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
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.