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Mesa Verde National Park

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Mesa Verde National Park (1906, 8,000 feet) takes its name from the green tablelands with architectural ruins left by the Anasazi, a people who arrived several thousand years ago. They became a settled, corn-raising people who built extensive communities. Pit houses, the earliest known Anasazi dwellings, date to the Basketmaker period, beginning around 1800 B.C., when, according to research using carbon dating, corn was first cultivated. These shallow recesses in the ground had become almost entirely subterranean pits by A.D. 800. Inside were benches built into the walls around a central fireplace and a stone deflector-ventilator shaft. Roofs were log and brush. As the culture advanced, the pit houses became the ceremonial kivas of Pueblo villages and cliff dwellings. These kivas retained the sunken circular shape with an antechamber, a central firepit, a stone deflector, and a sipapu, or spirit hole, symbolizing a spiritual connection with Mother Earth. Kivas generally have six to eight masonry piers rising out of the peripheral benches for roof support. Entry was through a small roof hatchway, as in early pit houses.

From subterranean mud, stone, and stick pit houses the Anasazi advanced to aboveground masonry pueblos with multiple rooms. Their stout masonry construction rose two, three, and even four stories. Pueblo-era masonry work consisted of large, well-shaped stones set into thick mud mortar. Small stones, or spalls, were shoved into the mortar to make it more compact. Later Pueblo-era buildings are notable for their smooth surfaces and clean, sharp lines, best seen at Far View Ruins ( MT23). Stones were carefully chosen for size and, in the case of the park's fifty-seven towers, shaped to form circular walls. Uneven sandstone walls were pounded and pecked smooth with harder riverbed hammerstones. This “pecking” left an even but dimpled wall surface. Drywall construction can be found, especially in storage chambers. Interior walls were given less attention, merely plastered with mud and sometimes painted with orange-red designs in geometric or animal motifs. Although the Anasazi occasionally experimented with mud bricks reinforced by dried grasses, bark, or yucca leaves, these are different from the adobe bricks introduced by the Spanish.

Single-coursed masonry (900–1100) evolved into double-coursed masonry (1100–1300). A basket-making culture became a pottery-making one. Artifacts reveal that one of the most advanced Indian civilizations north of Mexico developed an elaborate cultural and religious life. Discoveries range from flutelike instruments made of bones to marked bones possibly used as dice for gambling. The most notable artifacts are the ornate pottery in various designs, sizes, and shapes.

During their golden age, roughly A.D. 1100 to 1275, the Mesa Verdeans moved from the mesa-top pueblos to cliff dwellings several hundred feet under the cliff ledges and above the valley floors. Archaeologists speculate that they made this move for defensive, religious, or climate-control purposes. To build these stone cliff cities, the Native Americans carefully sized and sometimes shaped native sandstone blocks, as they had for the earlier towers. Roofs consisted of log beams with cross layers of sticks topped by mud. The cliff dwellings had no standard floor plans but were fitted to the cliffs. Doors are usually two to three feet above the floor and sometimes T-shaped. Windows were rare and little more than peepholes. Buildings were terraced, with the largest areas on the lowest floors. For reasons still debated but probably at least partly because of drought and crop failure, the Mesa Verdeans abandoned these early-day condominiums during the great drought of 1275–1300.

Spanish explorers first reported on the Mesa Verde ruins. The Hayden Survey of the 1870s also described some of the ruins, which were first photographed by survey cameraman William Henry Jackson. More extensive discoveries and the beginning of tourism and artifact collecting began in the 1880s with expeditions organized by local ranchers, the Wetherill family of Mancos.

Gustav Nordenskiöld, a Swede, conducted the first scientific survey and carted off artifacts to Scandinavia. Growing concern about the loss of artifacts and the need to preserve the ruins led to the creation of Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. Passage of the Federal Antiquities Act the same year made it a crime to remove artifacts from public lands. Today visitors see stabilized and sometimes partly reconstructed ruins of an astonishing prehistoric culture.

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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