I can’t remember ever hearing about Mesa Verde National Park when I lived in Pennsylvania. The Grand Canyon, yes. The painted Desert, yes. The Petrified Forest, yes. I guess Mesa Verde is considered kind of an ugly stepsister as far as parks and monuments go, so they don’t talk about it much. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty fascinating place.
Travel the globe and you’re bound to run across the remains of some long dead civilization — the pyramids, Pompeii, the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, Babylonian ruins that probably won’t be around much longer thanks to ISIS. Each of these is suggestive of and thereby brings to life the people who built them. Travel the Four Corners region of the US, as we did for those two weeks, and you see structures left by the Ancestral Puebloan culture who lived during the period 1200 – 1275 AD, the same time as the Crusades took place in Europe and the Mediterranean.
There are two theories as to who the people were who built them. Either they’re the ancestors of modern Native American tribes, possibly the Navajo; or they’re ancient aliens who came here from a distant planet on a space ship. Or both. Most scholars lean toward the former explanation; but, as we all know, those favoring the latter are pretty fanatic in their beliefs.
You may have heard these people referred to as the Anasazi. That’s what they used to call them. A few years ago, scholars of the Navajo language and its origins pointed out that the word Anasazi means “old enemies”, which modern Navajo consider a pejorative term, so they now refer to them as the Ancestral Puebloan culture. I don’t know why “old enemies” is such a bad name. Some of my best friends are old enemies. But who am I to quibble?
What the Puebloans left behind are pottery shards and houses. Apparently, they weren’t into public works kind of buildings — no Sphinxes or Pyramids or Great Walls. Instead, their energies were devoted to residential construction — single family homes, larger residences divided into two or three sections, and multifamily dwellings. The remains are spread throughout the Southwest.
How American can you get? Think about it. Ranch houses, duplexes, semi-detached, condominiums. Small towns, local building codes, no central government. The essence of suburban living. Is it any wonder this country is laid out the way it is? It’s in the soil. If you wanted to relocate, there was probably an ancient Puebloan version of ReMax to help you out.
There are a number of these ancient suburbs to visit. We had previously been to Cave of the Ancients National Monument near Manitou Springs, Colorado, roughly in the Southeastern foothills of the Rockies. Coming back into Southwest Colorado from Moab, Utah, there’s another one at Hovenweep National Monument. We chose to go on South about 40 miles to Mesa Verde.
According to the guidebook, Mesa Verde covers an area about 80 square miles, contains 5000 archaelogical sites, and slopes down a canyon about 2000 feet to the Mancos River.
It’s called a Mesa because the surface of the earth above the canyon is mostly flat.
The simplest type of dwellings in these places were pit houses. They dug pits about three feet deep and then built pitched roofs over them of poles covered with barks, shakes, matting, etc. These remind me of those kids in school whose parents bought a piece of property, dug the basement and roofed it over to live in until they got the money to finish the house.
Some of the pits have been excavated by the National Park Service. But it’s the pueblos that impress. Somewhere along the way, these people discovered how to make bricks, either forming mud bricks or cutting them out of straight slabs of rock that peeled away from cliff faces. The result are large multi-story buildings that housed communities of 50 to 100 people.
Some of them are freestanding structures, such as those at Hovenweep. No doubt, you’ve seen illustrations of Navajo pueblos from the nineteenth century; these look pretty similar.
What’s really impressive, the ancient Puebloans developed a liking for building houses under overhangs in cliffs. That’s the main feature of Mesa Verde — brick pueblos built into enormous cliffs overlooking the canyons. The remains of four such communities dot the canyons in a ten-mile area inside the park.
The poetically named Cliff Palace is the largest structure. Unfortunately, our visit happened the week after it had been closed for restoration. However, there are several places to view it across the canyon. The other locations are named Long House, Spruce Tree House and Balcony House.
These buildings are each made up of maybe thirty rooms about 6′ X 8′ each, the size of a modern day bathroom. Each room was occupied by a family of four to six people. To get from one room to another, you usually had to crawl through a small hole in the wall from somebody else’s room. Nobody had thought up the word “privacy” in those days.
Architecturally and decoratively, these structure pretty much illustrate the talking dog theory — it’s not how well he does it, it’s that he does it at all. If they’re primitive by Sphinx or Babylonian pillar carving standards, you have to remember they were built by a stone age people using the most rudimentary of tools shaped from stones and bones. Taking all that into account, the bricks they’re built of are pretty darned straight and true, and the walls as solid as wind-whipped dried mud can be.
