The scientific tourist #14 — Neither Montezuma’s, nor a castle

This week’s “sciencey” tourism picture is of “Montezuma Castle” in Arizona:


The Montezuma Castle National Monument is a curious thing for a couple of reasons.

Let’s start with the name. A number of ancient sites in the U.S. southwest have out-of-place names due to misunderstandings on the part of their first European visitors. But in the case of Montezuma Castle, this misunderstanding seems to go much further back. When European American explorers happened upon the ruins in the 1850’s, the local natives associated them with a divine ruler named Montezuma, possibly a corrupted reference to Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor in Mexico at the time of the conquista.

In reality, though, the “castle” was no castle — rather, it was a housing unit, and had no connection with goings on in the Aztec empire either. It was built in the early 13th century by members of the Sinaqua culture, and then abandoned about 100 years later when they left the region. It’s built in 5 stories, contains 20 rooms, and is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States. But this level of preservation comes at a price — public access to the ruin had to be cut off in 1951 when damage from visits started to mount.

So it’s easy to get to the monument — just off an interstate freeway, not so far from Flagstaff. But this image shows you how close you can get to the ruins themselves — namely, not very. If you’d like to read more about the ruins, I’d suggest the National Park Service’s online handbook.

As usual, click on the above picture to get to the Flickr version of this image — it’ll give you lots of options for resizing and otherwise manipulating the source photo.

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