Joseph Munk who wrote “Arizona Sketches” in 1905 thought that Montezuma’s Castle was built by a superior race of white people who had existed in a previous era and were worshipped by the natives like gods.

The willing husband and the children on a forced march up to the cliff dwellings.

Who are these people who have innately adventurous children who will carry backpacks for dozens of miles over long distance trails with a sense of adventure and enthusiasm without whining?  Not only did I not give birth to those children, but mine are extremely proficient at finding ways to sabotage even the easiest of outings by doing things like refusing to eat lunch then going into a cranky hypoglycemic stupor during a hike — and still refusing to eat!  My only explanation is that I must have been a sadistic child abuser in a past life and the universe has saddled me with a couple of smartypants whose life mission is to undermine my fun.  But I keep trying.


My teenager is ahead of me back at the car after our hike, waiting for me to come off the trail, and already on his iPhone.

Over Winter Break I enlisted my family in my ongoing quest to understand the lives of The Old Ones, the natives of the American Southwest.  After all, my children are Mexican and my husband married one.  We can consider all Uto-Aztecan North American people members of our family heritage.  Due to the limitations of the afore mentioned children’s patience and physical abilities I planned a trip to Arizona that would be a combination of visits to national monuments and unpreserved sites that we could find “in the wild,” all within a short drive of one another, and reasonably close to Denny’s for dinner.

Montezuma’s Castle

As a person who has spent a significant amount of time exploring unpreserved prehistoric pueblos tucked into remote Arizona cliffs (see these adventures Sycamore, Devils, Cooper, Pueblo to name a few), I must confess an impatience with the sites that have been reconstructed by the park service and enhanced with sidewalks and gift shops such as Tuzigoot and Montezuma’s Castle National Monuments.  While I feel strongly that such places play an important role in public education about prehistoric American culture, I am personally bored by them.  They aren’t in any kind of original state and in the case of Montezuma’s Castle you aren’t even allowed to go near it.  The whole experience has been packaged and whitewashed to such a degree that visiting them leaves me cold.  What I do enjoy, however, is bookending explorations of ruins I find in the wilderness with visits to similar sites that have been preserved as national monuments. At the parks I can usually have my questions answered by experienced park rangers and purchase relevant books that I won’t find in regular consumer bookstores.


I will only give you the broad strokes about Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot because they are well trodden ground that you can look up anywhere on the internet, but it is important to explain a little because our explorations of a lesser known major settlement that has been untamed by the parks (which I will show you in a minute) was built by the same people. Joseph Munk who wrote “Arizona Sketches” in 1905 thought that Montezuma’s Castle was built by a superior race of white people who had existed in a previous era, (prior to Spanish contact with North America in the second millennium c.e. that we are all familiar with) and were worshipped by the natives like gods.  Such was the white man’s view of the intellect and abilities of our continent’s aborigines.  Archaeologists have since attempted to do better than that by crediting the Sinagua (“without water”) people of central Arizona with building these fortified pueblos sometime in the 1100’s and occupying some of them until the 1400’s.

Prehistoric corn in the granary

There is no universally accepted conclusion about why the people of this era built fortified pueblos on hilltops or in cliff caves instead of building timber or brush huts like their ancestors, but some factors include the introduction of agriculture which enabled tribes to be less nomadic, competition for resources, and ultimately an overpopulation of the region owing to a severe drought further to the northeast that drove those people into these greener pastures.

Doorway in a cliff dwelling at Clear Creek

The Sinagua people did not call themselves “Sinagua”.  In fact, nobody knows what they called themselves, and why archaeologists call them “Sinagua” seems silly considering these people always built near reliable water sources that in most cases are still running perenially.  Perhaps early archaeologists who came up with the name were from rainy parts of North America and saw the whole southwest as being “sin agua” (without water).  Archaeologists have had a lot of kooky explanations for why native americans did what they did, but better understanding is always evolving.  Perhaps archaeologists of European descent will eventually catch up with the advanced understanding of the nature worshipping ancient cultures and history books will begin to read a little differently.  For now we will call the cliff dwelling pueblo builders of central Arizona “Sinagua”.  The Hopi, who are thought to be the descendents of these people, call them “The Old Ones”.

Our family’s morning started at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument where there were so many tourists we were unable to park in the designated parking lot and had to find a spot on the side of the road further up the hill.  After our kids purchased a National Parks Monopoly games from the gift shop we ate a little lunch out of the back of the Jeep (except for the 13 yr old who refused lunch and would later get grumpy and lethargic).  Then we drove out toward Camp Verde, away from any trace of tourist besides ourselves, to explore something much more exciting, the unrestored Clear Creek Ruin, also called Sakwavayu.

