THE AZTEC CENTER ... The Animas River begins as a mountain torrent high in Colorado, gathering strength and volume as it descends southward into New Mexico. A green band of cottonwoods and willows marks the watercourse as it passes through high desert tablelands. Before joining the San Juan River, it drains a landscape thick with prehistoric ruins. Spanish missionaries first placed these abandoned settlements on the map after exploring the region in 1776. They named the nearby stream, Rio de las Animas Perdidas-the River of Lost Souls.
For the ancestral Pueblo Indians of the Animas Valley, the river was the key to living in an arid land. It allowed them to irrigate the fertile bottomlands and raise enough crops to sustain a large, dynamic population.
Three great houses formed the core of an elaborately planned settlement during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This central complex, which included additional great houses, great kivas, tri-wall structures, and roadways, formed the nucleus of an expanded community of as many as 100 smaller pueblos that spread along the valley and nearby terraces. The central complex likely functioned as an administrative and ritual center for the wider community of satellite villages and may have been a focus for regional trade.
The entire Aztec complex appears to have been designed as a single architectural unit, although it took many years to reach its final form. The builders cut most of the beams for the west pueblo during a four-year period between A.D. 1111 and A.D. 1115. The builders seem to have been implementing a master plan that integrated ceremonial and secular structures into a symmetrical unit. A preplanned undertaking this massive indicates a highly organized community with a high degree of social cohesion, and a clear conception of the whole.
Available evidence indicates this conception likely grew from a system of beliefs that recognized the spiritual connection between the natural and human worlds. To modern Pueblo Indians the land is sacred. The Zuni say the land is their church. No difference exists for them between man and nature. The earth itself is animate.
The difference in perception between western and Indian thought was once pointed out to the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung by Taos Pueblo leader, Ochiway Bianco. The Indian told Jung he had heard that white men think with their heads. "Why of course," Jung said. What do you think with?" "We think here," Bianco said, motioning to his heart.
Alfonso Ortiz, a member of the San Juan Pueblo, has written about the importance of the village in the lives of Pueblo Indians. He says that while the center of the cosmos can be anywhere the six directions intersect; the sacred middle point is often represented by the village. The great pueblos of Aztec may have stood for the center of the cosmos for those who lived here-prehistoric Pueblo Indians known as the Anasazi.
The name, Anasazi, comes from a Navajo word that can mean variously "ancient ones," "ancient ancestors," or "alien/enemy ancestors." It depends on the context of the native speaker's conversation. The people included a wide range of distinct communities who shared a similar way of life and are best known for their remarkable cliff houses and multi-tiered pueblos. Their homeland centered on the present-day Four Corners country of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Although they left countless buildings and artifacts, they did not have a written history. What we know about them comes from the oral traditions of modern Pueblo Indians, historic accounts of the Pueblo Indians by the Spanish, and archeological investigations.
Aztec was one of the largest Ancestral Pueblo settlements in the Southwest. It is located between two major centers-Chaco Canyon to the south and Mesa Verde to the north. Both areas strongly influenced the local inhabitants at different times, but the exact nature and extent of the interaction has yet to be sorted out.
The west pueblo, containing about 400 rooms, was the largest of the great houses. Several hundred people may have lived there. Hundreds of rooms formed massive walls that were set at right angles around a central plaza. A low row of single-story rooms on the south completed the enclosure. Rooftops once stepped upward in three sun-facing tiers, reaching nearly thirty-feet high on the north wall.
At one time a thick coat of mud plaster softened the angular lines of the pueblo and hid the fine workmanship of the close-fitting masonry. Many of the walls consisted of a rubble core faced with a veneer of finely-worked stone, quarried at least a mile away. Wooden beams, smoothed on the exposed ends by sandstone, supported heavy earthen roofs. Cut in the mountains, these timbers were carried by hand twenty miles or more to the building site.
