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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
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.
Tops to Cliff Dwellings
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.
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
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.
do you think the advantages were in moving into these caves ? What type
so protection did they offer ?
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
in the Cliff Dwelling Villages
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.
Verde Rock Art