The Ancient Cities of Arizona

Part 2 of Northern Arizona

Arizona’s ancient cities and Cliff dwellings are so Mysterious, fascinating, seemingly so foreign – yet so American. They are the home of the first Americans who built a sophisticated and secure culture.

South of Flagstaff are some of the most impressive cliff dwellings in the American southwest. These historical registers teach us of ancient times, of people who were farming here long before Europeans took to the seas.

Some of these dwellings are very remote, located far off today’s beaten track. A few, however, are much easier to visit. The place we call Montezuma’s Castle, and nearby Tuzigoot, are both just off the freeway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. It’s not so remote, but fascinating nonetheless.

Montezuma’s Castle

Montezuma’s Castle was given that name by early white settlers. As far as we know, Montezuma never set foot in Arizona, and the Aztecs never lived there. The dwelling was the home of Sinagua people who lived here from about 1100 AD to around 1425 AD. This is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America. It’s a five story building built about 50 feet up from the base of a high limestone cliff.

We don’t know much about these early Americans. Even their names are our creation, not theirs – Sinagua is Spanish for ‘without water’. What little information we have about them is teased out of the history seen in the rocks and found on the floors and walls of the cliff houses. We have a lot of conclusions and inferences drawn from observations. These may or may not be right – they are subject to revision.

We do believe that the Sinagua were cautious people, living in well-protected homes built in cliff faces and on mountain tops. Getting to and from work was a major chore. They had to climb down a precariously placed ladder and climb down just to get water, or to hunt, or work their fields. They were farmers whose main crop was corn but they also grew squash and beans, as well as cotton for cloth.

They sun-dried their vegetables to preserve them. Some were stone-ground, using a metate. Seeds were parched in hot coals and ground into meal. Pine nuts were ground into a paste. Corn was ground to make corn meal. these foods were stored in large pits, often sealed in baskets or pottery, the remains of which we can still find.

Sinagua artifacts show they were gifted craftsmen who created tools and ornamental items. They were master weavers who fashioned intricate designs with the cotton they had grown. Many of the items recovered at the site were made of materials that were not native to the area, which indicates there was active trading going on with distant towns.

The. Sinagua people were here at least 300 years, but then, seem to have vanished. Some people think maybe there was a long and deadly drought, or perhaps a brutal war that caused these cliff dwellers to abandon their mountain homes and scatter to unknown territory. Perhaps they are the forebears of the pueblo communities that are still found in the southwest. We just don’t know.

That’s all part of the mystery of the southwest and these glorious cliff dwellings.

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