The few entryways leading into the compound could be defended easily if necessary. Some rooms within the great house were entered only through a hatchway in the ceiling. Others had doorways covered by matting, skins, or textiles that led into large rooms with high ceilings. Plaster coated many of the interior walls, and some were painted. White hand prints decorated the beams of one room, where a slip of whitewash covered the upper portions and a painted red band ran along the base. Some rooms contained bins for grinding corn and hearths for heating and cooking; many had pots sunk into the floor for storage.
The multi-storied pueblo faced inward, enclosing an open plaza dominated by a great kiva, nearly fifty feet across. The circular structure served as the ceremonial focus of the community. Four massive columns supported a roof estimated to have weighed ninety-five tons. Each column stood on a stack of four stone disks, weighing 375 pounds apiece. These were carried many miles from mountains of western New Mexico or southern Colorado.
Fifteen surface rooms encircled the sunken chamber, each with an outer doorway opening onto the plaza. What may have been an altar stood in the north alcove, and a masonry bench circled the kiva floor. A raised fire box stood in the center. The people entered the sanctuary by stairways on the north and south.
The monumental scale and ritual design of the Great Kiva reflected its importance to the early people of Aztec. Pueblo life at ancient Aztec was marked by a yearly round of ceremonies, set rituals, and religious observances. Archeologist Earl H. Morris described the Great Kiva as "the most intricate sort of sanctuary that was ever developed by the Pueblo people."
A roadway runs not far from the Great Kiva. It may be part of an elaborate network of roads that the people of Chaco began constructing decades before the building of the Aztec pueblos. Carefully engineered and well maintained, some routes cut straight swatches thirty-feet wide across sagebrush plains and descend into canyons by stone stairways cut into the cliffs. Alignments can be traced for miles. Roadside features, which might have been shrines and signal towers, mark the path of some roads. The people of Chaco lacked pack animals and wheeled vehicles, but for some reason they built roads-lots of them.
The roadways may have served various functions. Those suggested include trade and supply routes, and pilgrimage avenues. Many have the peculiar trait of pausing at rough terrain only to begin again on the far side of the obstacle. Some road segments connect Chaco to outlying pueblos and possible sources of building materials, but many of the roads seem impractical. They follow a straight bearing, cover a certain distance, and then end without having arrived anywhere in particular. Tremendous effort went into building roads that appear to lead nowhere.
Many of the road corridors may be more symbolic than practical. A Navajo Indian living near Chaco claimed the roadways were not what they appeared to be. He said they only looked like roads. Cosmological significance may have been the determining factor in their layout rather than transportation or communication. A road's direction may have been more important than
Road symbolism still plays an important role in Pueblo life. Edward J. Ladd, a member of the Zuni tribe, says that everyone carries within himself a life road watched over by spirit beings. Zuni Indians still use constructed roadways, similar to those built by their ancestors, on pilgrimages to sacred places.
Beginning at Chaco Canyon, a major corridor known as the Great North Road runs more than thirty miles to the eroded badlands of Kutz Canyon. The roadway descends to the canyon bottom along a series of wooden steps and rungs embedded in the steep clay slope. Although untraced beyond the stairway, the Great North Road may have turned toward Salmon Ruins on the San Juan River south of Aztec, or may have continued northward to Aztec itself. In Pueblo cosmology, pathways to the place of emergence and home of the dead often lead northward. The North Road may have served as a pilgrimage route to connect the ceremonial center at Chaco Canyon with the sacred landscape beyond.
At Aztec, the most visible roadway segment on the terrace runs north toward a distant great house on the La Plata River. It may be a continuation of the Great North Road. Although no longer visible on the ground, a projection of this roadway south divides the Aztec settlement into symmetrical halves. At the center is Mound F, a large triwall structure between the West Ruin and the East Ruin. Only a dozen of these enigmatic structures are known and three are at Aztec. They consist of rows of rooms that encircle a deep, central kiva. Their purpose is uncertain.
The east pueblo was comparable in size and construction to the west pueblo. A great kiva, similar to its neighbor but larger, dominated the enclosed plaza. Although construction dates are uncertain, building may have begun soon after completion of the west pueblo. Additions and remodeling of both the east and west pueblos continued through the 1270s. Many of the rooms in the east pueblo were used for domestic purposes, while in later years the older, west pueblo was used more for public ceremonies, burials, storage, trash disposal, and work areas.
