Thursday, August 29, 2013

Great Sites: Cliff Palace

Mesa Verde National Park

"A magnificent city" -- Cliff Palace
[video] On a snowy December day in 1888, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, while herding cattle, emerged from the dense pinon-juniper forest at the edge of a massive canyon, probably standing right above a small, long forgotten cliff dwelling.  Through the veil of blowing snow, they spied in the cliffs across the canyon what they said looked like “a magnificent city”.  They named it “Cliff Palace”.


The first person escorted in to see Cliff Palace was Frederick Chapin, an experienced mountaineer who climbed down a rope from the canyon rim,  He described the dwelling saying, “It occupies a great space under a grand oval cliff, appearing like a ruined fortress, with ramparts, bastions, and dismantled towers.”  One of the canyons and the Museum were named after him.

[video] Today, you are escorted into Cliff Palace by a Park Ranger starting from the canyon rim, descending stairs and following a paved path.   The history, culture and features are pointed out by the knowledgeable guides .  The Overlook provides an enticing peek at the crown jewel of Mesa Verde National Park.  It is an architectural masterpiece by any standard.  It is also the largest cliff dwelling in the park—and in North America.  There are 150 rooms, including 25-30 sooty rooms and 23 kivas nestled in the alcove that is 59 feet high, 89 feet deep and 288 feet long.
Cliff Palace

In 1906, Cliff Palace was protected as part of the new Mesa Verde National Park.   Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution excavated the site and repaired the crumbling walls.  He found the site “almost completely rifled of its contents”. 

Construction of the site by its Ancestral Puebloan residents began around 1190 with the main building phase between 1260 and 1280.  It has the typical mix of Living Rooms, storage rooms, kivas, towers, and open spaces.   The number of living rooms with Hearths and kivas suggest about 20-25 families may have occupied the village.  But by A.D. 1300 it was vacant.

[video] Of course, there are secret passages in Cliff Palace; one connected two kivas, another connected a kiva and room.  Some believe they were used for dramatic affect during a ceremony.  Or, maybe just for convenience.

[video] After the Ranger Guided Tour of Cliff House, drive the Mesa Top Loop to see where it all began by viewing the pithouses.  See how they evolved adding towers connected by tunnels.  Observe how, over time they perfected the design of the kiva.


Finally, at the Sunpoint pullout, look straight across to see the Sunset House built on dual alcoves.  Scan to the left to view Cliff Palace.  Then look to the left to see Mummy House clinging to narrow ledges.  Above and on top of the mesa is Sun Temple—built, but never lived in.  Down and to the left is Oak Tree House nestled in a tall alcove.  Then on down the canyon are the two Fire Houses—old and new.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Great Sites: The Secret Passages of Coyote Village

This week I want to talk about one of the unique features of the Mesa Verdeans that fascinates me—mysterious doors and passages!  Early in the history of these remote people they built narrow (2-foot by 3-foot) doors to tunnels that connect a room to a kiva or a tower.   I haven’t seen that anywhere else.   But at Mesa Verde it is quite common.  That is one thing that makes the small, unassuming ruins at “Far View Sites” so interesting to me.  This site sits on top of the “mesa” not far from the Far View Lodge in the center of the park.  The area was populated between 900 and 1300 A.D.--fairly early in the timeline—and was a farming community.   It is called “Far View” because of its stunning views of the countryside, canyons, and surrounding mountains.

The most elaborate example of tunnels lies in Coyote Village, one of the ruins featured on the Far View Site trail loop.  Next week I will talk more about the loop, but this week I want to concentrate on the mysterious passages of this site.

Coyote Village has 30 ground floor rooms (the upper floor(s) are gone now), five kivas and a watch
tower.  Three of the kivas, the tower, and a room are all linked by tunnels.

[view video]  Starting with the kiva in the center of the plaza, it looks like a typical kiva with ventilator chamber, stone deflector, (back fill covers the fire pit and sipapu), stone pilasters … but then there is a curious door in one of the bench-like banquettes with a tunnel that leads under the plaza to the kiva next to it.

