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Mesa Verde National Park Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde's largest cliff dwelling



Cliff Palace is situated in a cave in Cliff-palace canyon, a branch of Cliff canyon, which is here about 200 feet deep. It occupies practically the whole of the cave, the roof of which overhangs about two projecting considerably beyond its middle. This thirds of the ruin cave is much more capacious than that in which Spruce-tree House is situated, as shown by comparing illustrations and descriptions of the latter in the former report. The configuration of Spruce-tree House cave and that of Cliff Palace, and the relation of its floor to the talus, also differ. The canyon in which Cliff Palace lies is thickly wooded, having many cedars and a few pines and scrub oaks; the almost total failure of water at certain seasons of the year at Cliff Palace renders floral life in the vicinity less exuberant than in Spruce-tree canyon, a branch of Navaho canyon (fig. 1). On the level plateau above the ruin there are many trees—pines and cedars— but even this area is not so thickly wooded as the summit of the mesa above Spruce-tree House.a

aClearings in the forest indicate the positions of the former farms of the inhabitants of Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace
Plate 7. SOUTHERN END, AFTER REPAIRING (photographed by R. G. Fuller)

The geological formation of the cave in which Cliff Palace is situated is similar to that at Spruce-tree House. consisting of alternating layers of hard and soft sandstone, shale, and even layers of coal. Both canyons and caves appear to have been formed by the same processes. In past ages the elements have eroded and undermined the soft layers of sandstone or shale to such an extent that great blocks of rock, being left without foundations, have broken away from above, falling down the precipice. Many of these great bowlders remained on the floor of a cave where it was broad enough to retain them. The surface of the roof arching over Cliff Palace cave is perhaps smoother than that of Spruce-tree House. The progress of cave erosion was greatly augmented by the flow of water from the mesa summit during heavy rains, as hereinafter described.

Navaho Canyon
FIG. 1.—View down Navaho Canyon.

To understand the general plain of Cliff Palace it is necessary to take into consideration the method of formation and the configuration of the cave floor on which the ruin stands. This cave, as already stated, was formed by erosion or undercutting the softer rock at a lower level than the massive sandstone, leaving huge blocks of stone above the eroded cavities. Naturally these blocks, being without support, fell, and in falling were broken, the larger fragments remaining on the floor practically in the places where they fell, but many of the smaller stones were washed out of the cave entrance, forming a talus extending down the side of the cliff. The floor of the cave was thus strewn with stones, large and small, resting on the same general level which is that on which the foundations of the buildings were constructed. The level of the cave floor was interrupted by the huge blocks of stone forming its outer margin; and the buildings constructed on these fallen rocks were lofty, even imposing. The talus composed of fallen rock and debris, piled against the canyon side in front of these buildings and below these huge blocks of stone, extends many feet down the cliff in a gradual slope, covering the terraced buildings and burying their retaining walls from sight.a A great part of this talus is composed of fallen walls, but considerable earth and small stones are contained in it, probably precipitated over the rim of the cave roof by the torrents of water which sometimes fall during heavy rains. It is probable also that the foresting of the talus has been due more or less to bushes and small trees washed over the cliff from the mesa summit.

aAccess to Cliff Palace from the bottom of the canyon, although difficult, is possible, and a pathway might be constructed down its sides or along the top of the talus to several other cliff-dwellings. In the vicinity of Cliff Palace there are at least 20 ruins, large and small.

Three terraces or tiers containing rooms, as shown in the accompanying ground plan, were revealed by excavations in this talus. At the western extension, where the second and third terraces cease, the tops of large rocks begin at the level of the fourth terrace, and on the southern end the first terrace is absent. At the western extremity, the large blocks of rock having dropped down entire from the side of the cliff, fill the interval elsewhere occupied by the lower terraces, and their tops now form a ledge upon which rest the foundations of rooms level with the plaza. It is thus evident that whereas the front wall of Spruce-tree House is simple, the level of the kiva roofs and floors of buildings above ground being continuous, the front of Cliff Palace is complicated, being at different levels, consisting of terraces in the talus. As one approached Cliff Palace, when inhabited, it must have presented, from below, an imposing structure, the lower terraces being occupied by many large kivas above which rose lofty buildings arranged in tiers, several being four stories high. Although the height was much increased by the presence of huge foundation blocks of sandstone, from the lowest terrace to the highest room there were seven floor levels, including those of the kivas in the terraces.

An examination of Cliff Palace cave shows that from the southern end to the section over the main entrance its roof arches upward and that the part over the rear of the ruin is lower than that over its front. Between the lower and upper roof levels there is a sharp break formed by a vertical cleavage plane. Where this plane joins the upper level there is a shelf forming a recess in which has been constructed a row of ledge rooms.b

bOne of these rooms had been chosen by eagles for their nests, but both nests and eggs were abandoned by the birds after the repair work was began.

The great rock roof arching over Cliff Palace is broken about midway between the vertical plane above mentioned and the rim by another and narrower vertical plane where no ledge exists. Here multitudes of swallows had made their home, and there are wasps' nests in several places.

Plate 8. CLIFF PALACE GROUND PLAN (from survey by R. G. Fuller) (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
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