Friday, May 09, 2014

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde

We started our day-long car tour of Mesa Verde by circling the Mesa Top Loop. I've written about the 6th-12th century pithouses on top of the mesa that we visited there. In addition, we stopped at several viewpoints to enjoy the scenery, especially the beautiful canyons and occasional glimpses of distant snow-capped mountains. In the afternoon, we toured the three ancient cliff dwellings that were open to the public this week: Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Spruce Tree House. There's another scenic loop in the park, but it hasn't yet opened for the summer season.

Several overlooks at the Mesa Top Loop enable one to look across the canyons to the cliff dwellings that the Pueblo people built during the thirteenth century. We particularly enjoyed the view towards the Cliff Palace, one of the largest structures built into the natural alcoves in the canyon walls. Many of the smaller ones are visible on the same cliff face.

Looking towards Cliff Palace we enjoyed watching the swallows swoop and dive below us and on our eye level, speeding down into the canyon as they gobbled up the insects. They move much too fast to get a picture in flight (at least that's true of our telephoto lens); we did catch one sitting in a tree just below the viewpoint:

A violet-green swallow seen from the overlook towards Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace
Our tour of Cliff Palace began at 1:00 -- we ate a picnic lunch while awaiting the tour, which leaves from the second driving loop. Visiting these structures that hang on the edge of the cliff with spectacular entrances and exists is an intense experience, especially walking down the fairly steep paths towards the alcoves where the Pueblo people built and climbing up quite long wooden ladders. In some cases we also crawled or climbed through narrow passageways. The Pueblo people had handholds and footholds in the rock face, and essentially they climbed right up the sheer face of the cliffs every day to go to their fields, to hunt and gather plants, and whatever else they did -- in other words, the park service has made it easier for the tourists!
Cliff Palace as we were entering the alcove
Looking around
Like the older dwellings on the mesa, the cliff-top structures all include kivas, or round shelters that were once covered by a sturdy roof and entered by a ladder in the middle of the room. Similar arrangements are still used by the descendants of these people, such as the residents of Taos Pueblo.

Cliff Palace has a seep-spring that provided water to the people in the structure, and had rooms that were probably used for storing grain and other foods. As the biggest structure, Cliff Palace may have been used not only as a dwelling, but also for meetings and dancing. Details of life in the many cliff dwellings are subject to speculation, as much of the archaeological materials were looted soon after the ranchers and other explorers became aware of the many incredible cliff ruins.

Kiva at Cliff Palace
To leave Cliff House, you climb through a narrow
slit in the rock face... 
After the stone stairs through the slit, you climb a rather long ladder
to exit. Above: Len coming up the ladder.
Cliff structures, we were told, were built only during the last century when the Pueblos lived in Mesa Verde. Throughout that time, the inhabitants made the entrances more and more narrow and challenging, probably in order to repel invaders or strangers. At the end of that era, when there was a very long drought, they abandoned the area entirely and moved south, where their descendants still inhabit somewhat similar pueblo dwellings. The existence of the structures at Mesa Verde seems to have been entirely forgotten some time after the abandonment of the area around 1300.

I'll be posting more photos of the other cliff structures that we visited, including more about the kivas, about the people who lived in these structures, and about their rediscovery.

1 comment:

Johanna GGG said...

wow that place looks amazing - have never heard of it before but your photos make me want to hop on a plane to the US