That kiva not only has the door from the central kiva but another door mounted in the corner of the chamber fronting the ventilator shaft that tunnels to the watch tower.  The most common connection at Mesa Verde is from a kiva to a watch tower.

When entering the watch tower from the plaza, one would have to be careful not to step into the hole in the floor  just inside the door and fall into the tunnel exit from the kiva.

Not only did the kiva connect to the tower, it had a third tunnel that connected to a room and another kiva in the corner of the village. 

The third kiva in the link had a door to a passage to a rectangular room.   Oddly,  there is no sign of the tunnel  from the central kiva inside the kiva suggesting the tunnel went to the room.

But, an inspection of the rectangular room only turns up a drop down into the tunnel to the third kiva.  I suspect that the tunnel from the central kiva comes up between the third kiva and the room.
[end of video]

I don’t know why I find these passages so intriguing.  Perhaps it’s that childhood fascination with sneaking around in tunnels and secret passages.  I’m sure there is a very practical explanation for them other than sneaking around.  It gets pretty cold on these high mesas in the winter.  Perhaps this was just a way to move around without having to go outside.  But, if that is the answer, I wonder why all of the rooms weren’t connected this way.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Great Sites: Spruce Tree House

Part 2: Mesa Verde National Park

Of all of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) sites, Mesa Verde National Park is the largest, most dazzling, and affords the greatest access of all.  The contrast between Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon is like night and day.  Chaco Canyon is quiet, mystical, and uncrowded.  Mesa Verde is bustling, noisy, and glamorous.  But, it is SO worth the visit.  There is nothing as beautiful as seeing the magnificent Chaco-style architecture showcased in a majestic sandstone alcove nestled in the side of a daunting canyon.  And at Mesa Verde, you can see the “palaces” from many different angles, experience them with a ranger guided tour, or walk leisurely through them on a self-guided tour with a ranger always nearby for questions.

Chapin Mesa Archeology Museum
The first place I usually visit in the park is the visitor center where I can get information on tours, maps, and purchase trail guides.  I also purchase tickets for special ranger guided tours.  There is also a very nice book and gift shop.  Then it is off to the park on a winding road that affords very scenic views of the canyons and occasional breath-taking panoramas of the surrounding valleys.

The next stop for me, and most visitors, is the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum 22 miles from the visitor center and deep in the heart of the many beautiful ruins.  If you can only spend one day in the park, this is your best course of action.  Learn about the remarkable people that lived on the mesa and in the canyon alcoves 800 years ago by touring the great exhibits and watching the park video in the museum.

[view video] For a spectacular view of Spruce Tree House, walk only a few steps from the Chapin
Mesa Archaeological Museum to the canyon rim.  You are free to walk at your own pace down the paved switch-back trail that leads directly into the ruin.  You are on your own to explore the well-preserved great house nestled in a beautiful sandstone alcove with rangers standing by for questions.

[view video] On the path to Spruce Tree House, you pass a spring that was used by its residents.  The geology that creates this spring also created the alcove that the house was built in.  The tan cliffs in the canyons are composed of sandstone which is very porous.  Rain, snow melt and running water seep through the sandstone down to the layer of shale underneath where it emerges as a spring.  Often in winter the water collects in cracks in the sandstone, freezes and breaks off chunks until the alcove is formed.

[view video] Manos sitting on mutates in a small room prompt me to imagine what life was like in these great houses.   Most daily chores were done outside on the plazas in the summer and moved inside in the winter. 

The mud plaster coating still clings to some of the walls that were three or four stories high in some areas.  Many rooms were used to store corn, squash, and beans harvested on the mesas above.  Some doors were “T”-shaped making them handy for carrying armloads into the rooms.  The soot on the walls and ceilings suggest that fires were used inside many of the rooms and some say burned constantly in the rear areas.  Remnants of porches and balconies remain.  There were about 114 rooms here and the average size was 6x8x5 ½ feet.  The average height of a male resident was around 5 feet 4 inches.

