Traverse the cliff dwellings of Colorado’s Ancestral Pueblo cultures to step back in time!

Mesa Verde National Park is the United States‘ first national park dedicated to conserving man’s creations. Over 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff houses dating from 600 to 1300 CE, are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The homes are among the most remarkable and best maintained in the United States, providing insight into the lifestyle and legacy of the Ancestral Puebloan inhabitants in this region for almost 700 years.

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View of Mesa Verde, Colorado National Park_© Steven Zucker

As you ascend ladders and exposed rock faces, guided ranger tours provide greater insight into how these people can live and opportunity to come up close to the iconic cliff palaces – Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House. You may also go on a self-guided visit to see some of the historical heritage at your pace — the Mesa Top Loop Route has 12 easily accessible residences and views, with Far View House comprising one of five towns that can be investigated along a 1.2-kilometre unpaved walk. The Point Lookout Trail, which traverses the summit of the mesa with spectacular views of the Montezuma as well as Mancos valleys, and the Petroglyph Point Trek, which follows a steep, rocky path to breathtaking canyon panoramas and ancient engravings on a massive petroglyph panel are two of the park’s attractions.

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Sandstone cliff Palace by Ancestral Puebloan, 450–1300 C.E._© Steven Zucker

Consider living in a house constructed into the rock face. In some of the most astonishing constructions still standing today, the Ancestral Puebloan communities (originally known as the Anasazi) achieved precisely that. They carved around 600 buildings (primarily residential, but also for storage and ceremonial) into the rock walls of the Four Corners region of the United States between 1000 and 1100 C.E. (the southwestern corner of Colorado, northwestern corner of New Mexico, northeastern corner of Arizona, and southeastern corner of Utah). The homes portrayed here are in what is now southwestern Colorado, in the Mesa Verde National Park (“Verde” means green in Spanish, and “mesa” means table in Spanish, although here denote the flat-topped mountains prevalent in the southwest).

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Sandstone cliff dwellings, Ancestral Puebloan 450–1300 C.E._© Steven Zucker

The most well-known residential areas are from the 12th and 13th centuries. Retractable ladders were used by the Ancestral Puebloans to enter these houses, and if you are sure-footed and not scared of heights, you may still do it today. Stone, masonry, and plaster constructions from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have the best preservation. In most of the mortar & plaster walls, we may detect signs of the individuals who built these structures, such as palms or fingerprints.

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Access ladder for Balcony House_©Ken Lund

From 450 C.E. until 1300 C.E., ancestral Puebloans lived at Mesa Verde. The inhabited zone covered a far wider area than the national park presently does, and includes residential sites like Hovenweep National Monument with Yellow Jacket Pueblo. Cliff homes were not for everyone. Yellow Jacket Pueblo was also significantly larger than any Mesa Verde settlement. It housed 600–1200 people and had 600–1200 rooms. Cliff Palace (the biggest of the Mesa Verde sites) had just approximately 125 residents, but the cliff homes are unquestionably among the best-preserved structures from this period.

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Canyon view of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado_©Ken Lund

Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace, the biggest of the cliff homes, includes over 150 rooms and about twenty circular chambers. It was well sheltered from the elements due to its placement. The structures were one to four storeys tall, with some reaching the natural stone “ceiling”. Stone and mud mortar, as well as timber beams suited to the natural clefts in the cliff face, were utilized to build these constructions. This construction method differed from that of previous Mesa Verde constructions, which were mostly composed of adobe before 1000 C.E. (bricks made of clay, sand and straw or sticks). The ornamental features and artifacts unearthed inside these stone and mortar structures give a vital glimpse into the lifestyle of the Ancestral Puebloan inhabitants during the thirteenth century.

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Vista of Cliff palace Structures_©Mikaela Ruland

Families resided in architectural units grouped around kivas at locations like Cliff Palace (circular, subterranean rooms). A kiva’s wood-beamed roof was normally supported by six engaged masonry support columns above the shelf-like banquette. A ventilation shaft, a firepit (or hearth),  a deflector (a low wall meant to prevent air taken from the ventilation shaft from immediately reaching the fire), and a sipapu, a ceremonial hole in the floor, are all common characteristics of a kiva. They evolved from the pithouse, which was likewise a circular, underground dwelling place.

