Some of the most frequent questions I am asked while I am staffing the Lower Cliff Dwelling at Tonto National Monument are: What are the walls made out of? How old is the dwelling? And, why did they build up here?
Archeological evidence and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) have placed the structures of the lower and upper cliff dwellings at around 700 years old. Though the Salado culture built the structures during the late classic period (1250-1450CE) archeological evidence indicates that the culture only inhabited the region for about 150 years.
Like many ancient cultures, the Salado specifically selected caves that faced east for constructing their dwellings due to the rising and setting of the sun. This way, the tribes would awaken with the rising of the sun and return home to where it was cool at the end of the day. The caves in which these dwellings were built also offer shelter from the elements as well as protection from enemy tribes and wild predators.
In the lower cliff dwelling there are about 16 rooms that housed anywhere from 20-60 residents while the upper cliff dwelling contained 32 rooms and housed up to 100 residents. As the population grew more housing was added. Buildings were 1-2 stories in height and accessibility between floors was possible through the use of wooden ladders in place of stairs. Each room housed a single family; though some rooms had special community functions. Doors and windows were much smaller than our modern ones due to the following reasons: 1) the Salado ranged anywhere from 4’8-5’6 in height and 2) smaller buildings with smaller openings helped contain heat during the winter months. The black traces found on the walls and ceilings of the cave serve as evidence that fires were lit in the dwellings.
The walls were built out of natural cement composed of mud, clay, and caliche. This natural cement was also used as a mortar to hold together large pieces of rugged and uneven quartzite bricks. Unlike sandstone bricks used by other southwestern Native American cultures, quartzite is much more difficult to shape and therefore needs this natural cement in order to hold the bricks together. Ceilings were built using the ribs of the saguaro cactus as well as beans from juniper and pine for support while an additional layer of natural cement was built on top to create the second floor.
Though better preserved, the upper cliff dwelling is much older than the lower cliff dwelling and twice as large. Inside the cave there are a total of 32 rooms built from the same materials as it's lower kin.
Daquila, C. & Hubbard, D. "What Does Salado Mean?" Overview. Southwestlearning.org. (June 19, 2008).
Vance, M. "The Lower Cliff Dwelling Construction Sequence" Overview.Southwestlearning.org. (October 8, 2013).