There were eight kivas used by kinship groups for ceremonial and communal activities.  A lot of what we know about the kivas comes from descendants of these Ancestral Pueblo people living today and still using kivas.  Unlike the living rooms, kivas were well-designed for using fire and well-ventilated.

[view video] Near the center of this great house is a corridor very similar to a main street connecting the front plaza to the back. I don’t think I have seen this before in a great house.  There is also a large circular room that is built like towers found on the mesas above the canyons.  However, it was more likely a storage room than a watch tower.  This tower over looks a typical kiva built under the plaza.

 Stone Pilasters supported log beams that held up the roof using cribbed construction.  A large pit in the center of the floor contained the fire.  Fresh air was drawn in through the ventilator shaft and dispersed by a stone deflector shield.   The small hole in the floor behind the firepit is a “Sipapu” which represents the opening through which man emerged onto the face of the earth.

Smoke from the fire exited through a square hole in the roof which also served as the entrance and exit by ladder.   The banquets look like benches but were more likely used to store ceremonial objects.    There were also small caches built into the walls for special storage.

A special treat is in store for you at Spruce Tree House.  There is a fully restored kiva complete with roof that you are allowed to climb down into and experience.  I was surprised by how roomy it felt and how much natural light made its way inside.
[view video] Another bonus is a sample of how the walls may have been decorated still preserved in the fading plaster.  This design was painted on the wall 800 years ago.
Spruce Tree House is a great introduction to the beautiful Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Great Sites: Mesa Verde National Park

Part 1: The Park
Mesa Verde National Park is probably the most popular of the great Ancestral Pueblo Culture sites.  The cliff dwellings feature the advanced building expertise of the Chacoan Ancestral Pueblo Culture showcased in beautiful, natural sandstone cliff alcoves.

“Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.”
Mesa Verde National Park is in Southwestern Colorado. The Mesa Verde Headquarters is a one-hour drive from Cortez, Colorado, heading east on Highway 160 to the park turnoff, and a 1.5 hour drive from Durango, Colorado, heading west on Highway 160 to the park turnoff.
Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum

What to do:

The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offer glimpses into the culture of Ancestral Pueblo people. 
There are five cliff dwellings open to the public.  Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House, can only be entered on a ranger-guided tour but Spruce Tree House and Step House can be explored on your own.  

Mesa Top Loop Road on Chapin Mesa is a six-mile drive that offers amazing canyon views and a chance to learn about the Ancestral Pueblo people’s occupation and architecture through time. 

Hear about Mesa Verde from the park rangers who know it inside and out. Learn the vibrant story of the Ancestral Pueblo people’s lifeways on the mesa for over 750 years.
Cliff House

Whatever your interest, you will find a program to satisfy your curiosity.  Wander Prater Ridge Trail, try to decipher the art on Petroglyph Trail, or discover the lushness of Spruce Canyon. Whatever you decide, taking a walk or a hike will give you a chance to see some of the park’s hidden gems.
Check the park website, , to plan your visit.  No matter what season, there is always something see.
Knife Edge Road 1920
See how Knife Edge Road has changed since 1920.  And for a relaxing stay, check out Far View Lodge conveniently located inside the park.

Next week we’ll delve into the sites and culture.

-- Courtney Miller

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Great Sites: Bandelier National Monument Part 2: Mini Tour

As I mentioned in last week’s article, Bandelier National Monument is one of my favorite sites partly because of the diversity of dwellings and building techniques used by the ancient residents.  When you leave the visitor center, you start down a lovely, wooded path surrounded by the high canyon walls of Frijoles Canyon.  We are going to take the trail known as the Canyon Loop.  At this point,  there is no clue for what you are about to see.

[video] I had to stop and admire the tall canyon walls.  The tuff volcanic rock is soft and pock-marked with hundreds of eroded “cavates” (cavities).  It is so peaceful with only birds singing, people talking softly in the distance (and an occasional horn honking in the visitor parking lot).

