Lindsay Linoff (c) 1998
Just which of the conquistadors, fanning across the Southwest for gold, "initially came upon the silent villages quite likely will remain a mystery" (Hodge 8). It may have been Antonio de Espejo, who in 1853, had he followed Beaver Creek to the Verde River, would have passed Montezuma Castle. Inhabitants of Montezuma were long gone before de Espejo ever reached their home. They were the Sinagua, a name derived by scientist Dr. Harold S. Colton in the 1930's from the Spanish words sin (without) and agua (water). Scholars are uncertain about the origins of these prehistoric people. Equally compelling is the mystery why they vanished over a half century before Columbus reached the Indies (Hodge 6). However, it has been discovered that they were peaceful village dwellers, strongly established in the rites and rituals of living in the Verde Valley. Timed to the seasons and fueled by the trades and rituals, the life of the Sinagua persisted for more than three centuries. But, now, artifacts and ruins are all that remain.
Montezuma Castle is elegantly tucked into an alcove above the Verde Valley. It is about a third of the way up a 150 – foot cliff carved by Beaver Creek. Composed of mainly freshwater limestone, this formation developed between eight and ten million years ago (Lamb 2). Droughts that occurred while the limestone was forming caused evaporative salt to accumulate in some places. Millions of years later, this salt was one of the most valuable resources to the Sinagua. Montezuma Castle was built sometime between AD 1100 and 1350, and believed by archaeologists to be built by the women ("Reconstructing the Sinagua Past" 1). With 65 rooms, the cliff dwelling, which rises to five stories, was built of small limestone blocks, and roofed with sycamore logs, poles, sticks, and grass intertwined with mud. The walls were about two feet thick at the bottom and a foot thick at the top. They curved to conform to with the shape of the alcove to enhance their stability. Crisscrossed logs and bundles of reeds made up the ceilings that were six feet high. Doorways were built less than five feet high and in a T – shape to keep heat in and the draft out. Rooms were used for not only living in but also as storage, burial grounds, community gatherings, and places to sit and work.
Montezuma Well is less then six miles upstream from Montezuma Castle. Scientists theorize that the well was millions of years in the making. "Under ground water percolated upward to form a 'springmound,' a bulge of magnesium and calcium carbonate. Lens – shaped salt layers beneath the mound dissolved, creating caverns, until at last the weight of the layers of calcium carbonate, or travertine, collapsed downward through the salt lenses, and Montezuma Well yawned open" (Hodge 21). Warm spring water enters at the base of the fifty-five – foot deep well and escapes through a narrow opening in the side of a hill at a rate of 1.5 million gallons per day (Lamb 4). A thousand years ago, the Sinagua farmers diverted the water from this outlet into ditches to irrigate their crops.
"Biologically, the Verde Valley is an ecotone, or a zone of contact" (Houk, Sinagua 10). Plants from north to south meet here and intermingle. These plants were a vital part in the lives of the Sinagua people. Over generations, they learned to use every part of every plant. More than twenty-five species of plants provided medicine, dyes, baskets, roofs, as well as food. The Sinagua ground flour from seeds of buckwheat, ricegrass, and amaranth, or from dried cactus fruit, beeweed flowers, and cattail root (Lamb 5). Oils came from sunflower seeds and walnuts; nuts from pinon pines and oak trees. Fruits such as hackberry, cactus, yucca, rose, and grape could be harvested most any time of the year. "Analysis of these wild plants reveal that many are collectively very nutritious, rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C. Some contain antiseptics, analgesics, and stimulants" (Lamb 5).
The practice of farming reached the Sinagua of the Verde Valley around the eighth century, with corn being their primary crop. Through the adoption of the Hohokam irrigation system, the Sinagua Indians were able to include corn, beans, and squash into their diet. Sinagua farmers prepared small plots of land and used irrigation methods to grow and harvest their crops. Along with gathering and farming, the Sinagua also hunted. The Verde Valley had a wide range of wild game for hunting, including "deer, antelope, rabbit, bear, muskrat, turtle, and duck" (Houk 10).
