Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, and Tuzigoot

March 27-28, 2019

It never ceases to amaze me what “primitive” peoples could accomplish. Those men, women, and children who built and lived in Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, and Tuzigoot were masters of how to live in harmony with nature. They used the skills passed down from generation to generation and what nature provided to create not only amazing buildings but amazing cultures. Everything they needed to sustain their society – land, water, plant and animal resources, and farmland were close by. Although their world may have been small, they were far from isolated. They did have contact with and traded between other cultures.

Archaeologists named these people the Sinagua, adapted from the Spanish “la sierra sin aqua” – mountain without water. The name the people used to refer to themselves has been lost forever. The Sinagua are not a tribe or ethnic group but represent a culture area with similarities in pottery, tools, building styles, and burial practices. There are many Sinagua sites around Arizona and we visited several of them.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle

The Castle grew slowly from a single level to five levels between 1130 and the early 1400s which tells me indicated that this culture grew. When completed the Castle may have been home to 35 people. Others lived in nearby pueblos and rock shelters. The total population of the immediate area may have ranged from 150 to 200.

Why did the Sinagua build here? The contours of the south-facing cliff shaded the structures. It kept the sun out in the summer and let it in in the winter- natural cooling and heating. Building in the cliffs also left more land available for cultivation. Smart.

In addition, the “village” expanded to include Castle A and pueblos.

Castle A

When people dug into the cliff face and enlarged or modified a natural opening they created what archeologists call cavates. The castle, pueblos and cavates line the canyon wall.

Cavate (top center)

Other communities extended along the Verde River and its tributaries, supporting up to 6,000 people.

They grew corn, beans, and squash – the Three Sisters – on the lush land along the river.

The Castle was a hub for trade routes connecting the California coast and the plains of eastern New Mexico.

Then sometime around 1425 they simply walked away. It may have been prompted by disease, conflict between groups, disrupted trade networks, depleted soils, or changing weather patterns. Or- none, some, or all of the above. The same reasons people leave their homes in search of a better life today.

They may have moved, but they did not disappear. Their descendants still remain among the Hopi, Zuni, and Puebloan groups.

The museum had displays of Sinagua baskets, pottery, and jewelry that are eerily similar to that of today’s Puebloan people. The dry climate of Arizona and the shelter of the enclosed caves protected many artifacts that can be seen in the visitor centers and museums today.

Sinaguan basket (top) and Puebloan basket (bottom)

Montezuma Well

Rain that fell 10,000 years ago is now flowing into Montezuma Well. The rainwater percolated through hundreds of yards of rock until it reached a more permeable layer. From that point it flowed toward Montezuma Well. At that point an impermeable vertical layer of volcanic basalt forced the water up toward the Well. At this time 1.5 million gallons of water flows up into the Well while 1.5 million gallons flows out through a gap in the Well’s wall.

Montezuma Well

Fish don’t live in the Well but it is home to five unique species that are only found here: a miniature shrimp-like amphipod, a leech, a tiny snail, a water scorpion, and a diatom.

The Sinagua used the water flowing from the Well to irrigate their fields beginning around 900 AD. They constructed a series of lime coated ditches to channel the water to where it was needed.

Irrigation Ditch

The most of the original ditch is long gone, but a stabilized portion of the ditch follows the original path.

The Sinagua inhabited the area around the Well which makes perfect sense being how scarce water is in this area. You can still see remnants of rock shelters along the wall of the Well and several pueblos along the top of the Well.

Rock Shelters in wall of Well

Tuzigoot National Monument

This is a fascinating place where you can explore a massive 110-room pueblo. Prior to 1933 this site looked like a rubble strewn hill. That’s when two archaeologists started digging and Tuzigoot was slowly uncovered and restored.


The Sinagua began construction here sometime around 1050 AD. Additions and renovations continued until about 1380 AD. Most of the rooms had a fire hearth, which indicated that people lived in those rooms. The larger rooms may have been used as living and storage space.

View of pueblo interiors

In the above photo you can see a line of trees that follows the flow of the Verde River. The river is what made Tuzigoot an ideal place to live. By building on a hillside more farmland was available for cultivation.

Much of what we know about how the Sinagua lived comes from middens, known today as garbage dumps. Archaeologists believe the people who lived here hunted large and small game with obsidian-tipped arrows. They grew corn, cotton, squash, and beans. They also cultivated agave and prickly pear for food and fibers. Bodies buried here offered clues to their customs and rituals. Items buried with the dead hinted at the person’s social status and skills.

Enough sherds of pottery were found to reconstruct some Sinaguan wares.

Tuzigoot pottery

The Sinaguans were also skilled weavers. It might surprise you to learn that men, not women, wove the cloth. In the photo below you can see yucca fiber sandals (left), a girl’s skirt (top), tie-dye textile (middle), and a belt or strap (bottom).

Sinaguan clothing

It seems to me that, while life at Tuzigoot may have been hard, it was an ideal place to live. The Sinagua had everything they needed to thrive.


This entry was posted in History, Museums, National Park and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s