on-line book icon

table of contents

National Monument
NPS logo

Montezuma Castle
A doorway in Montezuma Castle.

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in America. About 600 years ago, it was an apartment house occupied by perhaps 45 or 50 individuals.

The Castle might be called a 5-story structure, though there is no place where 5 stories have been built directly above each other. It is actually a 4-story building of 17 rooms, plus a "basement" of 2 store-rooms. The building was fitted into the ledges of the natural cave in such a way that it appears terraced. There are 2 rooms in the first story, 4 in the second, 8 in the third, 3 in the fourth, and 2 in the fifth.

The Indians had 2 trails that led to the Castle: 1 leading up from the creek bottom and the other coming in along the face of the cliff to the top of the first ledge. Overlooking the point where the upper and lower trails join are 2 smoke-blackened cave rooms which are too small to be dwellings. Perhaps these held sentries to guard the trails at night.

Montezuma Castle
Smoke-blackened ceiling in Montezuma Castle.

Geologists believe the cliff has changed but little since the Indian occupation. If so, the Indians must have used ladders to make numerous trips to their dwellings each day. In addition, ladders had to be employed in the building to go from one floor to another. No original Indian ladders are known to have been found at Montezuma Castle. Ladders found at other Indian dwellings, however, indicate that two types were known—single logs with notches cut into them, and a type made by lashing rungs across upright poles.

The walls of Montezuma Castle are formed from rough chunks of limestone laid in mud mortar which was probably made from pockets of clay found in the vicinity. After the clay was pulverized and mixed with river sand and water, it made an excellent mortar. The walls average about 12 inches thick throughout the building and are curved to conform to the arc of the cave in which the Castle rests.

Walls were constructed on the very edge of the ledges with enough earth fill behind to provide level floor space. Since most of the building material had to be carried up from the base of the cliff, the individual building stones were rather small, usually no larger than two bricks. The walls were covered with mud plaster, both inside and out. Most of this has weathered away on the outside, but the plaster is well-preserved inside. In some places, finger marks of the original builders may still be seen.

Montezuma Castle
Vertical cross section of Montezuma Castle.
(click on image for larger size)

Rooms have an average of about 100 square feet of floor space. The smallest room is in the second story with 37.5 square feet of floor space, and the largest is in the fifth story with 240 square feet.

What is now the fifth story is in the deepest part of the cave and apparently was the first part of the Castle to be constructed. At this point the cave extends in from the face of the cliff for 33 feet. Solid rock forms the roof and back wall of the room while the ends and outside wall are of masonry construction. This room is almost too large to have been a dwelling because it would be hard to heat in winter, but it might have been intended for joint occupancy by 2 or 3 families—perhaps while other, smaller rooms were being built.

Montezuma Castle
Floor plan of Montezuma Castle.
(click on image for larger size)

The Castle was constructed by people who had no metal tools of any kind. Their picks were pointed stones about as long as an adult's hand, and their stone axes were about the same size. A shallow groove was ground three-fourths of the way around these implements; then a short stick handle was bent in a J-shape and lashed on over the groove.

Some of the roof timbers still bear chopping marks. With each stroke of the ax the Indian made little progress, and cutting a large timber must have consumed considerable rime. Some logs are about 1 foot in diameter and up to 10 feet in length. Ropes were probably used to pull the timbers into place since fragments of fiber ropes have been found in the excavations. Without pulleys, great physical effort must have been required to lift the logs into the cave.

Resting on the main rooftimbers and laid at right angles was a covering of poles and over this a layer of coarse grass or willows. On top was placed a layer of mud 3 or 4 inches thick. Most of the original mud floors have been worn our by early visitors.

When the weather was cold, the Indians could safely build their fires indoors on the floors. However, they sometimes used one spot for too many years and wore a hole through the mud floor. The fire would then find its way through to the willows or grass underneath, and there it could smolder for hours without being discovered because the odor of smoke was common within the building. There are several places in the building where fires of this type occurred.

Pioneer visitors supposed that a group of pigmies constructed the Castle because the doors are so small. This is not the case. Studies of the skeletal remains show that the men averaged about 5 feet 4 inches in height. Like many modern Pueblo Indians, they were short but not abnormally small. Doors throughout the building are low for at least two good reasons: they helped keep out the cold, and they would also force any attacker to put his head through first or to back through, which would make it possible for even a woman to defend her home.

There were scarcely any openings in the building to supply light and fresh air—only a few close to the floor level. The Indians had no chairs or tables; like about half of the world's population today, they lived on the floor. Probably most of the cooking was done outside on balconies and rooftops, but when weather was cold, fires were built inside in open pits on the floor. There was no chimney or smoke vent, so smoke drifted out the door. Much of it stayed in the rooms, which accounts for the smoke-blackened condition of the walls and ceilings.

There is now no soot on the ceiling of the largest fifth-story room. Presumably it was very black at one time, but the large numbers of bats which cling there in the warm months have probably rubbed the soot off through years of continuous use. They have long occupied the room, for pioneers found 4 feet of droppings covering the floor.

An interesting feature of this room is what appears to have been a shelf. Timbers projecting from the walls were covered with a layer of poles and sticks and over this a layer of mud.

On the wall of another room is an interesting pictograph incised in the mud plaster. This roughly rectangular figure measures about 6 by 8 inches, and is laid off into 4 sections by lines that intersect at the center. In the upper left quarter and the lower right quarter are vertical wavy lines that suggest water.

Sixty yards west of Montezuma Castle, on a lower ledge, was a cluster of 6 or 8 rooms. The walls have all collapsed and only a few traces of foundation and fallen building stones indicate the location of these homes.

artifacts found in excavated ruin
Metates and manos, and burned ceiling beams as found in excavated ruin at cliff base west of Montezuma Castle.

The next settlement down the creek west of the Castle was once a 6-story building with perhaps 40 rooms. This was not a cliff dwelling, but a structure built against the base of the cliff. The roofs were burned and all the walls collapsed, leaving only a great heap of rubble. Evidently part of the building was abandoned long before it burned, for archeologists found that charred roof timbers had fallen on some floors already covered with drifted sand and dust. This ruin was excavated in 1933-34 under the direction of Archeologist Earl Jackson. Many artifacts were brought to light and are now exhibited in the museum. These are of the same type as those found in the Castle, and both places must have been occupied at the same time. Probably no more than 300 Indians lived in the neighborhood of the Castle at any one time—somewhat more than the maximum population at Montezuma Well.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Mon, Jan 1 2001 10:00:00 pm PDT

ParkNet Home