On the terrace behind the West Ruin is a smaller but similar great house. It was related to the pueblos below through roads, orientation, and visible prominence on the terrace. The entire Aztec settlement may have begun with this building, which formed the hub of a terrace community of more than thirty buildings with seven large depressions that may be great kivas. Little is known about the terrace community, since no formal excavation has been conducted there.
From surface indications and excavations at the other great houses, an overall pattern has begun to emerge at Aztec Ruins. The layout of the whole Aztec complex resembles the architectural configuration of the main settlement in central Chaco Canyon. Rather than serving as an outpost of Chaco, Aztec may have become a major administration and ritual center rivaling Chaco in scale. This new center grew as the once-dynamic Chaco homeland began to lose its preeminent position in the Anasazi world. Aztec may be Chaco moved north.
THE PEOPLE ... The great houses of Aztec rose so quickly along the banks of the Animas River that the origin of the builders remains unclear. People from the Chaco settlement fifty miles to the south may have moved north and established a colony at Aztec. Or it may be a local development. The same people had lived for generations along the Animas may have adopted the Chaco system without the actual migration of outsiders into their lands. Either way, the people of Chaco strongly influenced the building of Aztec.
The original Aztec complex resembled Chaco in its ceramics, masonry, settlement plan, and ceremonial system. The match was so close in one case that shell and turquoise offerings were placed in the same location within kivas at both Aztec and Chaco.
Ancestral Pueblo Indians occupied Aztec during two distinct periods. The first period ended within fifty years of the construction of the west pueblo, when most of the original inhabitants left. After an interval lasting a generation or two, people influenced by the Mesa Verde people to the northwest reoccupied the site. It is unknown whether they migrated into the area or descended from the original population who never completely left the region. The indigenous population may have changed in response to fluctuating environmental conditions and cultural influences during the interval when much of Aztec fell into disuse. When these people moved back into the pueblo, their way of living had grown closer to the Mesa Verde people of the north.
During the thirteenth century reoccupation, activity at the west pueblo never regained its earlier intensity. The new inhabitants cleaned out and remodeled some of the older rooms in a style closer to that found at Mesa Verde. They sealed some entryways and modified others in a T-shaped pattern. Rooms were partitioned and ceilings lowered. The new arrivals converted other rooms into storage areas, burial chambers, latrines, turkey pens, and trash dumps. The earlier people had carried their refuse outside the pueblo walls, but the later inhabitants used abandoned rooms, packing them from floor to ceiling with trash.
While life expectancy was low, averaging between 35 and 40 years, attempts were made to care for the injured. The people of Aztec knew how to set and splint broken bones. But when death came, they buried their dead in shallow pits, on bare floors, or in refuse mounds. Usually a sealed room contained only a single interment, but sometimes they reopened rooms for additional burials.
Funeral goods, such as pottery, jewelry, and baskets, accompanied most burials. Certain individuals received special attention at death. They were covered with cotton cloth and feather blankets and were accompanied by many and sometimes unusual offerings.
One unusual burial at Aztec contained the body of a surprisingly tall man. Ancestral Pueblo men averaged 5'4" in height; he was ten inches taller. The people of Aztec had wrapped him in rush matting and a cloth made from turkey feathers twined with yucca cord. Offerings of pottery, baskets, and jewelry had been interred with him, suggesting he may have been someone of high status. They buried the man with a large coiled basketry plaque, a red chert knife, and three wooden sticks.
The early inhabitants of Aztec farmed the river bottoms and nearby arroyos, growing varieties of corn, squash, and beans. They irrigated the valley using hand-dug canals that ran for more than two miles. Other plots collected runoff from seasonal rains. The early farmers supplemented their crops by gathering wild plants and hunting animals such as deer, mountain sheep, beaver and antelope. They raised turkeys for their feathers and for food.
