Mesa Verde National Park

Aug 2007

The park is located in southwestern Colorado near the Four Corners area.  Within the park are the remains of a civilization that flourished in the area more than 1000 years ago.  Archeologists have named the people Anasazi.  It is a Navajo word sometimes translated as "ancient ones".  They moved into the area about 600 AD.  They first built dugouts called "pit homes".  Later, they built wood and adobe houses and finally, the great cliff dwellings built of shaped, sandstone blocks.  They learned to be master architects.  Some of the great houses are five stories tall.  Then, late in the thirteenth century, they all left.  No one knows why.  There are many theories, warfare, drought, etc, but there is no evidence to support any of them. 

To illustrate the size of this civilization, most experts agree that in 1200 AD there were more people in these canyons and the adjacent valley than there are today in the same area.





This is Spruce Tree House, built about 1200 AD.  I contained about 100 rooms and was probably home to about 100 people.  They obtained water from a spring on the canyon floor nearby.  Their farms were most likely on the mesa top above.

The cliff dwelling was first reported in 1888 when two local ranchers chanced upon it while searching for stray cattle.  A large tree which they identified as a Douglas Spruce was found growing from the front of the dwelling to the mesa top.  It is said that the men first entered the ruin by climbing down this tree which was later cut down by another early explorer.



This is a closer view of a part of Spruce Tree House.  You can see that it was built from shaped, sandstone blocks.  The blocks are held together with an adobe-like mortar.  Both the outer and inner walls were originally covered with this same plaster.  The inner walls were often brightly colored.  A few patches of this plaster still exist in some of the rooms.





This is Oak Tree House.  It originally contained about 50 rooms and four kivas.  Part of the structure was four stories high and utilized all of the space in the alcove.






This is a closer view of Oak Tree House.  There is more deterioration than some of the others but, keep in mind that it is more than 1000 years old.  How many of our modern structures will survive for that long.

Notice the retaining walls in the front.  Dirt was filed in behind these walls to provide a level base for the structure.




This is called Sun Temple.  It was built later than the other structures; probably around 1250 AD.  It is thought that it was some sort of ceremonial structure.  Apparently the structure was not completed as there are no signs that it ever had a roof.  It was built just before the settlement was abandoned.




This is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.  It is called Cliff Palace.  It is believed to contain about 150 rooms.  However, only about 30 of the rooms contain hearths for building fires.  Therefore, the population is estimated to have been about 100-150 people.

Although many of the remaining rooms were storage rooms, Cliff Palace incorporates many open areas and rooms whose function is not understood.







This is a closer view of Cliff Palace.  Some of the square and round towers you can see were four stories tall.  The entire structure is 288 feet long.





This is Square Tower House, named for obvious reasons.  At 26 feet high, Square Tower House is the tallest structure in the park. The four-story "tower" was actually part of an extensive, multistoried unit with about 80 rooms and 7 kivas. Most of the other high rooms collapsed after abandonment.




Most of the farming was done on the mesa top, so each dwelling needed a way to climb to the top.  This is part of the route for Square Tower House.  For others, the way might be only finger- and toe-holds cut into the rock of a sheer cliff face.






Mesa Verde is a fascinating place.  The story of the Anasazi and their mysterious, sudden disappearance is amazing.  It rose from scattered hunter-gatherers to a high civilization rich in art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy over a period of 800 years and then disappeared almost overnight.  Since they left no written records, we will probably never know what happened so my theory is as good as any other.  I think that along with art and science, they developed politicians.  After a while they simply got tired of them and went somewhere else.