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The Anasazi - From Pit House to Cliff Dwellings and Pueblos


The Ancestral Puebloans began to develop their world-famous pueblo-style communities around 900AD. The heights of achievement took place 1000-1150 AD. In areas where they had been living in pit houses, they suddenly began building remarkable stone structures above ground. Literally 44 TONS of rock had to be quarried from the surrounding cliffs to build even ONE room, and the structures each contained many rooms - from 10-650. That is a LOT of stone cutting.

Another remarkable fact is that the timber needed to create roofs and floors for their multi-storied villages was quickly depleted locally and while it had to be cut down with a crude stone axe, it also ha to be carried on shoulder for up to 50 miles - for each and every log ! These Ancient Ones expended more time and energy building their homes and villages than any other tribe in the Southwest. Chaco Canyon alone has so many buildings that it would have taken 200,000 trees to provide timber for their floors and roofs.

What makes these buildings so unusual ?

One unique factor in their building is the ingenuity of engineering that had to go into erecting a multi-storied structure. In order to build layer upon layer of rooms, using one layer's roof to become another layer's floor, the builders had to design the building from the bottom up. These were not just casual build-ons as in other tribes. The Ancient Puebloan buildings were planned long before laying the first stone. How do we know this? In order to build a wall that could support a multiple of stories, the engineers had to plan on building massive lower walls capable of supporting the weight of the height soon to be built above them. To accomplish this, the builders started out with base foundation walls that were THREE FEET THICK. They knew in advance that this thickness below was required inorder to reach the heights they aimed for above. At Pueblo Bonito they raised five full floors of rooms, possibly using the lower rooms for storage and the upper for living spaces. Five stories, 650 rooms, covering 3 acres - that is one HUGE apartment building !
But it is not only the scale of their accomplishment that is noteworthy, it is also the detail of the stonework that is spectacular. The sandstone blocks are layered in what is called 'courses' - layers of stone laid to be as horizontal as possible, with chinks of smaller stone filling in the gaps between odd-sized larger stones. The texture and color of the stone work, the intricacy of its pattern, are all as astounding as the overall structures themselves.

What about those amazing cliff dwellings ?

Started a little later than the great pueblos, the famous cliff houses and villages of the Anasazi in Arizona and Colorado reveal another type of engineering ingenuity. While earlier peoples in the Basketmaker period had used caves to build stone wall houses in, such as at Walnut Canyon, by 1000 AD this skill had grown to become an ability to build pueblo-style great stone houses INSIDE a cave or under a cliff overhang. In Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, there are several cliff houses, the most accessible being the White House ruin. Also in Arizona are remote and inaccessible sites at Betatakin and Kiet Siel where vast sandstone arched overhangs provide shelter from the winter snow and the summer heat.

Up in Colorado at Mesa Verde is the most well known complex of cliff houses known. The famous Cliff Palace is a featured image in nearly all Southwest books and contained over 200 rooms and 20 kivas - all built of stone and timber from the floor of the weather-worn alcove up. The many smaller room clusters and villages tucked in the canyons also share in the Mesa Verde Anasazi ingenuity of cutting, hauling and laying stone to create beautiful walls, mysterious T-shaped doorways, towers connecting rooms, and kivas built upon the hard stone floor of these cliff overhangs and caves. Why were these cliff houses and kivas built ? What were the real advantages to sheltering your homes under a rock ledge high up off the ground floor? Sometime with ladders to reach you, other times with only toe and hand holds carved into the rock ? Why do you think they moved up into the cliffs ? Weather ? Protection from enemy attacks ? Better view ? or ? Scientists do not know either, but they do think protection and weather may have had a lot to do with it.