In the rooms used for trash, the residents discarded a wide assortment of everyday tools, raw materials, jewelry, and clothing. Most items were broken or worn out, but some remained serviceable. Discarded items were made from a wide range of materials-wood, cloth, bone, feathers, plants. Accumulations of debris filled the rooms with layers of such things as broken pottery, corn cobs, hair brushes, and arrow shafts. The inhabitants tossed away broken stone hammers used for preparing masonry, adzes for working wood, skinning knives for taking hides, and bone needles for sewing.
The inhabitants stashed green corn stalks in one room and in others discarded unusual wooden objects-among them ceremonial staffs, cradleboards, even fire drills twirled between the hands to produce a glowing ember. They made both coiled and plaited baskets and a wide variety of pottery-both utility and finely decorated wares. Some cracked bowls had been cleverly repaired using a leather thong tied through holes drilled on each side of the break.
Preserved scraps of cloth and animal skins hint at attire. The men wore a breech-cloth and the women a fringed apron. Both wrapped up in a mantle of cotton cloth, tanned hide, or rabbit fur in cooler seasons. Although they wove cotton cloth on a loom, they didn't grow cotton locally. Both men and women used jewelry, including shell bracelets and turquoise pendants. One necklace contained a strand of 865 beads made from white bird bone alternating with 44 black beads. Some jewelry was crafted with shells that came from the Pacific coast. Other trade goods such as small copper bells and brightly-plumed macaws, reached the pueblos from what is now Mexico.
MIGRATION ... At the end of the thirteenth century, for reasons yet unclear, the Anasazi migrated from the entire region including Aztec, Mesa Verde, and Chaco-already long in decline. Leaving a village behind was a common practice. They often left a single settlement and moved short distance away. Smaller pueblos rarely were occupied for more than a generation, and the life span of a larger settlement usually ended within eighty years. But the migration from an entire region, their homeland for more than thirteen centuries, was an unprecedented event.
Over the years, theories to explain this movement have ranged from disease and failed crops to a collapse of trade and nomadic invaders. But theories often reflect contemporary concerns as much as those of the early inhabitants. Initial explanations suggested warfare as the main cause, but these gave way to theories of a great drought. This notion yielded in recent times to an array of environmental explanations.
The farmers of Aztec lived on the edge. Farming in the drought-prone high deserts always had been marginal, and conditions in the late thirteenth century were not improving. Rainfall patterns changed, drought years became more frequent, and larger populations depleted many of the natural resources on which they depended. Floods may have buried fields and changed river courses, making irrigation difficult. Environmental changes, combined with a decline of resources due to increasingly intensive farming practices, may have triggered the migrations to more secure areas.
Modern Pueblo Indian descendants have a different way of looking at the migration. Clan histories tell of a series of migrations undertaken by their ancestors to fulfill their spiritual role as stewards of the land. They see nothing mysterious about the exodus. It was just another stage on a long journey. According to a common theme in many Hopi stories, migrations occurred when times were good, not after conditions had deteriorated. They tell of villagers who were corrupted by prosperity and neglected their religious duties. Disaster
arrived suddenly in the form of divine retribution. Often an entire pueblo was destroyed except for a few who maintained their traditional beliefs and ritual practices.
After a period of neglect, the west pueblo inhabitants renovated the Great Kiva only to have it finally destroyed when the roof caught fire and collapsed. A wing of the pueblo may have burned in the final days before migration. Flames consumed the floor of a huge second-story room filled with 200 bushels of corn that collapsed into the room below, burying a 57-foot strand of 31,000 tiny black stone beads. The fire may have been set intentionally, either by an enemy or by the people themselves as they evacuated the town.
By A.D. 1275 people were on the move throughout the Southwest. The great houses and kivas of Aztec stood deserted. People were moving from towns and cliff houses throughout their old homeland. But they did not disappear. They moved south and east to the Rio Grande, Zuni River, and west to the Hopi mesas. They relocated to new areas and built huge pueblos where they absorbed new groups of people and new ideas. There are many ways of looking at a ruin, many ways to view what brought people to the banks of the Animas and what caused them to leave. Over time new facts undermine old theories. The search for what happened at Aztec Ruins continues to unfold.