Walking further, I was distracted by the funny looking Abert’s squirrel jumping from tree to tree when I first noticed the great kiva resting quietly among the pinons not far from the stream.  Although not as large and imposing as those at Chaco Canyon or Aztec Ruins, it has the typical features of a great kiva—the vent in the south wall; shield in front of the north entrance; a couple of floor chambers resembling possible foot drums; fire pit; and bench built into the circular walls.  Portions of the Timbers that once held up the flat roof remain in place.

Then as we continue down the path distracted by the tall cane cholla cactus with their brilliant hot pink flowers,  the great house, called Tyuonyi (Qu-weh-nee),  appears spread across the clearing.  It appears that only the base of the lower floor still exists of what was originally a two-story structure with over 400 rooms. 

[video] After entering through the narrow opening from the south, I pause to admire an old mano stone resting on a metate.  I can imagine groups of women sitting there grinding corn and talking, laughing, and singing as they worked.  Beyond the plaza of the great house Tyuonyi the remains of the talus houses that were once built next to the canyon in front of the cavates can be seen.  The representative of the cavate, the subterranean kiva, rests quietly in the plaza.

[video] As early as 10,000 years ago, nomadic hunters followed game into this canyon and camped in the naturally formed cavates.  The soft volcanic rock pock-marked by millions of years of erosion provided perfect caves where hunters and their families could find shelter.  Around 1150, the Ancestral Pueblo People moved into the canyon and planted corn, beans, and squash and added permanent stone houses to the front of the cavates.

[video] Some of the cavates are quite large.  In many, the floors were leveled and plastered over.  The natural doorways were often reduced and squared with stone and mortar.  The walls were often plastered over and painted after being smoothed and hollowed out.  The soot-covered ceilings testify to the use of fires inside the cavate.  These fires were sometimes placed near vents chiseled into the wall near the door.
 [video] Along the face of the canyon wall you can see the remnants of what is today known as the “Long House”.  Originally the Long House was three to four stories high.  The holes where the ceiling timbers were imbedded still remain.  The cavates that continued to be utilized in the back of the rooms still have signs of the paint that was on their walls.

[video]  Typically the rooms in the Long House were built two-deep from the walls and three high along the back.   Note the many smaller holes in the face.  Too small to be for vigas to hold up a ceiling, they were probably for a covered porch.  Petroglyphs are chiseled into the canyon face above the top floors.  Maybe children or adults would sit atop the building and doodle while they rested. 
There are 13 groups of talus villages in the Frijoles canyon,  the largest being Hewett's Group D, which has approximately 216 first story rooms. It appears to have been the more accessible of the cliff homes when compared to other cliff sites in the Canyon. The cliff wall still has the viga holes in it delineating a continuous group of houses from one to four stories in height extending along the cliff for 700 feet.

[video]  It was a natural progression for the agrarian occupants to eventually build a great house
down in the valley.  The talus houses may have remained the primary residences with the great house providing a community center and storage facility.  Traders may have stayed in the great house when they came to exchange goods.

Once you come back down into the valley and cross the creek along the Main Loop Trail, there is a trail branching off  to “The Alcove House”.  It is a nice, cool walk along the stream for about a half mile (one way).   [video] Formerly known as Ceremonial Cave, Alcove House is located 140 feet above the canyon floor and requires you to climb 4 wooden ladders and a number of stone stairs to reach the site.  In Alcove House, there is a reconstructed kiva and the viga holes and niches of former homes where about 25 people could have lived.   It reminds me of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colorado, on a much smaller scale.  Right after our visit, Alcove House was closed so that reconstruction work could be done on the kiva. 

It would have provided residents with a panoramic view and safety, but what a climb to have to make every day!
After the tour, it is great to sit at one of the streamside tables and have a nice, relaxing picnic while you watch the birds and squirrels play and listen to the soothing sound of the babbling stream.  You should put this site in your plans.