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.

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