By Susan Johnson
Modern builders and architects could learn more than a few valuable lessons from the Sinagua Indians who lived in the Verde Valley and built Montezuma Castle sometime between A.D. 1100 and 1400.
The site chosen by the tribe for this small vertical five-story-high village is brilliant, tucked within a large concave curve of limestone.
Considered the best preserved cliff dwelling in America, its interior rooms are warmed by the sun in the mornings and shaded by large horizontal and vertical outcroppings in the afternoons, the secluded location providing housing for about 150 people.
Established as a national monument in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, there are two distinct sections to the castle.
One side is nearly intact, formerly the home of approximately three dozen people.
The other side is a ruin, most of its interior and exterior walls and supporting timbers lost to a prehistoric fire destroying the section where it’s estimated 100 people once lived.
In addition, it’s possible to see the many small cavate niches where the tribe stored food and which provided simple shelter for some of its members.
The lowest floors of the castle are high off the ground, a safety precaution against annual flooding.
If there had been a need to defend the prehistoric high-rise, its vertical walls would have made it easy to do that as well, although no implements of warfare have been found on the site.
Accessed by tall ladders set on ground level, the first floor had additional ladders leading up to the next story and then to the next, some set outdoors and some indoors.
Exterior walkways and balconies allowed plenty of room for milling flour outside and for curing meat or cooking meals and for getting from one section of the castle to the next.
At the very top of the preserved section is the largest room, 33 feet deep, perhaps used as a social or ceremonial room according to Park Ranger Josh Boles who said no evidence of a kiva has been found.
The inside rooms of the castle have been closed to the public since 1953, but a video in the visitors’ center offers a modern virtual tour of its interior and a vintage narrated diorama from 1951 shows a cutaway model version of how the village may have looked in the year 1100.
Situated next to perennial Wet Beaver Creek, there was always a source of water and it was near enough to Tuzigoot and Montezuma Well for trading and other communal activities.
Boles estimates the castle’s villagers needed half a day or less to get to Tuzigoot, walking at a pace of five miles an hour, unburdened by water vessels since there would be water at their destination.
Today, a perfect view of the castle is accessed by a paved one-third mile looped pathway.
Passing beneath enormous sycamore trees and picturesque hackberry trees, the path gives visitors a close look at the difference between two types of plants — one type on the arid uphill side and the other type in the flood plain near the creek.
Well-shaded by trees in summer, the area also has seating for interpretive talks and special events.
In addition, there’s a lovely tree-shaded picnic area quite near the creek, a perfect spot to listen to rushing water and to enjoy the sweet scent of sycamore leaves.
Home to dozens of species of birds, the creek-side location is ideal for birdwatchers.
On a recent day, volunteer naturalist John Moore pointed out red-tailed hawks, swifts, swallows, rock wrens, woodpeckers, bridled titmice, flickers, sapsuckers, ravens and sharp-shinned hawks.
There are also displays and artifacts inside the visitor center which has a well-stocked bookstore offering many books, videos, pop-up children’s books, music CDs and gift items.
For those who want added excitement during their visit, the monument is home to many bats and rattlesnakes.
While visitors are on their own for spotting flying mammals, the numerous rattlers are part of a long-term study and on any given summer day, it’s usually possible to ask one of the rangers for a discreet look at a black-tailed or western diamondback.
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