The dreaded 30 foot ladder used today for entering the Balcony House is "modern." It is not known to have been used either by Anasazi or by the earliest arrivals at the Balcony House – S E Osborne, W H Hayes, Charles Mason, Virginia McClurg, Gustav Nordenskiold or even Jesse Nussbaum.
“All cliff sites are defensive in some form, used like castles, though in a very different context than Medieval Europe. Major cliff dwellings show up in the southwest during times of migration, environmental stress, and clear evidence of conflict.” Craig Childs – naturalist traveller and one of my favorite authors - wrote to me, “There may have been other reasons for Balcony House, but when I look at it I see people taking cover.”
Craig’s word is the last word for me when it comes to the cliff dwellings of the southwest. Balcony House has many features, natural and man made, that makes it anything \but a defensive structure.
The cliff dwelling resides in an eye-socket shaped alcove close to the top of the mesa. The site is 2000 feet above the floor of the Soda canyon and faces east, overlooking one of the largest drainage of the Mancos river.
A series of hand and toeholds have been ground into the hard rocks by the ancient ones. This precarious route was the entrance to the Balcony House when it was actively occupied. (If you visit Balcony house today, you would exit by climbing these steps.) A misstep means a two thousand feet tumble to the bottom of the Soda canyon. The enemy would have to carefully tiptoe in broad daylight in a single file, there is no way to storm Balcony house en masse.
The steps end on a tiny ledge that can accommodate at the most half a dozen people at the same time.
The attacker, exchanging vertigo for claustrophobia, would then have to crawl through a 12 foot long tunnel built ingeniously by filling in a natural gap between two boulders. At the center of the tunnel is a strategically left stone that complicates the crawl and ejects the entrant in probably the worst attacking posture – horizontal, head facing down and foot kind of stuck.
The tunnel opens into the North plaza. North Plaza has a few typical Anasazi rooms towards the rear and a small moss covered water spring, sufficient for a few residents, probably indicating that the house was not inhabited around the year. The wall between North Plaza and Lower Plaza was built after the house was completed, leaving a just a tiny natural gash between rocks, another reason to believe the house was converted into a defensive post.
The North Plaza has a beautiful view of the canyon and has a retaining wall that was carefully stabilized by Gustav Nordenskiold using precisely Anasazi building techniques and style. The Plaza has some of the best preserved balconies - parapets running along the outer wall of the house wall – supposedly used by Anasazi to cross from one room to another. It is these balconies that gives the house its name.
Without any documented Anasazi evidence, we are left to using our imagination to conclude that a civilization advanced enough to live as independent clans yet belong to a larger complex socio-structure and if the tall complex in Cliff Palace indeed belonged to a chieftain, then this would be the place his advisors would choose as place to back into if invaded.
My two favorite books about Balcony House are Kathleen Fiero's "Balcony House: A history of cliff dwelling, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado" and Gustav Nordenskiold's "The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde." Kathleen's tome reads like a novel, beautifully rendered yet not missing any scientific details. (The one I got from the library was a cyclostyled copy of her original report! How I wish the photos were colored). Gustav's work, on the other hand, reads nostalgia.