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Discover Mesa Verde

The most famous pre-historic American cliff dwellings are those at Mesa Verde, a site in southwestern Colorado that has the most caves with cliff dwellings concentrated in one location in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde (green table top) is a sandstone rock formation etched by canyons that were eroded by rainwater hundreds of thousands of years before human arrival. Tucked into the walls of these canyons are spectacular natural caves that arch gracefully mid-way up the canyon walls, hovering above the canyon floor, calling out an invitation for exploration. From 900-1200AD, someone did respond to that invitation and the results are amazing cliff house villages that are marvelous architectural accomplishments of stone, mud, and timber. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75% contain only 1-5 rooms each, and many are single room storage units.

One of the unexplained mysteries of the Southwest is at Mesa Verde. Why was the time the original builders spent living in these cliff dwellings so mysteriously short – 75-100 years, a few generations at most? After working so hard to construct these stone masterpieces, the villages were completely abandoned and never used as permanent residences again. For many hundreds of years these cliff dwellings stood empty, known only to tribes who might visit them on a hunting trip or periodic pilgrimage to the lands of their ancestors. There are now 24 tribes that affirm an ancestral affiliation with Mesa Verde National Park. Tribes affiliated with the park include all of the pueblos of New Mexico, the Hopi tribe in Arizona, as well as the Ute and Navajo peoples.

A Great Discovery

The world-at-large came to know about these cliff dwellings in 1888 when two ranchers out riding in the snow, looking for stray cattle, happened upon what must have seemed like the most magical discovery on earth- a lost city unknown to scientists and historians before. Riding along a remote mesa top he looked across the canyon and was amazed to see the cliff houses, untouched for hundreds of years, suspended in time. Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were the ranchers who made this discovery and shared it with the world, and fortunately Mesa Verde was protected as a national park in 1906.

Imagine for a moment how awe inspiring such a discovery would be … let’s think of ourselves riding along the mesa top, and looking down to the left, through the trees, something beyond imagination appears ….

Mesa Verde has since become one of the most thoroughly researched and often visited Ancestral Puebloan / Anasazi sites in the Southwest. But, there are still mysteries left to be uncovered. The sudden fire that broke out in the area in the year 2000 swept through the Mesa Verde area, revealing new before-unknown ancient sites for scientists to explore today. Fortunately the main cliff dwelling canyons were unharmed by the fire and we can continue to enjoy their beauty, mystery, and haunting reminder of an earlier people’s ingenuity and talents.

Mesa Tops to Cliff Dwellings

The Mesa Verdeans did not start out living in the caves, they actually settled first on the mesa tops and built stone villages on the flat mesa tops. Some years later, they decided to move down into the caves in the canyons below them. They brought with them stone masonry skills gained in previous generations of building stone villages and then employed those skills with in the protected recesses of the large caves that are natural to the canyon walls.

The cliff houses are made from stone quarried from the backs and sides of the caves. The ingenious builders fit their structures snuggly into these limited spaces, making the most of the space by stacking rooms from the cave floor up to the cave ceiling – sometimes up to four or five stories.

At the fronts of the caves, open plazas were left with round kivas built with expert stone work. These round kivas were their ceremonial and meeting spaces, and are distinctly different in shape, location and purpose than the living and storage quarters that lines the back walls and side of the caves.

The Big Question

What do you think the advantages were in moving into these caves ? What type so protection did they offer ?

Scientists think there are several possible answers to these questions. One is that the mesa top pueblos were exposed to several possible difficulties that were not as threatening in the caves – possibly attacks by marauding warriors from other tribes, but also hard winter snows and winds. Tucked in to the caves was a great contrast – more defensible in case of attack – and the caves provide a solar heated shelter in the winter as the sun sinks lower on the horizon and bathes many of the caves in much welcomed sunlight. Snow and rain were less of a problem in the cave as it provided a natural second roof protecting their homes. Another advantage to the caves may have been they were closer to any stream water, and closer to where plants and crops were being tended on the canyon floors. The combination of all these possible advantages to cave living seems to have made the choice to build cliff dwellings a wise decision.

Life in the Cliff Dwelling Villages

Nearly all daytime work in the village was carried on in the open courtyards. These probably bristled with activities. Women would grind corn, prepare food, and make baskets and clothing. Men made a variety of tools from wood and stone, sometimes in the courtyard and other times within the kivas. Building a kiva below the surface made good use of the space since the roof above was a work area. In winter the courtyard was about the only snowfree area where youngsters could play. Let’s take a closer look at life in the villages.

Cliff Palace

Spruce Tree House

Building Solutions

Mesa Verde Rock Art







Historic Image Gallery