What is Montezuma Castle National Monument?

Steve R.
Steve R.
Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Montezuma Castle National Monument is a five-level pueblo with 20 rooms, located in Arizona’s Verde Valley. The cliff dwellings were constructed by the indigenous Sinagua Indians during the 1100s. For unknown reasons, the castle was abandoned during the 1400s. In the 1860s, European settlers discovered the dwellings and erroneously named the structure after the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who the settlers thought was responsible for commissioning the pueblo.

Under the Antiquities Act in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established the historical dwelling as one of America’s earliest national monuments. The National Park Service is responsible for maintaining and preserving the cave dwellings. In 1966, the pueblo was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The castle contains a natural overhang that offers shade and protection from precipitation. Inside, rooms are built in limestone alcoves. The structure also includes doorways, benches, storage areas, and hearths. No evidence exists that any other humans lived in the cliff dwellings after they were abandoned by the Sinagua Indians sometime during the 1400s. The only inhabitants of the structure are mammals and birds, including bats, rock squirrels, gray foxes, and cliff swallows.

The outer walls of Montezuma Castle National Monument are comprised of limestone rocks piled on top of each other and adhered with clay. The exterior of the walls is coated with an adobe plaster. Ceilings are reinforced with beams made from Sycamore. Crossbeams are filled with thatching made of small branches, grass, and reeds. A layer of mud covers the thatching on the floors and ceilings.

The cliff dwellings once housed artifacts of the Sinagua Indians, but were looted by visitors. Up until 1951, tourists were allowed to roam the ruins by climbing a series of ladders. However, visitors attempted to enter the national monument unsupervised and without proper equipment and the National Park Service put a stop to public visitations.

Due to erosion and the damage caused by visitors, Montezuma Castle National Monument has undergone several restorations by the National Park Service. The first major project was carried out in 1933, when the park service restored adobe plaster that was marked with fingerprints. The restoration project also included mending the damage done by a dynamite explosion caused by looters and enhancing access to the dwelling through the addition of ladders and safety railings.

In the 1990s, the National Park Service commissioned another major renovation effort. The renovations included repairing severe destruction of the original plaster caused by swarms of carpenter bees. A new layer of plaster was applied over portions of the original plaster. Due to the age of the structure, the National Park Service continually looks out for damage to Montezuma Castle National Monument so it can be preserved for years to come.

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