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Posts Tagged ‘Cliff Palace’

In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park, the first to expand the parks concept beyond exclusively preserving scenic natural wonders (like Yellowstone), to include the “works of man.”

Cliff Palace ©SR Euston

In 1888 the Wetherills, a local ranching family, stumbled upon magnificent and mysterious cliff dwellings perched in caves up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls. Throughout the 1890s commercial pot hunters looted these ancient ruins; many original artifacts now reside in private collections. This widespread destruction led to the drive, spearheaded by Colorado women’s clubs, to preserve Mesa Verde for posterity.

Although the cliff cities remain the park’s major attraction, there are vast mesatop ruins in Mesa Verde too. Today, within its 52,000 acres, there are the over 4500 identified archeological sites, only about 600 of them cliff dwellings.

One of the most accessible of the mesatop complexes is Far View, an agricultural community which encompasses a cluster of small unit family housing within a stone’s throw of each other. There are larger pueblos too: One of these is Far View House, a two-story 40 room building enclosing four kivas. Because of its size, archeologists speculate that Far View House was more a town hall than a housing development, serving public purposes for the extended Far View community. Along with four other partially excavated sites, the Far View complex give a flavor of ancestral puebloan agricultural life.

But there is also a different kind of surprise at Far View. Unnoticed by most visitors are the remnants of Mummy Lake, a specially engineered reservoir to the north of the community. A network of upstream ditches served as catch arteries for runoff which was channeled into this 90 foot diameter stone walled and lined depression. Mummy Lake could hold as much as one half million gallons of water. Besides providing water for Far View’s 500 residents, it also was used to irrigate nearby fields of corn, squash and beans.  In the late 1200s, when Far View inhabitants moved over the edge to cliff dwellings below, they built a ditch which continued to provide water for fields and drinking.

This now dry, sediment-filled reservoir was certainly a remarkable feat of coordinated planning and construction. In 2004, a millennium after its construction, Mummy Lake received a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as “One of the earliest public works projects in North America.”

How was all this planning and construction—cliff cities, mesatop towns, huge reservoirs—accomplished with tools of only wood and stone? It’s those kind of questions that make Mesa Verde such a haunting place.

Edge of Chapin Mesa ©SR Euston

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This afternoon it is snowing here in Albuquerque. It’s at least an inch deep in my backyard. Just after 3:00 pm, it’s 27°. This is not standard end-of-October weather. Today’s average temperature is 65°.

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kivas amid ruins

Yesterday, I sat in front of our first-of-the-season fire, reading up on Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, where we’d taken a trip last week. I was struck by this quote from Ancient Dwellings of the Southwest: “Ancient people all over the world spent most of their time outdoors….The mild and dry climate of the Southwest made this especially pleasant for Mesa Verdians.” Humm….

Last week’s trip began with an exceptional Indian Summer day. It must have been 74° as we toured the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde—Cliff Palace, a spectacular stone city of 220 rooms and 23 kivas. Nestled inside a sandstone alcove, it sits about midway between the top of Chapin Mesa and the bottom of 200 foot deep Cliff Canyon.

On the ranger-led tour we were invited to imagine what it must have been like to live there, perched within a sheer cliff, the only way up or down by narrow trails and foot and hand holds worn into the smooth, tan sandstone walls. It seemed on the one hand a very confined world (especially for the very young and very old) and hard. How did they manage to carry game, corn or wood to this seemingly inaccessible place? On the other hand, with the sun warming my back, I could imagine Cliff Palace’s plaza filled with the familiar, almost cozy atmosphere depicted in the museum’s paintings and dioramas—kids playing, dogs barking, the sound of  women laughing as they ground corn with mano stones in metate troughs or bins.

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Window

The next day, deep autumn had set in. Under a cold, gloomy, gray, drizzly sky we toured Spruce Tree House, another remarkable cliff town. I was grateful I’d brought my high tech layers of polar fleece, chamois and down, zipped safely in my waterproof jacket. Standing in the plaza, atop a restored kiva’s roof, I heard, across narrow Spruce Canyon, young conservation corps workers gossip and chip away at the sandstone bricks they were preparing for a new retaining wall. I didn’t need much imagination to feel I was immersed in a very plausible original Mesa Verdian scenario. But I wondered how, wrapped only in turkey feather blankets or animal skins, did the Ancient Puebloans continue to work outdoors on a day like today? After all, it can get to zero in the Four Corners region in winter. As we peered into the back of the ruins we could see the fire-blackened back wall of the cave, a dark reminder of the Ancient Puebloans’ only source of heat.

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Spruce Tree Ruins, fire blackened rock ceiling

It is now believed that the multitude of smaller kivas scattered around the cliff and mesatop villages served not only ceremonial functions, but as kin-related “living rooms,” which maintained a minimum 50° temperature year-round. With a fire burning, it actually could have been warm, maybe even cozy, in these mysterious underground rooms. Perhaps, as winter closed in, they remained mostly in their kivas, telling stories, weaving, making pottery by the fireside.

We’ll never know for sure. Still it seems a kiva would have been a welcome refuge to a Mesa Verdian on a day like today, where, just as outside my house, it’s 27° and there’s snow on the ground.

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