Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 22, 2011

Those ancestral Puebloans

A single course of masonry curves gracefully around the space it once defined.

A hummingbird whirred by in the silence, jarring me back to the present. I was standing at an infrequently-visited ruin at Mesa Verde National Park, trying to wrap my head around the living conditions here in this cliff dwelling 800 years ago. Birth, work, ritual, play, cooking, dancing, death… everything we do, they did. Only they did it in an alcove high above the canyon floor, with little to work with but their marvelous resourcefulness.

I pondered the walls, their builders’ skills varying from ‘passable’ to ‘highly aesthetic’ with perfect corners and edge decoration. The seep spring in the rear of the alcove was ingeniously directed toward small cuplets carved in the sandstone floor, making collection easier. Grinding stations were conveniently placed where the women could watch their children play while socializing with “the girls” as they prepared grains and seeds. Each clan had its own ceremonial subterranean kiva for rituals and worship, with innovative HVAC elements supplying it. Sketchy toeholds and handholds were cleverly carved right into the cliff walls, enabling ascents and descents that would dizzy us today

Perhaps a hundred people called this alcove home during the early 13th century.

Their building boom (i.e., multi-story masonry cliff dwellings of the 12th century) lasted only about a hundred years; then they moved southward to New Mexico and Arizona, abandoning the architectural wonders. Why did the garbage middens have fewer animal bones in the top layers? Why did the last rooms added to the pueblo use far less timber? The likely culprit was that their intensive land use had made trees and game animals scarce, too scarce to support a population dependent on the land for everything.

My 28 hours among the archeological sites of Mesa Verde gives me pause to consider what we are doing to our own world.

March 12, 2010

Mesa Verde, CO, in spring snows

ladder into a kiva at Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde; dust in air

Do you ever wonder about the people who lived in your area before you did? Waaaay before you did? The Colorado Plateau — which is parts of AZ, NM, CO, and UT — contain many evidences of early inhabitants. Rock art depicts many symbols of the people who lived here. Sometimes granaries (for storage of their crops) were built into alcoves or on mesa tops. If you have eyes to see, lots of telltale clues inform us of people living here before us.

masonry dwellings at Spruce Tree House

The pinnacle, however, seems to be when we discover their dwellings. In 1888, some cowboys were chasing down their errant cattle for a round-up, and rode into the deep canyons containing Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. They could not believe their eyes. It was such an incredible discovery that it took only 18 years to become a national monument. It is now a World Heritage Site, on a par with Egypt’s pyramids.

Square Tower, four stories, 26 ft, tallest structure of the ruins

These ruins are all 13th-century masonry construction, datable via dendrochronology (studying tree rings in roof timbers). The trees in the area seemed to quit growing around 1276; it is presumed that a long  and terrible drought (24 years’ worth) precipitated their abandoning these marvelous structures, which have stood for over seven centuries. My preferred way of looking upon ancient homes is to imagine the lives of the people who lived there. How did they stay warm in the winters? Who planted the crops? Did the girls laugh about the boy next door as they ground the corn? Where did they learn to weave, or to create clay pots? Who helped in childbirth? Was there anything resembling a school? How many generations shared a room?

snow, and lots of it, dominated the high elevations along the 20 miles of entrance road

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