on-line book icon

table of contents

National Monument
NPS logo

Woven black-and-white cotton bag
Woven black-and-white cotton bag.

Sinagua Pueblo Life

The pre-Columbian Indians of the Southwest (northern Mexico to southern Utah and Colorado; eastern New Mexico to western Arizona) were, in general, settled and apparently peaceful farming peoples living in villages. The agricultural staples—corn, squash, and beans—were supplemented by gathering wild plants and hunting game. The main hunting weapon was the bow and arrow. Weapons and tools were made of various kinds of stone, animal bones, and wood. Pottery and basketry were used for utensils or containers.

Clothing included garments woven from cultivated cotton and a variety of bands, sandals, and other apparel made from yucca and other wild plants; animal skins also were utilized. Ornaments and ceremonial paraphernalia were made from such materials as turquoise, animal bones, imported sea shells, and brightly colored bird feathers.

Implements and utensils found in the houses of these people include such objects as stone metates and manos for grinding corn, hammers, knives, drills, bone awls and needles, baskets, and many ornaments of shell and turquoise, often carved in bird and animal forms.

Items missing from the pre-Spanish Indian culture include metals, livestock, wheeled vehicles, and writing.

Montezuma Well
Montezuma Well showing collapsed ruin on opposite rim.

Life in the Sinagua pueblos of the Verde, though lacking the variety found in a modern city, had more of natural beauty and simplicity. Like any other people, the Sinagua would not have selected this spot for their homes if the necessities of their everyday life had not been present. In this region, their needs were filled by a good water supply, bottomlands for farming, wild berries and edible shrubs, game for meat, and materials for buildings, pottery, and tools.

In addition, they had one thing which most Indians in Arizona had to travel great distances to obtain—a large deposit of salt. This they mined a few miles southwest of present-day Camp Verde where their collapsed tunnels can be traced even today. Occasionally the handle of a stone pick may still be seen projecting from a collapsed tunnel. Many bits of matting and unburned torches that the Indians apparently used for lighting their tunnels have been recovered. In 1928 several well-preserved Indian bodies were removed from one of these mines where they had been trapped when one of the tunnels caved in.

The Sinagua also were fortunate in having a deposit of a red rock called argillite not too far away. From this material they fashioned stone pendants, beads, earrings, and other ornaments with which they adorned themselves.

To satisfy their vanity further, the Indians imported luxuries not available in this area. Bracelets, pendants, beads, rings, and inlay made from shell were acquired by trade with tribes to the south who obtained the shell from the Gulf of California. The Sinagua also bartered for turquoise pendants, earrings, beads, and inlay pieces from other groups. Probably their greatest trade was in pottery. These Sinagua Indians rarely decorated their pottery, and judging by the quantity of painted pieces recovered from their sites, they engaged in lively trade for the wares of their northeastern neighbors. One might say that they imported their "china" in quantity.

Through a study of this pottery we find that from about 1150 to 1250, decorated pieces were obtained from the Indians in the north, near modern Flagstaff. Some of this pottery the Sinagua retraded to the Hohokam around present-day Phoenix. (How many of us today would be successful in taking dishes over a distance of 200 miles on foot without breaking a goodly portion?) After 1250, due to depopulation east of the Flagstaff area, the people of the Verde Valley obtained decorated pottery from the region farther east, around modern Winslow; and also, farther north, from the present Hopi Indian reservation area.

The trade possibilities of the Sinagua were almost unlimited. They were located between the large Hohokam settlements of southern Arizona and the widespread pueblos of northern Arizona. Natural routes of travel along streams led them into both areas, and they had salt, argillite, and cotton to offer in exchange.

Montezuma Castle artifacts including piece of gourd with carved handle, squash, cotton boles, spindle, and corn.

Despite the importance of trade, which was primarily for luxury items, the Sinagua Indians were basically farmers and depended mainly on food they raised themselves. In Montezuma Castle, American pioneers found corncobs in abundance and sometimes the remains of beans and squash. There were also numerous corn-grinding stones or metates, made from basaltic boulders carried into the area by flood waters in Beaver Creek. Roughly rectangular, the stones measure about 14 by 18 inches, and are 6 to 8 inches thick. Corn was ground by rubbing a smaller stone (mano) back and forth on the metate. This process gradually wore a trough down into the metate.

Jars, metates and manos, and fireplace as found in excavated ruin at cliff base west of Montezuma Castle.

The people also were gatherers and hunters to some extent. Remains of hackberries, mesquite beans, black walnuts, and sego-lily bulbs have been found in the cliff dwellings. Mescal or agave (sometimes called century plant) was used. Small wads or "quids" of fiber from this plant have been found; they were chewed by the Indians to extract the sweet juices.

Although identifiable animal bones from Montezuma Castle and nearby dwellings are rare, they have been found in other pueblos in the valley. From a site about 10 miles away, bones of elk, mule deer, antelope, bear, rabbit, turtle, and fish have been recovered.

Some food for winter use must have been held in storage. Probably the Castle dwellers, like the modern Hopis, stacked mature corn on the cob across the end of a room like cordwood. Strings of squash, cut into rings and dried in the sun, were probably strung from the roof in an out-of-the-way corner. Meat was undoubtedly preserved in a similar fashion—by drying rather than smoking or salting it. Perhaps the stores of food and the seed held for the next spring's planting were sought by neighboring pueblos where crops may have failed. As pointed out earlier, food shortages could have provided one of the principal reasons for intervillage warfare, especially after 1300 when the area became overcrowded.

