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.

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