Cliffside “cavetes” at Clear Creek

The Clear Creek Ruin is the remains of a positively enormous settlement located on an historically significant trade route.  Sakwavayu (Hopi for blue water) was a village on a high mesa near the modern town of Camp Verde.  The Sakwavayu community, like Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot, was built up during the 1100’s, but this one continued to be occupied through the 1500’s by the Sinagua then again through the 1800’s by the nomadic Yavapai.  The site was within the boundary of the 1870’s indian reservation called The Old Military Reservation and was certainly used by the Yavapai during this decade of confinement before being moved to the San Carlos Reservation.  The stone pueblo buildings on the mesa had 48 rooms, some as many a four stories high!

On the cliffside are dozens of natural and hand dug caves (“cavetes”), many of which are subdivided with masonry walls.  These would be similar to cliff dwellings like at Montezuma’s Castle.

We found a granary with a few pieces of “indian corn” cobs.

On the flatter mesa top are two huge pueblo compounds that look very much like Tuzigoot.

Michael looking down the mesa over the rebuilt walls of Tuzigoot
Looking down the mesa over the ruined walls of one of two pueblos at Clear Creek

The walls of the Clear Creek pueblo have crumbled to only a few feet high, but the floorplan is still very much there.  Plants have grown up around the rocks making it difficult to see the ruins clearly in pictures, but again, Tuzigoot is a good frame of reference for how things would have looked.

Overlooking the floor plan of part the Clear Creek pueblo
Overlooking the floor plan of part of the Tuzigoot pueblo. Notice the agave roasting pit in the foreground.Most rooms had one inside as well.

Clear Creek



The Clear Creek village is the largest, most significant pueblo community in the Verde Valley that includes Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot, yet it evaded formal excavation and preservation by the Antiquities Act.  There’s a wonderful article by the Camp Verde & Beaver Creek “Bugle” about this if you would like to read more.  In 1906 Montezuma’s Castle was preserved under Theodore Roosevelt’s new Antiquities Act, in 1939 Tuzigoot was excavated and similarly preserved.  As early as the 20’s there were proposals to excavate and rehabilitate the Clear Creek settlement, but when the issue finally got serious momentum in 1933 all the money for such an enterprise was already spent on Tuzigoot.  Luckily for us this was the case because it is wonderful to be able to experience the village in 3D space surrounded by native plants and environment.  And the mystery of it is intriguing.  One can experience the wonder of discovery and trying to piece together the forensic scene of a real archaeological site.

finalThe most stunningly an remarkable feature of the Clear Creek site is the absolutely shocking amount of pottery sherds.  The first thing my youngest son (who is closer to the ground) noticed when we set foot on the hillside were huge pot sherds everywhere, but especially in the drainages.  Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Pot sherds were simply everywhere we looked.

We saw them littered all over the hillside, obviously washed down off the mesa by rain over many centuries. We didn’t see pot sherds in the cliffside dwellings, but once we got up to the mesa top it took our breath away.  The pottery debris must have at one time run several feet deep.  Pottery was absolutely everywhere.  It was astounding and also very confusing.  We couldn’t think of any reason why there should be so much pottery scattered about.  The best I could come up with on the fly was that they actually used their broken stoneware like gravel.

Pottery literally paved the ground at Clear Creek.


Broken bits of pottery may have served to keep the village clean by holding down dust and mud.  Once a pot was broken it could be smashed into small pieces and returned to the earth, perhaps in part as a symbolic thanks to the earth for the use of the clay and in part to use the pottery in yet another practical way as a manmade item.  In a culture where everything had to be made by hand, there was little waste.  At Tonto National Monument museum (another Arizona cliff dwelling to the southeast) I learned that worn out fabric would be respun and rewoven over and over again, never to be wasted.  One can reasonably extrapolate the same waste-not-want-notethic to the making and use of pottery.

A beautiful pot sherd that I fell in love with. I did not take it home. I responsibly left it on a pueblo wall for someone else to see.

When we got back to the hotel, Michael (my husband) read the following from one of my books about the Sinagua:

As most prehistoric people were won’t to do, Tuzigootians disposed of their trash by simply throwing it over the side of the hill.  Rooms too were heaped many feet deep with the debris of everyday living — bones, ashes, and broken pottery  These became the gravesites where hundreds of burials were found.  Often, graves were simply scooped out of the trash mounds, bodies placed in them fully extended, and then covered over with dirt of stone slabs.  The body might be wrapped in twilled matting of grass or rushes, accompanied by offerings of beads and pottery bowl.