Cooking fires were kindled by the friction of a wooden spindle rotated in a hearth stick until enough heat was generated to ignite tinder. Perhaps some family in Montezuma Castle was responsible for maintaining a perpetual fire from which embers could be carried to other households. This is not so strange when we recall that only 100 years ago pioneer neighbors sometimes called on each other to borrow a coal of fire.

These Sinagua Indians were artisans who manufactured pottery, and stone and shell ornaments. Their pottery was a reddish-brown ware (so colored from minerals in the native clay) and it was usually undecorated, though sometimes painted red. Sand was used as a tempering or binding agent. They made pottery bowls, cooking pots, and water jars—some of the latter of 3- or 4-gallon capacity. In refuse dumps near the dwellings, archeologists have found quantities of broken pottery—it is principally through a study of these dumps that the chronology of Indian occupation in this area is revealed.

Pottery was made from clay found in the region. After the clay was pulverized, the correct amounts of water and tempering materials were added. There were no potter's wheels, so the vessels were shaped by hand. The Sinagua accomplished this with the aid of a stone "anvil" held inside the pot and a wooden paddle used against the outside. Finishing was usually done by rubbing the surface perfectly smooth with a polishing stone or pebble dipped in water. Although some Indian pottery has a high polish, none of it carries a true, over-all glaze.

Modern Indians, in firing their pottery, usually burn animal dung for fuel, but the pre-Columbian Indians used vegetable material, possibly juniper wood. Several pieces of pottery might be stacked together so that all would be evenly exposed to the heat of the fire. Large pieces of broken pottery were used to protect the new pieces from direct contact with the flames. The firing process required several hours, with time allowed for the pottery to cool slowly.

Stone and shell ornaments are examples of other crafts, and some beautiful specimens have been found. The shells came from the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of California and are believed to have been imported through trade with neighboring tribes. Prehistoric trade routes, over which specific types of shells were distributed, extended from the Gulfs of Mexico and California to north-central New Mexico and from the Pacific Ocean to southern Utah.

Bird-shaped ornament of turquoise mosaic on seashell.

The shell was worked in various ways. The tips were ground from olivella shells which were then strung on sinew and worn as beads. Larger shells were sometimes covered with a mosaic of turquoise and colored stones. The turquoise was mined with stone tools, and by the time it was removed from its matrix, cut, and polished, it represented a considerable investment of labor. Argillite found in the Verde River region was also mined. Lac, an insect secretion found on creosote bushes, was sometimes used to cement the turquoise and argillite to the shell base.

The Sinagua also excelled in the art of weaving. They wove sandals, baskets, mats, and cotton fabrics. Some of the latter exhibit lace-like open work while other pieces are tightly woven resembling modern canvas. Cotton was raised here, near the fields of corn, and woven by the Sinagua into the finished articles. A few cotton bolls with lint and seeds have been found in the dwellings.

Pre-Columbian weaving with openwork design.

Instead of spinning wheels, the Indians used a wooden spindle about the thickness of a lead pencil and perhaps 18 inches long. About 5 or 6 inches from one end there was a disc- or sphere-shaped counter-weight made from a piece of wood or pottery. Corded cotton was spun into yarn by feeding it onto the end of the spindle as it was twirled between the thumb and fingers, or, between the hand and the thigh as the spinner sat on the ground.

Among the modern Indians of the Southwest, the most and the best weaving is done by the Navajo, an Apache people who learned weaving only a few hundred years ago from the Pueblos. Modern Navajo weaving is done by the women. Weaving among modern Pueblos, notably the Hopi, is done by men; and ancient weaving of pre-Spanish Pueblos may have been men's work also.

Most weaving required the use of a loom, a rectangular vertical framework somewhat larger than the size of the finished product. Proper tension on vertical (warp) threads was maintained by lashing at the ends of the loom. Black and white patterns were known, and some red was used. The museum at Montezuma Castle exhibits some of the finest examples of prehistoric Pueblo Indian weaving.

The Sinagua Indians in the Verde Valley apparently had no formal cemeteries. Children were often buried near the dwellings or under the floor. We learn from modern Pueblo Indians that some prefer to bury a child near the home. This comes from the belief that the child's spirit will remain until the death of the mother and can then be guided safely to the hereafter; or, that it will return in the person of the next baby to be born in the family. Occasional child burials were found in wall cavities in the pueblo ruin at Tuzigoot National Monument. Tuzigoot is a few miles northwest of Montezuma Castle and was occupied during the same general period.

The photo in the original handbook pictured human remains. Out of respect to the descendants of the people who lived at Montezuma Castle, the depiction of human remains and funerary objects will not be displayed in the online edition.
Child burial in floor of third-story room in Montezuma Castle.

Adults were buried in the refuse dump near a settlement, or placed in a cavity or under a ledge along the base of a cliff. Most bodies were buried at full length, lying on the back, and were generally accompanied by offerings or grave gifts. Pioneers reported several burials beneath floors in Montezuma Castle, and one additional burial was located in 1939. It contained the remains of a child about 5 years old, which had been wrapped first in a cotton blanket and then in a yucca leaf mat. The child had been buried in the corner of a room about 2 feet below the floor level. Some rooms in Montezuma Castle were built directly above others; therefore, no floor burials were possible in these upper rooms. This might explain why one shallow grave was found on a narrow ledge at the base of the building. The mummified remains of a 2-year-old child from this grave can now be seen in the museum.

The undercut graves dug into soft bedrock at Montezuma Well constitute one of the unusual features of that area. Sometimes similar individual burials are found in other Indian ruins. In contrast to most sites, including others in the Verde Valley, there is at the Well a fairly definite cemetery—an area in which these peculiar graves are concentrated.

Now, let us turn from the general story of customs and way of life to a detailed description of the Castle and the Well.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Jan 1 2001 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home