I’ve written and rewritten this piece several times. One take away was the great wonder and mystery of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and the community living site at Chimney Rock. Another take away, which I have struggled with, is the critique on how our modern society has attempted to retell the story of this ancient civilization.
Balcony House Overlook, Mesa Verde
Over the course of two days we visited Chimney Rock National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. Two successive days to walk among the remnants of Ancestral Pueblo living. Both sites had partially intact remains of the communal Kiva’s, which were thought to be multiuse rooms, where both religious activities and daily chores were undertaken. Both sites indicated that astrology was a key part of society and used well beyond a simple tool for planting crops. These “facts” are not the end of my learning nor the scientific communities’ knowledge, but given the lack of any sort of written or oral history there is so much buried, literally and figuratively.
The Ancestral Pueblo people are believed to have inhabited Mesa Verde and Chimney Rock since 550 AD and 925 AD, respectively and the region had been inhabited long before that. This is approximately 940 years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. One guide at Mesa Verde cheekily asked, “how can you discover something if loads of people actively live there?”
With that discovery, and more relevantly the discovery of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization of Mesa Verde in the 1870’s, the only tunnel for explanation was through the lens of a modern western background, as is the case to this day. We look at the remains of a village and fill in the holes with a limited worldview. We guess at what their values were, how their social classes were structured and in this case why they seemingly “disappeared” from the dwellings they so obviously took time to build and care for. We make these guesses and then we publish them in history books.
The potential flaw is that this civilization had evolved its own social patterns and had developed a unique way of life without the influence of the western world. And still we have attempted to tell their personal story without knowing them and having only the knowledge of ourselves to get it right. And perhaps our knowledge is not a worthy replacement.
So with that said, it has been a few days and though there is much to think about, and lessons to be learned, the experience of being in a place of such wonder and beauty is what resonates now.
People let me tell you, Mesa Verde is truly a wonder, and with 4,700 archeological sites, the wonder is never ending.
We arrived in the morning, during the week and made a quick stop into the visitor center where we picked the tours we wanted to go on as a guide is required if you want to go into many of the cliff dwellings. Afterwards, we took the scenic 45-minute drive to the top of the mesa, where we visited the museum and watched a short intro film. This is also where you want to get a view of the Tree House cliff dwelling. This is considered to be the most intact remnants of all the cliff dwellings, but is currently closed due to geotechnical instability in the cliffs. Catching this outside view of the cliff community was a great way to ease into the overall experience. These dwellings hanging high off the ground, nestled into the overhanging’s of the sandstone, spark the imagination and taunt us to question. The first one I had was, “What happens if someone sleep walks?”
From a distance, the dwellings looked carved into the sandstone rather than built as the structures match to the color tone of the rock. We found out that what was broken was essentially put back together and reconfigured to make the structures. The broken fragments of sandstone that fell near and within the cliff overhanging’s were shaped into rectangular bricks and mortared together with such craftsmanship that many stand as they stood long ago.
Next we got into our tours. The first was of the Balcony House, which is considered a medium size cliff dwelling. Upon entry I immediately felt like we were intruders (along with the other 40 or so tour guests). Not only did it feel ancient and fragile, it felt like a home, like a personal space. I kept thinking that when time machines become legit I definitely want to go back and be a fly on the wall and see how it really went down. You try to imagine, and you are surely incited too, but it feels foreign. The rooms (40 total) feel tiny 6 ft by 8 ft and supposedly held a family. They were built small in order to minimize the firewood required to keep it warm, or so we think.
The dwellings overall are believed to have been strategically placed in order to have access to both the mesa tops for harvesting crops and also the lower valley for hunting. They were chosen based on easy access to water which typically flowed to the back of the overhang, providing a steady water supply. This supply was evident on our tour, though due to the parking lot built on top of the mesa, the water infiltration was extremely diminished.
Our next tour was of the Cliff Palace, which is the largest cliff dwelling with 150 rooms. With the size of this dwelling our entry felt less like an intrusion than Balcony House. My mind naturally started filling the space with images of the Ancestral Pueblo people moving about doing daily chores and interacting. The heat of the afternoon sun and its directness into the dwelling made me wonder if they took afternoon naps. So many things we want to know that we just never will.
There is such beauty in that, in the mystery and the questions. Though it is unlikely that a full written history that we could decipher will be uncovered, we do know the Ancestral Pueblo people didn’t disappear. Fact: this civilization went somewhere, they likely had children and their descendants live today. Part of who they were lives still, the mystery may never be made clear and that’s ok.
For those of you who like tips here are a few:
• The visitor center is key, not only for booking tours, but if you are person who likes to know what you are getting into before you go. The volunteers and employees are super friendly and if you don’t like talking to people they have most of the information written on the walls
• Get there early, the tour spaces are limited and you want to pick your times (unless you’re a photographer who wants the evening light to shine on The Cliff Palace, in that case book your twilight photography tour months in advance, we didn’t and Matthew cried, audibly)
• It takes 45 minutes to an hour to drive from the entry point to the first cliff dwelling. This doesn’t include the time you may want to take for scenic overlooks.
• Bring water and a pack to put it in. You’ll need your hands free for many of the tours as they have ladders to get out of the cliff dwellings.
• If you are terribly afraid of heights, you may want to stick to the archeological sites located on the mesa top. The cliff dwellings are high above the ground and again require you to climb up ladders.
• If you do not like tight spaces, the Balcony House has a very narrow tunnel to get out of the dwelling. We were on all fours and had to remove our bags and shove them along to get out. Kinda awkard no matter what, no cool way about it.
• Tours can be crowded, bring mace. JK.