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[graphic] Mesa Verde National Park

Interior of Cliff Palace
NPS Photo
Mesa Verde National Park is located in the high plateau country of southwestern Colorado. The park was established in 1906 to preserve the spectacular archeological remnants of the thousand-year-old culture of the Ancestral Pueblo people. About 1400 years ago, long before any European exploration of the New World, people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") for their home. For more than 700 years their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone villages in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls.

From the hundreds of dwellings that remain at Mesa Verde, archeologists have compiled one of the most significant chapters in the story of prehistoric America. There are more than 4000 known archeological sites in the park, and approximately 600 of these are cliff dwellings. Studying these sites in chronological order illustrates the architectural development of Mesa Verde. From approximately 600 A.D. through 1300 A.D. people lived and flourished in communities throughout the area. The agrarian people who lived in the mesa area at the beginning of this period built roofed dwellings. These pithouses were built in alcoves and on the mesa tops. Starting about 750 A.D., the people grouped their houses together to form compact villages. These have been given the name of "pueblo," a Spanish term meaning village. From 750 A.D. to 1000 A.D. there was a great deal of experimentation and development. Many types of construction were used; adobe and poles, stone slabs topped with adobe, adobe and stones, and finally layered masonry. The houses were joined together to form compact clusters around open courts. In these courts were pithouses which grew deeper and finally developed into ceremonial rooms now referred to as kivas (kee-vahs).

[photo] Spruce Tree House
Photograph courtesy of Shannon Bell, photo by Scott Davis

During their last century, some Pueblo Indians left the mesa tops and built their homes in the alcoves that abound in the canyon walls. These cliff dwellings represent the last 75 to 100 years of occupation at Mesa Verde, and mark the climax of the Pueblo culture here. One of the largest of these villages and the best preserved is Spruce Tree House with 140 rooms and 9 kivas, home for about 75 people. The basic construction material was sandstone, which was shaped into rectangular blocks about the size of a loaf of bread. The mortar between the blocks was a mix of mud and water. Rooms averaged about 6 by 8 feet, space enough for two or three persons. Much of the daily routine most likely took place in the open courtyards in front of the rooms.

View of Cliff Palace from the top of the mesa
Photograph courtesy of Shannon Bell
In the late 1200s, within the span of one or two generations, the Ancestral Pueblo people left their homes and moved away. A major drought struck the region in 1276. For 23 years precipitation was scarce and the springs dried up. Villages were abandoned in the search for regions with a more dependable water supply. Today, scientists study the dwellings of Mesa Verde, in part, by making comparisons between the Ancestral Pueblo people and their contemporary indigenous descendants who still live in the Southwest today. Twenty-four American Indian tribes in the southwest have an ancestral affiliation with the sites at Mesa Verde.

Archeological sites of many different types, from pithouses to cliff dwellings, are accessible to visitors. Maximum protection must be given to these archeological sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Visitors may enter cliff dwellings ONLY when accompanied by a Park Ranger. However, there are over 20 mesa top sites and view points which may be visited on your own. Visit the Park's website for further information.

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