Preserving Cliff Palace

Pre-excavation photograph of Cliff Palace from 1890 to 1900.
Cliff Palace, pre-excavation c. 1890 - 1900



Centuries of Deterioration

From the late 13th century to 1880s, Cliff Palace slowly deteriorated from the effects of water, wind, freeze/thaw cycles, differential fill levels, a variety of animals, spalling of the alcove roof, and the inherent qualities of the prehistoric structures themselves. Over the course of six centuries, Cliff Palace was visually transformed from an imposing assemblage of buildings,courtyards, and subterranean kivas to an array of stone structures rising from tons of rubble and debris. Still remarkably impressive, the effects of time were nevertheless evident. However, with the 'discovery' of Cliff Palace in the late 1800s, this gradual process of decay rapidly accelerated. Casual visitation and commercial exploration employed everything from pick and shovel to dynamite in an effort to recover all types of artifacts. In the end, the form and fabric of Cliff Palace was heavily damaged throughout its extent, with the natural processes of deterioration now altered by human activity.

With the establishment of Mesa Verde National Park in 1906, the despoliation of the late 1800s was replaced by an emerging preservation ethic determined to halt the damage. Through the efforts of Smithsonian archeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, field methods designed to excavate and collect artifacts were modified to identify and understand the effects of unrestrained looting upon standing architecture, buried features, and archeological deposits. In addition, Fewkes realized the importance of preparing archeological sites for visitation. He believed it was only through direct experience, literally being able to walk through a cliff dwelling, that the American public could appreciate and support the preservation of Mesa Verde's archeological resources. To accomplish this goal, Fewkes, along with many of his contemporaries, invented the practice of ruins stabilization. Although certainly limited by the use of incompatible materials, construction techniques, and somewhat fanciful reconstructions, there seems little doubt that the history of ruins stabilization within Mesa Verde National Park fundamentally contributed to the development of contemporary Conservation Archeology.

Current Preservation Needs >>

Last updated: April 16, 2015

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Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330



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