April 24, 27, 28, & May 1, 2019.
Looking at Mesa Verde National Park from our nearby camping spot. The park has many sites which demonstrate how people lived in this rugged desert area for centuries.
Last spring we visited Mesa Verde National Park, and Bandelier and Navajo National Monuments. These sites contain prehistoric dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo peoples. I’m combining the three sites into one post.
The desert area surrounding Four Corners, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet, is one of my favorite places to visit. Here in the high Colorado Plateau, history and pre-history are exposed in stark beauty. You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the area. The tales told by each of these sites can be enjoyed even by casual observers.
The first people to arrive here came 12K years ago. The last ice age was ending and the environment was more lush then. They hunted large mammals and left behind spearheads and atlatl throwing sticks as evidence they had been here.
The population grew. Big ideas, the same ideas occurring to people all over the world, helped these folks survive. Atlatls were replaced by bows and arrows. Weaving was used to make sandals, textiles, and baskets. Pottery was developed and refined. Animals were domesticated. And crops were planted and irrigated.
And, just as other people around the globe, these folks personified and deified the forces they could not explain or harness. They didn’t even suspect that their own big ideas were the neatest things happening. Why didn’t any of those ancient cultures have a god of cool ideas?
Mesa Verde National Park
Around 600 CE, as people started settling into farming communities, pit houses like these were built as family homes. A fire pit was in the center of the circular dwelling. Four excavated post holes show the placement of roof support columns. Entry was through the smoke hole in the roof. Smaller rooms for storage are in the distance.
Here a few pit houses are joined together. Some verticle stones line the base of the foundation. To us these look like holes in the ground. The people that lived here thought of them as wombs of their mother, the Earth.
Over time building got more sophisticated. This pit house is deeper, with a bench running around the edge. The masonry work on the walls is more refined. In the foreground is a ventilation shaft which draws in fresh air as the air heated by the firepit escapes through the entrance hole in the roof.
It seems the whole four corners area was under construction at all times. There are many examples of structures being built over older dwellings.
Here is a kiva in Coyote Village in Mesa Verde. As communities grew larger, above-ground walled rooms were used as living spaces and for storage. The pit house structure became a kiva or ceremonial space. By now agriculture was booming. Mesa tops were covered with corn and with small farming communities like this. This architecture is similar to that we saw in Chaco Canyon.
Around 1100-1200 CE folks decided to start building under cliff overhangs. Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde was one of these cliff dwellings. There were 150 rooms and probably 100 inhabitants. Evidence suggests that leaders from numerous clans lived here.
Another view of Cliff Palace. Construction occurred from 1190-1260 CE, with most of it done during a 20 year period.
All available space at Cliff Palace was used, with buildings stretching up to the overhang. Kivas had flat roofs of masonry, strong enough to support pedestrian traffic.
Structures were built over, under, and around large rocks. The rounded building here is supported laterally by a squared-off buttress. It’s not as graceful as the buttresses being built at this same time to support Gothic cathedrals in Europe. But it’s the same cool, independently conceived idea.
Looking down into Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde. When we visited, the trail to the house was closed because of falling rock.
Looking down into Square Tower House at Mesa Verde.
Looking into Oak Tree House at Mesa Verde. This is one of the smaller cliff dwellings.
Near Oak Tree House is the Fire Temple cliff structure. This looks like a dedicated public ceremonial space, not a place for family homes.
Another house at Mesa Verde. Cliff Dwellers had to do a lot of climbing to work the cornfields on the mesa tops and in the valley floors. The average man was 5’6″ tall and the average woman was 5′. Average life expectancy was 35 years. After climbing around in this area, we can assure you that they didn’t die from obesity-related problems.
Storage spaces along the Petroglyph Trail at Mesa Verde.
This large depression on the mesa top near Coyote Village was walled in by ancestral Puebloans to create a water reservoir.
Navajo National Monument
View of Tsegi Canyon in Navajo National Monument with cliff dwelling on the left. Running west/east, the bottom of this canyon is shaded much of the time. Desert vegetation like Aspen and Douglas Fir trees grow near the canyon floor. These trees usually grow at higher, damper elevations.
Here is a look into the Batatakin cliff dwelling in Navajo National Monument. It was built between 1250 and 1300 Common Era (CE).
Bandelier National Monument
Over one million years ago volcanic eruptions spewed ash 1,000 feet deep over this zone. The ash compressed into light volcanic tuff. Erosion eats holes into tuff, making it look like swiss cheese. From 1150 to 1550 Ancestral Puebloans made homes using tuff. The area is now called Bandelier National Monument.
The cliff dwellers here used building blocks of tuff and enlarged holes in the cliffs of tuff to make homes.
In other cliff dwellings we’ve seen, the construction was additive. Large boulders on cave floors were left in place. People built around them rather than push them over the cliffsides. No attempts were made to flake off ceiling rock and make the caves taller or deeper.
But here at Bandelier the natural cavities in the rock were widened, forming cavates.
Inside a dwelling at Bandelier.
The cavates were widened further by adding walls of tuff block.
Looking from inside a cavate down on the ruins of the tuff block village below.
Holes were cut into the tuff walls to support roof and floor beams in this multi-story community.
Ladder to a Bandelier dwelling.
On the climbing trail to one large cavate we encountered a school group. Here kids descend one of the ladders.
Another ladder up to the large cavate.
Inside the large cavate meeting space, which contained a kiva.
View looking out of the large cavate at Bandelier. By 1550 everyone had left here taking their 1,000 years of cool ideas with them. Little did they know, that in four short centuries, not far from here, the big ideas of humans would be used to figure out how to wipe out our whole species! But that’s another post.