One of a Kind
New discoveries prove Montezuma Well has features unique to the world
MONTEZUMA WELL Scientists are learning more and more about what American Indians have known for a long time now: Montezuma Well is a special place, in the true sense of the word.
In a way, the well is a stepchild to the more popular Montezuma Castle National Monument and its cliff dwellings 11 miles away. The well also a national monument but it's farther from Interstate 17 in the Verde Valley and fewer people visit it. The unassuming entrance features a tiny building that looks like a guardhouse, but no visitor center.
Don't let that fool you. This odd geologic formation surrounded by ancient dwellings has features unique to the world.
The oddities center around the well itself, which actually is a Redwall limestone sinkhole measuring 470 feet across where 1.5 million gallons of pressurized spring water flows in each day and out an irrigation canal that dates back centuries.
"Why hasn't the Prescott City Council come over to take this water?" cracked visitor Carol Hubert of Prescott last week.
Paul Lindberg, a mining geologist who has lived in Sedona for 36 years, estimates that a travertine mound started forming here about 10,000-15,000 years ago, and then the top collapsed about 1,000 years ago as the water wore it away. The original dome was about a mile across, he said.
The travertine engulfed trees as it developed. Sycamore leaf impressions still are visible along the irrigation ditch near the outside of the well, although vandals carved some of them away.
The sink's water system contains high levels of carbon dioxide dissolved from the limestone walls. Fish can't survive in it.
That's led to the unfettered evolution of some species of leeches and their food, tiny amphipods, that scientists haven't found anywhere else. Arizona State University scientist Gerald Cole was the first to start documenting the unique aquatic life in the early 1960s.
The first time Anglo people tried to measure the depth of the well was apparently in 1880, when curious Fort Verde soldiers dropped a rope from a raft, according to "The History of Montezuma Well" by long-time local Park Service volunteer Jack Beckman (available free on the Internet).
Beckman documented a dive in 1948, shortly after the Park Service acquired the site, along with an illegal dive in 1954 and a legal one by university students in 1974.
"I was almost sucked into a fissure," student Mark Cagle wrote of the adventure.
A U.S. Geological Survey team found two underwater vents in 1991, one 100 feet deep and the other 140 feet deep, Beckman wrote.
Then, for the first time last year, divers filmed their work so others can see how the bottom of the well looks.
"Wow, it's just freaky," marveled Dan Lenihan, an underwater archaeologist with the Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit. "This is a churning, swirling area of fluidized sands.
"I know of no documentation of anything like it, anyplace else."
This comes from an underwater archaeologist who has conducted research at about 140 sites over the last 35 years, including the USS Arizona and Civil War submarines.
At the request of Park Superintendent Kathy Davis, Lenihan and his team took water samples and calculated the depth of the water and the strange false bottom of swirling sand.
The total depth from the water's surface was 124 feet, but the swirling sand below the false bottom comprised 69 feet of that depth.
These are some of the best divers in the world, and they knew it was too dangerous to dive into the fluidized sand.
"It took them awhile to work up the courage to stick their arm or leg in there," Lenihan added.
The well apparently was the site of the very first professional underwater archaeology dive in the New World in 1968, Lenihan said. The archaeologists found plenty of artifacts but they didn't go down to the false bottom.
Lenihan first did it 31 years ago.
"I had these serial B movies in my head that I'd stick my arm in there and it would come out as bones," he recalled.
For a long time, he wanted to return and try to figure out what was going on.
He's done his part now by taking samples and filming underwater. He hopes geologists and hydrologists take it from there.
U.S. Geological Survey scientist Laurie Wirt had plans to study the system, but she tragically died in a kayaking accident last year. She had recently finished a study of the Upper Verde River system.
Long habitation history
Lenihan found it fascinating that the Native American concept of the well as a place of emergence is "pretty darn close to what's going on down there." The native people already knew that things emerged from the depths of the well's springs and could not go back, he said.
The Yavapai believe their ancestors first emerged from the well into this world.
"It plays an important role in many different Native American cultures," including the Yavapai, Hopi, Apache and Navajo, said John Schroeder, archaeologist for the three national monuments in the Verde Valley. Tribal members often collect the well's water for ceremonies.
The Park Service has documented the habitation of Southern Sinaguan people at the well as early as 600 A.D., Schroeder said.
They first lived in pithouse villages surrounding the well, and then moved into four cliff dwellings inside the sinkhole about 1,000 A.D.
Archaeologists have evidence of the Yavapai people dating back to 1,250 A.D. in the Verde Valley, which was about 150 years before the Sinagua left, Schroeder said.
Then came evidence of the Apache people.
All these native people lived near the well to take advantage of its plentiful waters to irrigate their crops.
Several miles of prehistoric and historic irrigation canals still exist on the park site today, with another 2.5 miles outside the park boundaries. Unfortunately, nearby private landowners have destroyed some of the ancient canal. One neighbor razed a section last year for a home site. Schroeder wishes people would at least let him record the canals before they destroy them.
People have done plenty of looting of artifacts in and around the well, too.
The first long-term settler was William Back in 1888. He married Margie Ann Dickinson and they raised farm animals and crops from the well's water, according to Beckman.
Then Back set up a campground and picnic area for tourists. His family sold pieces of painted pottery and arrowheads to the visitors, and charged them 50 cents for a boat ride. They dropped horseshoes into the irrigation ditch to coat them with lime and sell them as "petrified horseshoes."
Back's son later added a museum and exhumed numerous ancient graves for their artifacts, Beckman wrote.
A private collection of artifacts from some of those graves recently went on display at the Camp Verde Historical Society's building. Government agencies would have to return those artifacts to local tribes if they owned them, and the Park Service has done that with numerous artifacts from the Verde Valley.
No one apparently has looted the grave of a 9-year-old white girl whose final resting place is still marked by a travertine gravestone at the monument, however.
The National Park Service bought the well and surrounding land in 1947, after it acquired Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot.
Schroeder has documented more of the well's treasures since he came on board three years ago. He's the first local archaeologist for the Verde Valley's three national monuments in four decades, thanks to the efforts of people including Davis.
He led a tour of the well's special places last Friday as part of Arizona's Archaeology Awareness Month.
"This is pretty much my favorite spot in all three parks I work in," Schroeder said as he sat under a gargantuan sycamore by the soothing waters of the irrigation canal and Beaver Creek.