I’m not sure how old I was when I saw the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, but it must have been in the late 1960s, when we moved either to or from Texas. Since then, I’ve seen many sights, but the “green table” stands alone. The impression Mesa Verde makes is so great, you just don’t forget. I remember the impossibility of it all and the enormous overhanging cliffs…. A great silence engulfs the area today, but in ancient times it housed a rich and thriving culture. The ingenuity and tenacity of the Anasazi still astounds me. Back when my brothers and I were scrambling around it, there weren’t as many restrictions. Thankfully, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a very good thing because it is a fragile site and, while well-preserved, it needed more protection than it had when we whirled through like dust devils.
“The geology of Mesa Verde determined what sort of shelter the Anasazi had as well as the type of water supply that was available. The tan cliffs . . . are composed of sandstone, a porous rock which allows rain, snow, and running water to slowly seep down through it. Beneath this sandstone is a layer of shale through which the moisture cannot penetrate. Water reaches the shale, flows between the two layers and emerges in the form of a seep or spring such as the one at the head of [the] canyon.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 3.
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park. By Sascha Brück via Wikimedia Commons
“Around A.D. 1200, some of the people living on Mesa Verde moved down into the alcoves, often occupying the same ones that had been inhabited by their ancestors, the Basketmaker people, 600 years earlier. . . . The construction of Cliff Palace was a herculean effort, most of which occurred in a very short time, only about twenty years…. To create a level floor, the builders of Cliff Palace erected a retaining wall along the front of the alcove and backfilled behind the wall, making a flat working surface and solid foundation for rooms. Some 150 rooms-living rooms, storage rooms, and special chambers, plus nearly 75 open spaces-were eventually created.” — Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association
Kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park. Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia
“Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling among several hundred within park boundaries (Cliff Palace and Long House are larger), was constructed between A.D. 1200 and 1276 by the Anasazi. The dwelling contains about 114 rooms and eight kivas (kee-vahs), or ceremonial chambers, built into a natural cave measuring 216 feet (66 meters) at greatest width and 89 feet (27 meters) at its greatest depth. It is thought to have been home for about 100 people.
” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 5.
Mesa Verde Pueblo II corrugated jars. By National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons
“When Spruce Tree House was occupied, the courtyard . . . was filled with activity. Here women ground corn into flour, made pottery, wove baskets and prepared food. Men made stone tools, turkey feather or cotton blankets, or prepared for summer planting. Older people sat in the sun and talked, while children, domesticated turkeys, and barking dogs scurried about the plaza.
” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 11
“[T]he kivas had an efficient ventilation system. The large pit in the center of the floor was a fireplace. Fresh air was drawn in through the ventilator shaft at your feet, hit the deflector wall between the ventilator outlet and the firepit and circulated evenly through the entryway. Beyond the firepit in the center of the floor is a small hole. This hole, called a sipapu (see-pah-poo), represents the opening through which man emerged onto the face of the earth. . . . Niches held special ceremonial objects such as turquoise, shell beads, and prayer sticks. . . . The bench was used for storage of many ceremonial objects; the pilasters supported the beams of the roof.” Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde Museum (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p.15.
This is a section view of Kiva A in Mesa Verde’s Fire Temple, cut from laser scan data. Kiva is a Puebloan term for ceremonial rooms, and most of the Kivas at Mesa Verde are round in form and subterranean. The entire courtyard of Fire Temple itself is defined as a Great Kiva by both modern Puebloans such as the Hopi and by archaeologists due to its design and entirely non-domestic function. However, since Fire Temple was at least partially built to conform to the dimensions of the cliff alcove in which it was built, it is neither round in form nor truly subterranean. Along the southern terminus of Kiva A are the foundations of an original wall or a stepped bench. Archaeologists have disagreed over the years as to whether this represents an enclosure to the Fire Temple’s Kiva, or whether it would have been open at the front perhaps to keep its prominent fire hearth visible from some distance away. Kiva A’s walls were originally covered in white paint, with black and red geometric designs and symbols on it that are very similar to those found on black and white pottery found in Mesa Verde from the same time period. Due to exposure to the elements over time only scattered remnants of this paint remain intact and most of the designs are faded. By CyArk via Wikimedia Commons
This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.
Mesa Verde Pueblo II Mancos Black-on-White jar and ladle. By National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons
— Willa Cather
Long House in the Mesa Verde National Park. By Khlnmusa Kyong H. Lee (Kyong H. Lee via Wikimedia
“By A.D. 1300 nearly everyone had left Mesa Verde, and in fact the entire Four Corners area that had been the center of Ancestral Puebloan culture. They departed for a number of possible reasons. A long-term drought at the end of the 1200s had been documented. Without water, crops would shrivel and people would be thirsty. Essential resources such as fertile soils, wood, and wildlife might have been exhausted after centuries of harvest and use. Warfare, disease, and internal disputes have also been offered as explanations. . . . but people did not “vanish.” By all evidence, they went south to the Hopi villages in northern Arizona, to Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. To some of them, Cliff Palace remains a special place.” Rose Houk, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde Museum Association (Mesa Verde National Park, n.d.), p. 15.
Map of Mesa Verde National Park. National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons
To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk over every day. — Willa Cather