The sycamore logs used in construction of Montezuma Castle do not supply reliable tree – ring dates, so archaeologists can only guess by reading pottery type (Cheek 90). The pottery of the Sinagua people was very plain and simple. Their clay pots were undecorated reddish – brown ware in many sizes, and were used mainly for cooking and storage. However, the Sinagua were fine craftsmen, building such tools as axes, knives, hammers, and manos and metates for grinding corn (Houk 10). They turned bones into awls and needles, wove garments from cotton and fashioned ornaments from shells, turquoise, and local red stone. Such ornaments were found in the burial cites of the Sinagua Indians. Nevertheless, little is known about the customs of the Sinagua Indians of Montezuma. However, they did adopt some customs from others such as the Hohokam and Anasazi. No fear of ghosts haunted the Sinagua and, in contrast to the Hohokam who cremated their dead, the Sinagua interred their corpses closeby. Infants were buried in the floor of their parents' house. Few adults lived past age 40, and when they died, their faces were stained green and blue and their heads were swathed in rush matting (Hodge 32). Cotton burial robes sometimes clothed them. Other artifacts found that help give insight into the cultural and ceremonial ways Sinagua were "prayer sticks painted blue or green and reverently placed quartz crystals. A Sinagua 'medicine bag' of prairie dog skin contained antelope hooves, a clay box with chucks of pigment, a feather bundle, plant roots, pollen, and a turtle – shell rattle" (Lamb 13). Anthropologists believe the priests of the Sinagua society tried to keep harmony between the world of human concerns and the realm of the supernatural.
The Sinagua Indians did not make many of the artifacts found at Montezuma Castle; rather they came from a complicated trading system, which came into place around AD 700. Not only did the Sinagua trade from village to village but went as far south as Mexico and the Gulf of California and as far north as the Hopi mesas a hundred miles away. Macaws, exotic shells, and pottery became valuable in their trading network. Montezuma Castle appeared to be an important trading ground, with the Sinagua at its center. The Sinagua, being "master weavers of baskets and cotton cloth 'traded for' copper, a powdery pigment called azurite and argillite, a hard red stone . . ." (Lamb 12). Goods were not the only things exchanged. A large flow of ideas contributed to the shaping of the Sinagua culture. Irrigation from the Hohokam and how to build above ground masonry was thought to be borrowed from the Anasazi helped improve the lives of the Sinagua.
In the early 1400s, the Sinagua abandoned the entire Verde Valley. Why they left is still unknown. "The mystery of their departure defies solution, since every explanation proposes simply provokes more questions" (Hodge 34). Numerous theories on why they vanished have been floating around but no one can say for sure, perhaps a conflict with the Yapavai, maybe too much pressure on the land and or a severe drought, or dissolving trade network. Could it have been "a high infant mortality rate as evidenced by the burials" (Houk, Sinagua, 14)? Despite plentiful resources, mortality to children among the Sinagua is though to be as high as 60% before they reached adulthood (Lamb 14). However, "one can conclude there was no singular reason, but a combination of causes. Whatever they were, the dislocations raise the spectre of where the survivors went, and who their descendents are" (Hodge 35). Hopi legends suggest the Sinagua may have joined them on their mesas, but no one can say for sure.
For more than 300 years, the Sinagua Indians created an intricate society very intuned with nature. Since their discoveries at Montezuma Castle, archaeologists and anthropologists have been trying to unravel the mystery of the Sinagua Indians. It is known, however, that the Sinagua culture was a blend of surrounding cultural elements, borrowed, adapted, and changed. And as a result, they developed a lifestyle distinctively their own. "Their material legacy can be found in the abundant ruins that are spread across . . . Arizona. Their cultural and spiritual legacy is carried forward by the modern Hopi. Both bear eloquent witness to the vitality and to the resilience of the Sinagua as well as to the enduring importance of the individual lives of struggle and hope that were lived so long ago" (Downum 31).