From Sinagua: Prehistoric Cultures of the Southwest  by  Rose Houk

Well that certainly explained it, but left out the reason why.  Until I hear a better explanation, I’m going with my waste-not-want-not theory, as well as the idea that pottery and ash debris as a subfloor under woven mat carpeting would have been considerably warmer and more comfortable to sleep on than the cold hard rocky ground the pueblo was built on.  At Tuzigoot you would never believe it could have been several feet thick with pottery and ash.  The whole place has been swept perfectly clean and paved.  The pottery ground layer of a site like this is a significant part of how these people lived, and for me, being able to see reality (not the Disneyland interpretation) is important to learning about the lives of these prehistoric people. Its understandable why Tuzigoot would have had to be cleaned up, but I’m glad that places like Clear Creek are also out there to explore.

At Clear Creek there were two curious alignments of standing stones that enclosed  a suspiciously smooth space of earth.  One standing stone wall was aligned exactly on a North/South axis.

North/South standing stone alignment

The other standing stone wall was aligned exactly on an East/West axis.

East/West standing stone alignment. In the background is Michael standing on the higher part of the mesa. Below him is the other mesa top pueblo ruin.

The smooth space enclosed within the walls had one notably circular depressed area covered with fine sand, less vegetation and was cleared of rocks.  One source I read about this site says that it may have had a ball court, another said it may have had a ceremonial pit house/kiva.  Both a ball court and a ceremonial house or kiva are standard features of large settlements in this region.  Maybe this site had both, but I looked at this circular depression for a long time and kicked the soil around a little.  In my amateur assessment I would lean more toward calling it a former pit house or kiva.

Ball court?  Kiva/ceremonial pit house?

My littlest guy is my best adventuring partner.  Once we can finally convince him that being on the trail is a good idea, he is fast, brave, and curious.  He is a lot of fun to explore with because he has a keen eye, likes to discuss what he sees, and has really smart ideas and insights. The little one and I couldn’t stop looking around and sunset was approaching.  Michael and my oldest got tired of waiting for us so they started back down toward the car.  On our hike back up the Mesa, scrambling over the boulders to the higher level (which was the way out), the little guy spotted something that we hadn’t seen on the way down.  A secret manmade cave.

It had an entry hall and two rooms, one to the left and one to the right.  The one to the right was walled off to secret it from outside view.  It was a nifty little hiding place.

A couple of quick notes.  These buildings would have had roofs of course.  They would have looked something like this from the inside, made from a layer of logs, then reeds, then stones, then mud.

Inside a room at Tuzigoot

Below you can see how the roofs were constructed from a fallen ceiling in the ruin below that is elsewhere in Arizona.

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Fallen roof from Cooper Forks cliff dwelling ruin in Sierra Ancha: logs, then reeds, then stone, then mud to make a smooth upper floor.

Sun sets on The Old Ones, but they are honored by those who are curious to remember what it was like to live an essentially human life filled with needful industry and no waste of resources.  Its a good lesson to expose my spoiled, whiny kids to.  They could use a dose of old fashioned reality, as could many.


A word to the wise.

Public land is a wonderful place to explore archaeological sites that exist fairly nearly in a natural state of decay.  Prior to the American Antiquities act there was unbridaled looting of archaeological sites and many artifacts were stolen and marred by greedy visitors.  Now these places tend to stay in pretty good shape as long as people who visit are respectful. “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”  The United States Department of Agriculture posts a sign somewhere near the access to most known archaeological sites in Arizona.  It reads:

Ancient ruins, artifacts, fossils, and historical remnants in the vicinity of this notice are fragile and irreplaceable. The Antiquities Act of 1906 protects them for the benefit of all Americans.

Enjoy but do not destroy your American Heritage
Any person who, without official permission, injures, destroys, excavates or appropriates any historic or prehistoric ruin, artifact, or object of antiquity
on the lands of the United States is subject to arrest and penalty of law.
Permits to excavate or remove artifacts can be issued only to recognized educational and scientific institutions.

The fine for damaging an archaeological site is at least $250,000 and possessing an artifact stolen from an archaeological site is a felony.  

That said, hike and ENJOY!

2 thoughts

  1. I’m not sure when you wrote this, and maybe people have reached out to you already about this, but please do not ever touch anything like pottery shards at Native Indian Ruins. By now, with research, this is pretty widely known. Thank you.

    1. Yes, of course. It’s important that you be concerned about such things. Excavation requires a permit. I think probably you’ve never been to this place. In fact, based on your comment, I’m not sure you read my whole post either. When you go, you’ll understand. You can’t visit it without touching pottery sherds. The ground is made of pottery sherds. In fact, the ones that you see us touch, aren’t even at the site. There’s so much pottery as part of the ground there that the sherd you see had actually washed all the way down the drainage out of the site along with thousands more like it. But of course you understood all that, because you read all that in my post. Right? Also, the site has been fully excavated already.

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