"The Sinagua were a pre-Columbian cultural group that occupied a large area in central Arizona from the Little Colorado River (near Flagstaff) to the Salt River (near Phoenix), including the Verde Valley and significant portions of the Mogollon Rim country, between approximately 500 AD and 1425 AD. Early Sinagua sites consist mostly of pit houses, similar to the ones built by the Hohokam people of southern Arizona. Later structures more closely resemble the pueblo architecture practiced by other contemporaneous cultural groups occupying the southwestern United States. The Sinagua economy was based on a combination of hunter-gatherer foraging and subsistence agriculture. The last known evidence of Sinagua occupation for any site comes from Montezuma Castle, around 1425 AD. Like other pre-Columbian cultures in the southwest, the Sinagua apparently abandoned their permanent settlements around this time, though the precise reasons for such a large-scale abandonment are not yet known; resource depletion, drought, and clashes with the newly arrived Yavapai people have been suggested. Several modern Hopi clans trace their ancestry to immigrants from the Sinagua culture, whom they believe left the Verde Valley for religious reasons."
We prepared for today by visiting the Verde Valley Archaeology Center yesterday. It is located in historic downtown Camp Verde. Despite a statue at its front door that is misleadingly touristy and curiously completely unrelated to the theme and seriousness of the archaeology center --
-- we were amazed at the exhibits inside:
The center states that is mission is is "to preserve archaeological sites and collections, to curate the collections locally, and to make them available for research and education; to develop partnerships with American Indians, cultural groups and the communities it serves; and to foster a deeper understanding of prehistory and American Indian history in the Verde Valley through the science of archaeology."
The center supports serious archaeological research in the Verde Valley and exhibits artifacts from the various sites that it sponsors. This map, displayed by the National Park Service at some local sites, displays the known locations of Sinagua pueblo ruins in the valley:
Some of the most dramatic artifacts on exhibit come from the Paul Dyck Rockshelter Collection. Paul Dyck was a famous Southwestern artist who purchased a ranch in the Rimrock area near the Montezuma Castle National Monument north of Camp Verde. In the late 1950s, he became concerned that the rockshelter on his property would be pot hunted due to development in the Rimrock area. The Dyck rockshelter excavations proved to be so interesting and the deposits so extensive that archaeologists conducted excavations over the course of seven seasons from 1962 to 1972. These excavations recovered thousands of artifacts. These are some of the most important investigations ever undertaken at an archaeological site in the Verde Valley because of the abundance of well-preserved perishable materials recovered through systematic excavations by professional archaeologists. The textiles and wooden artifacts that were collected rival and in many cases exceed those found in only a few other sites in the region.
To us, the most spectacular artifacts were woven cloth that was preserved in part due to the dry climate locally, and in part due to the way the scraps happened to have been incorporated into clay or mortar as a means of strengthening adobe structures. The clay incidentally kept all air from the cloth and prevented it from decaying. Here are two woven items that we thought were particularly striking:
Having armed ourselves with a little knowledge about the Sinagua people, we drove over to Montezuma Castle National Monument, which is one of the best preserved pueblo structures in the American Southwest. Situated 100 feet above the valley floor, it features five stories of structures built into the walls of the limestone cliffs:
Although the structures had been accessible to visitors before 1951, the NPS in that year prohibited access by tourists and built a scale model of the structure which helps visitors see what is inside.
The pueblo community lies along Beaver Creek, which flows southward toward the Verde River, and from which the Native Americans drew their water and watered the agricultural crops they harvested on the valley floor:
Upstream of Montezuma's Castle is a natural feature that is nearly incomprehensible: Montezuma's well. It is a depression in the limestone or travertine in which water springs up naturally from deep in the earth.
High above the water, on the walls of the depression, the Sinagua built pueblo style dwellings, some of which still remain and can be seen from the rim of the depression:
Don't be deceived by the bucolic look of this spring. The NPS reports that high levels of arsenic naturally occur in this water, which might be the reason that the Sinagua reportedly had stories that a deadly dragon lived in the lake; this would be an effective way to discourage children from drinking the water, which, over a few generations, the native peoples probably discovered would be so deadly. Nevertheless, it obviously was used for agriculture - safely or not, we cannot say.
At a certain level, the water finds a crack in the travertine walls and flows out and down to Wet Beaver Creek. During the Sinaguan occupation, the Native Americans built up to seven miles of canals to divert part of the water from Montezuma's Well to support their agriculture in the valley. The NPS provides a trial and steps down to the outflow of the spring, and we walked down to explore:
Here, Kathy is demonstrating how steep the stone steps were:
Once down the steps, we followed a path, probably in the footsteps of the Sinagua, through mesquite trees which have grown into a bower over the path:
At the far end of the path, at the outflow, is a remarkable set of "swallet rooms" or residences built into cave-like depressions in the walls around the lake formed by the spring. A "swallet" is a sinkhole or depression in which water sits, or a cave through which water runs. This is a precise description of Montezuma's Well. Here are two of the best-preserved swallet rooms - the one on the left inside the stonework through the door, and the one on the right formed mainly by the cave, which would have had a front rock wall near where we were standing:
Unfortunately, attitudes toward cultural and archaeological preservation haven't always been what they are today, and right over the rooms we saw graffiti advertising the names of photographers who could sell you photos of these ruins. This particular "advertisement" was dated 1878:
The path around Montezuma's Well also led us to the place on the other side of the hill where the water flowed out and had been intercepted by the early inhabitants' canals before reaching Wet Beaver Creek. Here, Kathy is inspecting one section of what remains of the original irrigation canals:
We followed the trail back around to our truck, and then drove down to a picnic area which featured a scenic nature trail that led over to the stream:
The stream burbled along merrily through a wetland, and in our short half-mile hike, we spotted tracks of javelinas (wild pigs), some cat-like animal, and even what looked like the tracks of a coatimundi or ringtail, all transacting business in the wet, sandy area next to the stream:
Why, we even spotted a red-tailed hawk who, drawn by our conversation, circled us to see if we had, or could rustle up, anything he might find tasty:
Even today, the wildlife seems plentiful in the Verde Valley. We can't imagine how prolific the area was for hunters and gatherers when only 5,000-8,000 people lived in the valley during the Sinaguas' time. We can, however, appreciate why the Sinagua settled here and revered this area. It is truly a "Green Valley."