Often in the US, I have taken an exit on a freeway, pulled into a side road to follow a sign claiming a historical site only to find a structure 80-100 years old. So on a flight home, one day, from a business trip, when I read about the 13th century cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde in the airline magazine, I had to go.
We visited the Mesa Verde National Park on the labor day weekend in 2008.
Here is what our itinerary looked like
Day 1: August 29th 2008: We took a early morning Alaska flight from Seattle to Denver, rented a car, drove 500 miles south west to Mesa Verde and parked ourselves in the beautiful Far View Lodge
Day 3: August 31st 2008: We drove off the Chapin Mesa to the Wetherill Mesa to visit Long House and the Step House. In the afternoon we drove out of Mesa Verde to visit the four corners monument and Ship Rock. We then stayed at Days End Inn in Durango.
Day 4: September 1st 2009 We started out early in the morning and took the San Juan Skyway to arrive back at Denver and then took the evening flight home.
Native Americans have been staying in the Four Corners region since the imaginary line that divides BC from AD. There are many ancient settlements that can be found around Mesa Verde - specifically in Chaco in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. The residents of these settlements were called Anasazi - a Navajo word that was wrongly interpreted as the Ancient Ones. The word also means the Ancient Enemy and the politically correct word nowadays is Ancestral Pueblons. But before they were Pueblons, they were known as the Basket Makers. From 1 AD to about 550 AD, the people were nomads - more hunters and gatherers than farmers and were so named for the beautiful baskets they wove using the abundant Yucca.
The mesa is about 7000 feet above ground level and much cooler and wetter than the surrounding arid flat ground. The top is almost green - minus the gnarled back stumps left such by forest fires. The Anasazi - I will continue to use that word, it just sounds so beautiful on the tongue - used the intricately designed baskets they wove to carry things, store water and cook food. Food was cooked by dropping hot stones and pieces of coal in the basket.
The Anasazi moved to Mesa Verde around 550 AD, discovered bow and arrows and started building pit houses. A pit house is a depression dug into the ground with one single circular room - sometimes two - which is then covered with a mud roof supported by wooden pillars. As they settled on the Mesa, they started to harvest corn. They also leaned to make pots. The period between 550 and 750 AD is called the modified Basket Maker Period.
Baskets on the left, impressive - almost modern - mugs on the right. These can be seen at the Museum near Spruce Tree House .
Between 750 AD and 1100 AD, the Anasazi moved out of pit houses and started to build multi-storied brownstones. A group of houses usually had a common community place called a Kiva, which similar to a pit house, was a depression with a mud roof. The Kivas were used as a daily meeting place and ceremonies. The Kivas were a very important part of the Anasazi life.
Around 1190, the Anasazi started to move into the alcoves in the cliffs. It is possible that scarcity of land on the mesa top caused this move. After all there were seven thousand Anasazis in Mesa Verde. They start moved into the alcoves and started building entire villages .
The buildings are complex and exotic build south west facing trapping the afternoon sun for heat and leaving the place cooler during the day. Kivas are abundant and mandatory. Every nook and cranny of the alcove is used optimally including storage attics build high up into the ledge.
Then around 1300 AD, the Anasazi were gone.
They moved away from Mesa Verde never ever to return again. The reason for the exodus is not known.
The Anasazi were extremely complex people. They lived a social and richly cultural life. They lived as tight clans and protected their neighborhood fiercely. They were also tremendously violent. Many Pueblons sites - not in Mesa Verde - has evidence of war and rampage, murder and gory, arson and cannibalism.
The Navajo and Ute, who moved into the area a couple of hundred years after the Anasazi left, were tight lipped about the dwellings. On December 18, 1888 Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason - local ranchers - discovered what is today known as Cliff Palace while looking for lost cattle. Over the next 3 years, they searched the canyons, discovered and named many of the sites known today. In 1891, the site was extensively documented and photographed by a Swedish archeologist called Gustaf Nordenskiold. Nordenskiold, on his way back to Sweden, took a large horde of pottery and other artifacts found in Mesa Verde.
This inspired the Antiquities law signed in 1906, also the year when Mesa Verde was declared a National Park by President Ted Roosevelt.
Mesa Verde is the only National Park in US for structure built by mankind.
Mesa Verde Photo Gallery: