Near the Four Corners where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado come together is a landmark that 16th century Spanish explorers called Mesa Verde, or the Green Table. It is clearly visible on the horizon for more than ten miles. The Spanish didn’t bother going up there. Why would they? It would appear to require a lot of effort for little or no benefit.
But this summer Shirley and I went up there for the third time. Even in a motorized vehicle, the climb to the table top is not easy because the road is so steep and winding. But there are stunning views of the Mancos Valley along the way and surprises at the top.
From a distance, the mesa may look as flat as a table, but it isn’t. There are mountains on top—or what would surely pass for mountains in Ohio. Deep canyons up there, too. Not only that, there are two other mesas, Chapin and Wetherill, on top of Mesa Verde.
Still, the reason to ascend Mesa Verde is not to see more canyons and mountains and mesas. Those things are all around at the Four Corners. The reason to visit is to admire the impressive archeological remains of a civilization that thrived there more than 1,000 years ago.
In the sixth century, hunter-gatherer Indians moved onto the Mesa. Over the next 700 years, their decision was vindicated as their descendants settled into permanent homes; grew corn, beans, and squash; and gave up their wandering lifestyle. They dug circular pit houses, which is way more difficult than it sounds. The digging was done in rocky ground rather than good ol’ dirt, and the pits were lined with carefully shaped stones. The term “pit house” sounds rather crude, but the engineering was actually rather impressive. Eventually, as above-ground stone dwellings became common, the pit houses evolved into kivas for religious and ceremonial functions.
The interior walls of a typical kiva rise about three or four feet to a circular bench-like ledge that holds six pilasters rising another three or four feet. These pilasters supported the roof beams. The spaces between the beams were filled in with smaller poles, a layer of juniper bark, and then a five-to-six-inch layer of adobe that formed a roof strong enough to walk on. A square opening was left in the roof for access via a ladder and to serve as a chimney of sorts.
Now, anyone with a wood-burning fireplace will tell you that the house will fill with smoke in just a couple minutes unless the chimney has a well-designed flue for updraft. In kivas, that updraft was created by a ventilator shaft in a side wall. At the base of the shaft was a low deflector wall that sent incoming fresh air swirling in a circular pattern around the kiva before carrying the smoke up through the roof opening.
The base of the ladder rested next to the fire pit so anyone coming or going passed through the smoke. Contemporary Puebloans along the upper Rio Grande in New Mexico and Colorado still maintain that smoke has cleansing properties both physical and spiritual. A few years ago, Shirley and I were invited to attend a private Indian ceremony that began with the smoking of a two-foot-long pipe and then the aromatic smoke was gently wafted over the participants with an eagle feather. This “smoke bath” was undertaken with great solemnity, dignity, and reverence. Any Catholic priest will tell you the Church uses incense in pretty much the same way. “Holy smoke” is an almost universal concept appearing in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and in cultures reaching well back into pre-history.
Another spiritual feature of kivas is the sipapu (SEE-pah-poo), a symbolic representation of the hole in the earth through which the original ancestors emerged from lower levels. Ranger Jan told a version of the Zuni creation story that is a fascinating amalgam of elements we might recognize from Moses, Dante, Freud, and Harry Potter.
Though we had been there before, it was only this year that a ranger explained why the Mesa was so attractive to those first inhabitants and justified the effort to get up there and stay once they arrived. First, the “flat” top is actually tilted about seven degrees to the south. This is just enough to increase the annual sun exposure and, therefore, extend the growing season for all that corn, beans, and squash. In addition, the soil is richer than you might associate with a desert environment because, over the eons, the prevailing winds have carried the dust of clay and sand in favorable proportions from the direction of Monument Valley. Combined with about 18 inches of annual precipitation (except in years when things averaged out to the downside) the soil was quite capable of sustaining thousands of residents. Because they knew there would be lean years as well as fat years, the Ancient Puebloans strived to keep at least two years of food supply in reserve. Archeologists have deduced this from all kinds of fascinating evidence that we’ll get into later.
What strikes me as particularly ingenious is that the Puebloans somehow developed the skills and tools to create elaborate, sophisticated dwellings of stone without metal tools or draft animals to help move thousands of tons of rock. At Mesa Verde, the places we call Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House are two, three, or even four stories high and set back in natural cliff-side alcoves. The structures have carefully shaped stone walls with perfectly squared-off corners or, in some cases, a circular, silo-like form.
Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, was discovered in 1888 by two cowboys who described a “magnificent city.” And it surely is. If you had time for just one tour at Mesa Verde, Cliff Palace is the most impressive. It contains 217 rooms and 23 kivas in a huge alcove. Smaller niches along the sides and ceiling of the alcove were obviously for storage because they are not large enough for living space, but they could be sealed off to prevent rodents from getting to food stuffs stored in pottery and woven baskets.
But rodents were not responsible for all the pilfering. There was no law protecting ancient artifacts until 1906, so there is no way to know how many invaluable artifacts were carried off as souvenirs. For that matter, rangers complain that they still catch visitors trying to stuff their pockets and backpacks. Indiana Jones would be furious.
One of the most impressive living spaces was a square tower four stories high. Though the upper stories have collapsed, you can see where they used to be because of the holes in the cliff face that once supported the roof beams or vigas. (Vigas are still a prominent feature in contemporary Southwestern adobe architecture that strives to look “historic.”) You might think of the tower as a 13th century condo complex with rooms averaging 6 ft. x 8 ft. and about 5½ ft. in height. Not opulent by our standards but still pretty good compared to living in a pit house or a nomad’s make-shift temporary home. Those vigas, by the way, are important sources for dating the construction time frame by archeologists. Dendochronology—reading tree rings—can be amazingly precise. Dates for Cliff Palace, for example, are early 1200s through the late 1270s.
Another valuable source of information is that classic archeological favorite—garbage. There was a lot of it because the Ancient Puebloans tended to get rid of stuff by just tossing it off the cliff. But an ancient Indian’s trash is an archeologist’s treasure. Or, as a ranger once described it to us, the difference between garbage and an artifact is 50 years. (At Smoky Mountains National Park there is a Coca-Cola bottle on display as an “artifact” from the ancient 1930s. No kidding.) Excavators sifting through centuries worth of trash found broken pottery, stone and bone tools, worn out clothing, yucca fiber sandals, corn cobs, beans and squash seeds, rabbit fur and turkey feather cloaks and blankets, jewelry and other ornaments. All this helped create an image of what life was like at Cliff Palace.
In addition to Cliff Palace, Shirley and I toured Balcony House and Long House on this trip. On earlier visits, we included Spruce Tree House and Step House. Shirley’s father would have said, “Seen one, seen them all.” But that was just his quaint Midwestern way of acknowledging that the basic architecture at Mesa Verde is essentially the same everywhere. It was a rich culture shared by a good-sized community that extended throughout the Four Corners region. This summer, we also visited Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe and Hovenweep on the Colorado-Utah border. More about them in a future issue. They are all similar but different.
Taken all together, the ancient sites we toured were just a walk in the park. One of us, though, might agree with her father. Perhaps we have seen enough. For this year. But who knows when Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelle, and Aztec Ruins may turn up on our itinerary?
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site. ❦
The "adobe" facade and "vigas" of this modern hotel are intended to make it look historic.