 on the upper story.

Going west out of B-1-4 through the T shaped door way, we descend some two feet into B-1-5. This room is a later construction as is evidenced by the abutting of the south wall against the east wall which in places can be plainly seen on the outside surface.

We might expect some differences of construction if this were later work, nor do we have to look farther than the ceiling to find them. Four main beams of sycamore run from north to south across the room and by this time they either were not afraid or had learned how to bed the north end of the beams into the cliff, thus doing away with props. The supporting members for the floor above consist of long, slender sycamore rafters laid from east to west and covered with bunch grass pulled up by the roots. On top of the grass a layer of mud was used as a surface for the floor above. The rafters would not lie very close together and must have appeared unsightly to the builders for they put an artistic touch of interior decoration underneath them to hide them from below. This consisted of a layer of small reeds which were laid above the main beams and below the rafters. These were held in place by transverse willow wands, spaced in pairs, one above and one below the small reeds about every eight inches. Strands of yucca leaves were used as strings binding the upper willow wand to the lower one and holding the small reeds side by side like a mat, the whole arrangement forming a decorative ceiling and completely hiding the rafters. This is the only ceiling of this type in the building.

About three fourths of the north wall is a veneer of rocks and mud stuck to the cliff and the remainder is the cliff itself which projects into the room at the northwest corner.

In the east end of the north wall is a large storage cyst at the floor line, and another occurs at and below the floor line a little to the west of the center of the wall. Between these two cysts and about two feet above the floor are three series of lines cut into the plaster consisting of 8, 8 and 7 lines respectively. The lines are about three inches long and 1/4 inch deep and are well smoke-blackened.

At the northwest corner of the room the plaster breaks back about 2-1/2 feet above the floor, forming a sort of shelf or niche in the wall. We found by experience in reconstructing the front set of rooms that main beams brought through the back set of rooms were too long to go through the south door of this room unless their rear ends were backed into this niche. We think it is entirely possible that the original wall at the time of building this room had no niche. The plaster had to be knocked away at this point to get the beams out when the front section was constructed and the owner of the room then made the present shelf.

A few inches to the right of this shelf and about a foot below the overhanging cliff, a very faint design can be traced. It is about eight inches square and is quartered by a vertical and a horizontal line. The lower right quarter is then halved by a vertical line and in the right half two or three zig-zag lines run vertically. The upper left quarter is halved and in the left half are two or three vertical zig-zag lines. The whole design is very faint, is drawn in the plaster and so covered with smoke that the casual visitor never sees it.

The east, south and west walls of this room show many finger prints.

A door in the east wall connects with the room B-1-4. A door near the center of the south wall opens out on the roof of the front section of the building.

The floor is divided into three sections, the center being six or eight inches lower than the ends.

An opening at the north end of the west wall, next the cliff, leads west into room B-1-6. The overhang of the cliff is here so low as to form a natural header for the door way. The south side of the door way has been torn away by vandals years ago.

Room B-1-6 is about a foot lower than the floor of B-1-5. The room is only about five by six feet square and the overhang of the cliff is so low that the ceiling averages about four feet above the floor. The east, south and west walls show many finger prints and are blackened by smoke. The floor is the solid rock ledge. Although the room is low and small, we are of the opinion that it was used as a living room. A doorway in the east end of the south wall, restored in 1925, opens out on the roof of the front section of the building.

Room B-1-7 does not connect directly with room B-1-6. It was entered from the roof of the front section in later times and before the front section was built it was probably entered by a ladder reaching up from the ledge on which the front section now rests. It is a cave room; the rock ledge forms the floor, the overhanging cliff forms the low ceiling and the cliff behind forms the back wall and southern end. A low wall at the northern end divides it from B-1-6. The front wall contains the entrance doorway and has three look-out holes. One of these holes is near the center of the wall and about a foot below the ceiling and looks upward to the east covering the top of the cliff a little to the east of the Castle. From this room a sneaking enemy would easily be discovered should he try to crawl forward to the edge of the cliff and shoot downward into the Castle. The other two holes are close to the floor and originally looked downward to the talus at the foot of the cliff but they were rendered useless when the front section of the Castle was erected as room F-2-3 now obstructs the view.

There are traces of a storage bin in the southwest corner of the room to the right of the doorway. A doorway led to the south out of B-1-7 where the projecting ledge afforded a little outdoor space. On this ledge is a fire pit some two feet in diameter filled with the remnants of the last fire. If a ledge trail ever led farther round the cliff to the other dwellings, it has sloughed off since the abandonment.

A hatchway in the roof of the front section just in front of room B-1-6 leads one down into room F-2-3 which is a small triangular room. About half the roof, the west part, is of the ancient construction; the east half was restored in 1925. Sycamore beams run north and south. These are crossed by small willow wands which carry the mud of the roof.

We had to rebuild the lower portion of the west wall of this room in 1923. This western and southern portion of the room are filled with some four feet of dirt to bring the floor up to grade. The southern wall has a window a little to the left of the center and this, with the hatchway in the roof, lights the room very well.

The west end of the room, protected by the fragment of the old roof shows the smoked plaster and in some places the finger marks, but the east wall has lost these by long exposure to the weather.

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Last Updated: 16-Apr-2007