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The great abandonment Montezuma Castle

The traveler's notebook: stories about people & Places
By Faelan Maley

The summer I visited Montezuma Castle came from an impulsive curiosity to learn more about the world history of agriculture and how we get our food. While that may not sound too exciting, where there is food, there is culture! Regardless of why I'm traveling, I always carve out opportunities to explore - both past and present. I've shared more of these experiences in a series of visual stories called The Traveler's Notebook.

The people next door

Birdseye view of the region where the Sinagua, Anasazi and the Hohokam cultures thrived about 600 years ago. Maps created in Google Earth.

Located in Camp Verde, Arizona, these ancient cliff dwellings were once an integral part of life and basic survival for the Southern Sinagua, a pre-Columbian culture. The structure is estimated to have built between AD 1100 and AD 1350 by the Sinagua women.

The name Sinaqua translates to “without water"

The main dwelling, is a five-story stone structure with twenty rooms. Housing about 35 to 50 people - this would become part of a larger settlement that developed between AD 600 to AD 1100. Around AD 650 agriculture and pottery were are on the rise.

Archive photo: Rooms were not only used as living quarters, but also as storage, burial grounds, gatherings, and for working.
Map by NPS.gov: Floor Plan of Montezuma Castle
Most of the artifacts found within these pueblo ruins were excavated in 1933 from "Castle A" nearby Montezuma Castle. Extensive looting and degradation of the Montezuma site caused the ladders to be removed.

Sitting about 90 feet up a limestone cliff and adjacent to Beaver Creek, this alcove protected the building from exposure to harsh environmental elements. Built of limestone, roofed with sycamore logs and grass mixed with mud, it still holds 600 years after abandonment.

All by design, it gave the Sinaqua resources for WIld food, medicine, shelter and farming
Top: The diorama replaced tours and ladders to the ruins, it showed what the rooms would have looked like. Bottom left: Arizona Sycamore: the roof of Montezuma Castle is still supported by sycamore beams today. Bottom right: Some alcoves may have been used for temporary shelter and other cavats for storage.
Beaver Creek today
They were a hunter-gatherer society
V-BAR-V Site Petroglyphs

Life was sustained by hunting wild animals attracted to the creek and practicing subsistence agriculture. These subsistence strategies included techniques to help them collect water in dry times and plant crops in difficult terrain. This created an abundant harvest of wild plants for edible and medicinal uses.

These mesquite bosques (Spanish for “small forests”) provided critical resources. Top row: Velvet Mesquite Center row: Oneseed Juniper Bottom row: Western Soapberry and Netleaf Hackberry

Velvet Mesquite - Pea family: The seeds and pods became ground meal and protein. Tree sap was used for resin, candy and glue. Medicinally it could be used treat eye and skin ailments.

Oneseed Juniper - Cypress family : This was the power plant- it could provided fuel, light, shelter and healing. It's wood was sturdy enough for roof beams or fences. Boiled branches gave relief from stomach ailments. The berries were used to treat pneumonia or using many berries-a laxative.

Western Soapberry -Soapberry family : The translucent yellow fruit was prepared as soap for bathing and laundry. The fruit can be harmful if ingested and may irritate skin if not prepared properly. The leaves and stems were used as infusions to treat coughs, fever and arthritis pain.

Netleaf Hackberry -Elm family : In the fall this plant produces high-calcium berries that would be eaten raw or as in jelly. The leaves were used for indigestion, the bark would have been woven into sandals. Leaves and bark made a dark dye.

Food was not a commodity
archive image: Decorative Pottery and Plain Ware

Instead, through a complex barter system, the Sinagua, traded woven baskets, clay pottery, and cotton woven cloth in return for macaws, copper, marine shells, salts, and rare pigments. Eventually they began using the Verde River as a travel corridor to the north and south. They connected with the Anasazi and the Hohokam respectively, creating a network of large communities, until shortly after AD 1300 , when the area had reached its maximum capacity for the indigenous populations. Trading created a thriving economy and community, but less than a century later, the Sinagua mysteriously vanished.

The mystery became known as The Great Abandonment

The decline of prehistoric cultures had begun. While the fate of the Sinagua people is unknown, evidence points to the Sinagua migrating to join the Hopi Mesas. Others believe they stayed and although they sometimes clashed with the Yavapai-Apache nearby, may have intermarried - returning to their hunter/gatherer roots.

All images and art (except where noted) by Backpack Films. Shot on Google Pixel XL and Olympus TG4. Created with Adobe Spark.

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Faelan Maley
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