All the houses feature a circular room in the center which the modern Navajos call “kivas.” Compared to the roughly bricked rectangles of the other rooms, kivas are remarkably sophisticated and polished interior spaces. Everyone assumes Ancestral Puebloans used them for religious ceremonies; but that’s an extrapolation from modern Navajo kivas. The National Park Service rangers admit that nobody knows what the ancient ones were for. Might have been for religious ceremonies or food storage or waste disposal or served as in-house cemeteries. Might have just been a warm place for everyone to gather in the winter, or used for monthly Rotarian meetings or little tiny rodeos
The locations alone of these houses qualifies them to compete for Architecture Digest’s
Design of the Year award. One of the primary criteria for judging a building architecturally is how integrated it is into the site, and these guys have it hands down over just about anything I can think of. They’re perfectly framed by the canyon walls around them. From a distance, they look like a city emerging intact from the earth.
The Puebloans didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about entrances to these places. Mostly, they cut hand-and-toe notched ladders into the cliff faces to get there. If there wasn’t some kind of natural path leading down the cliff, they don’t seem to have thought of digging one. Seriously, in these places, there really aren’t any methods of getting up and down from your house.
The National Park Service has provided modern ladders for the purpose, but exploring these houses still involves a lot of climbing up and down and crawling through narrow openings. It gives you just a sense of how inconvenient they were. You have to wonder why they built them this way. Maybe it was to protect them from invaders. Maybe this was the best way they had to get in out of the rain and cold. Nobody seems to know for sure. Whatever is was, they really had to work for it.
Agility must have been an important personal characteristic among these people. Legend has it that you can still hear the echoes of people calling to each other across the canyons. “Honey, I’m hom . . . AAHHHHH!”
From the park entrance at Mesa Verde, it’s about a 45 minute drive to the cliff dwellings, along some pretty scary narrow twisting roads high above the canyon. One is tempted to ask why the main entrance is at the north end of the park when the main attractions are at the south end. But I guess that’s the government for you. There is an area called Farview about halfway in, which contains the only hotel inside the park.
The park rangers at all the Puebloan sites here and throughout the Four Corners region seem to get their information from the same playbook. They all tell you the same things in the same way. To wit, the houses had 50 to 100 residents, the inhabitants cultivated corn, squash and beans (Whatever happened to chile peppers, which I understand were native to this area)? The corn was three to four inch cobs of hard grains. They had to grind it into meal to be edible and the stone grinding tools they used left grit and sand in the meal, which wore down their teeth so they all died at thirty five. They stood maybe five – four. They domesticated turkeys and dogs and made use of an astonishing wealth of local plants for food and medicine, considering how sparse the desert is.
Some Puebloan sites have petroglyphs on the walls of the cliffs, either scratched into the walls with stone scrapers or painted with some ancestral version of latex. There are highly abstracted drawings of birds and deer, grids that look like ancient tic-tac-toe matches and various types of unidentifiable squiggles. There aren’t any real keys here to their language — there’s no Ancestral Puebloan version of the Rosetta Stone. Pretty much, they just look like graffiti.
A drought that began in 1275 brought an end to the civilization, as the people left the houses to search for water. This is why there’s some room for doubt that they were the ancestors of the modern Navajo.
Getting back to the origins of the Ancestral Puebloans, there are a number of things that don’t add up. After careful review of the evidence I’ve come to the conclusion that the Ancestral Puebloans were indeed visitors from outer space. There’s really no other reasonable explanation.
How about the fact that there was no evident way for people to get in and out of their houses? Obviously, they must have used transporters. What about the function of the kivas? Don’t they look exactly like the missile silos planted by the Air Force in Nebraska? These had to have been the garages for their spacecraft.
How about the petroglyphs? The images don’t resemble any extant creatures or symbols we know about. Obviously, they must have been the names of their condominium developments in there extraterrestrial language.
Finally, how about the fact that they disappeared from these sites after 1275? Where did they go? At long last, I have the answer. They all moved out to Silicon Valley to become the ancestors of our modern tech wizards. The evidence is irrefutable. I rest my case.
We left Grand Junction with a purpose – to go to Moab, UT – about which we had heard from our friends and acquaintances in Denver as a place to go. It’s a nice artsy kind of town used mainly as a jumping off point for Arches National Park, and, after a stop at the Visitor Center, that’s where we went! Forgive me if I ooze about our national park system over and over…it’s just that fantastic. We get in to all national parks for FREE because we are both over 62 and have purchased the LIFETIME pass for a measly ten bucks each. Arches is a driving park for those less hardy, like us. That means you can drive through the park and stop at overlooks and picnic areas. Some photo ops are more popular than others. Yes, there is hiking and camping, but we’re not there yet.
It’s difficult to allow that only eruption and erosion created these wondrous formations. They look like the building blocks of toddler giants. I kept imagining the cranes that set all those rocks in place or the wrecking balls that knocked out those “windows”. But this is without human touch and it is glorious.
We then headed to Cortez, CO, our base for 2 nights so that we could explore Mesa Verde properly. Before checking in to the hotel, we drove a lot of the park and stopped at many overlooks. We made arrangements to tour Balcony House the next day. Back to the hotel, a nice swim (yay) and a deep sleep.