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Kiva without roof at cliff palace_©Adam Lederer

Kivas are still utilized for rituals by Pueblo peoples today, albeit not by those living inside Mesa Verde National Park. These circular chambers were most likely used for both ceremonial and domestic purposes in the past. If you explore Cliff Palace, you’ll see that the kivas are without their roofs (as seen above), but they were formerly covered and the area surrounding them served as a little plaza.

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Circular Kivas, Plan of Cliff Palace_© National Park

These plazas were surrounded by interconnected rooms forming a dwelling unit. A hearth might be found in one chamber, usually facing the square. Most likely, family members congregated here. Other chambers off the fireplace were probably storeroom chambers, with enough of an aperture to fit your arm through to retrieve whatever you needed. Cliff Palace also has several unique architectural characteristics, such as a round tower. The actual purpose of the tower is still unknown to archaeologists.

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Kiva at Spruce Tree House_©Doug Kerr
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Open Kiva_©Doug Kerr

Art & Culture

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Mural 30, cliff palace_©National Park service

Murals were plastered and painted by the creators of these structures, however, what survives now is only a smattering. Some paintings include geometric patterns while others depict animals or vegetation. Mural 30 at Cliff Palace, for example, is painted red upon a white wall on the third level of a rectangle “tower” (more correctly, a room block). The painting has geometric forms that are supposed to represent landscapes. Murals inside other cliff buildings, such as Spruce Tree House & Balcony House, are comparable. According to scholars, the red band at the bottom of the wall represents the earth, while the lighter half represents the sky. The apex of the red band so acts as a horizon line, separating the two. On the horizon line, we see what appear to be triangular peaks, maybe mountains. Clouds, rain, or the sun and moon might all be represented by the rectangle element in the sky. The dotted lines could signify earth cracks.

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Mugs found at Mesa Verde_©National Park service

Murals were created with paint made from clay, organic ingredients, and minerals. Hematite, for example, provided the red hue (red ocher). Turquoise or azurite was used to make blue pigments, whereas charcoal was used to make black pigments. The Ancestral Puebloan peoples also made black-on-white ceramics and turquoise and shell jewelry, in addition to the sophisticated architecture and mural painting. Most of these high-quality products and materials show how closely these people were connected to the environment. Consider how the geometric motifs on the cups above resemble those found in Cliff Palace’s Mural 30.

The reason to build here

Ancestral Puebloans who resided in Mesa Verde from 500 to 1300 C.E. were sedentary farmers who grew beans, squash, and corn. Corn was initially brought to the United States from what is now Mexico around the first century of the Common Era. Most farmers used to live near their fields, but that changed in the late 1100s as humans began to reside near water sources, forcing them to trek greater distances to their produce.

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New Fire House_©Ken Lund

So why did they relocate to the cliff alcoves, distant from water and crops? Would the cliffs provide defence against invaders? Were they defending themselves or if there were other factors at play? Was there a ritual or spiritual value to the rock ledges? They give shade and snow protection. Finally, we’re left with just informed guesses – the real reasons for the cliff homes remain a mystery.

Astonishing night view of Mesa Verde_© Ken Lund

Why was the cliff abandoned?

Droughts, for example, were known to occur between 1276 and 1299. Due to the scarcity of resources, these dry seasons most likely resulted in food shortages and maybe conflicts. The cliff houses, on the other hand, serve as powerful reminders of how the Ancestral Puebloans chiseled their civilization into the rocky environment of today’s southwestern the United States.

References:

  1. EXPLORE ANCIENT CLIFF HOUSES AT MESA VERDE. (n.d.). Retrieved from Get lost Magazine: https://www.getlostmagazine.com/category-highlight/explore-ancient-cliff-houses-at-mesa-verde/
  2. Kilroy-Ewbank, D. L. (2015, August 09). Mesa Verde. Retrieved from Smart History : https://smarthistory.org/mesa-verde-cliff-dwellings/
  3. watson, D. (n.d.). Mesa Verde. Retrieved from INTRODUCTION TO MESA VERDE ARCHEOLOGY: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/archeology/2/intro.htm
  4. Wikipedia. (2022, April 07). Mesa Verde National Park. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesa_Verde_National_Park#Architecture
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An aspiring urbanist, who is trying to explore herself through architectural writing currently, she believes that the remedy for a healthy planet begins with designing responsive spaces. She is an optimistic, determined and curious person who is always eager to learn and improve her skills.

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