SETTLERS AND SCIENTISTS ... Pioneers moved into the fertile Animas valley in the 1870s. Farmers began clearing fields near the pueblo ruins and salvaging wagon loads of sandstone blocks from the collapsed walls. What they didn't haul away for building material, they leveled and plowed under. Only the largest villages survived as broken mounds rising above orchards and fields of alfalfa.
Curiosity about the early inhabitants grew as the settlers laid the foundations of their new homes upon the rubble of the old. They admired the skillful masonry and irrigation canals which indicated to them an advanced civilization-probably the Aztecs, they thought. It was a theory shared by many scholars of the time.
Years later southwestern archaeologists, using precise dating methods, demonstrated there was no connection. The site was left centuries before the Aztec Indians emerged as a dominant power in central Mexico. But by the time the crumbling pueblos had been dated, the "Aztec Ruins" name already was on the map, and the new town across the river called itself Aztec, as well.
Reports of a major archeological site had been trickling in to the scientific community for many years. The first written eyewitness account of Aztec Ruins came in 1859 from geologist John S. Newberry, who described standing walls twenty-five feet high. Two decades later the highest wall stood only fifteen feet above the mound. Increased ranching and farming activities in the area had taken their toll.
In 1875 another geologist, Frederic M. Endlich, visited the ruins. It was his impression that Indians living in outlying areas had taken refuge in the walled great houses during times of war. Lewis Hunt Morgan, a renowned anthropologist with the Smithsonian, arrived on the scene three years later. He noted the similarities between Aztec and Chaco and spent a day sketching the West Ruin.
Archeologist Earl Morris first visited Aztec in 1895, when he was six years old. He dreamed of one day excavating the ruins and returned in 1916 with shovel in hand, on the payroll of the American Museum of Natural History. Although relatively untested, he began a systematic excavation of the site. Workmen cut brush from the mounds of rubble and removed enough fill to expose the original layout of the West Ruin, the most promising site. On some days Morris couldn't put the shovel down. Late one afternoon during the excavation at Aztec, a workman exposed several feet of a long wooden object buried in a second-floor room. When the crew called it quits for the day, Morris took over and continued to uncover the intriguing find. The archeologist painstakingly stripped back layers of thirteenth century debris, working alone by the light of a kerosene lamp until nearly midnight. He finally retrieved a wooden ladder with rungs polished from long use and the oils of human hands.
Seven years after the dig began, the project came to a halt due to a lack of funds. His goal of fully excavating Aztec Ruins had not been reached, but he had completed digging about two-thirds of the West Ruin, and had become the first in the Southwest to excavate and describe a great kiva.
In 1933 Morris returned to Aztec to reconstruct the Great Kiva. He considered the Indian stone masons at Aztec to be among the best in the prehistoric Southwest. While excavating, he had been careful to preserve their work-stabilizing walls and re-roofing rooms to protect intact ceilings. Rut no matter how well preserved, the ruins themselves could only suggest the architectural achievements of the ancestral Pueblo Indians. He felt a reconstructed great kiva would stand as a lasting tribute to the inhabitants of Aztec.
Crews under his direction reconstructed the kiva according to archeological evidence he had uncovered during the earlier excavation. They dismantled the remaining walls and rebuilt them with stockpiled stone from Aztec and other Anasazi sites on the La Plata River. The roof was reproduced with peeled ponderosa pine beams spanned by cottonwood poles, topped with juniper splints and a foot-deep layer of earth. Workers coated the interior with cement plaster and paint to match the original wall color. After five months of work, the project was completed.
Like Earl Morris, many others continue to be drawn to Aztec Ruins. An enthusiastic Texan left a comment in the log book at the Visitor Center. "Yippy-kyyi-yey!" he wrote. He may have been trying to express what a Navajo woman felt after walking through the ruins. Not far from his comment, she wrote a single word, "nizho'nii." It means beautiful.
Text and image sources: Aztec Ruins National Monument Site Brochure; Aztec Ruins National Monument published by Southwest Parks and Monument Association, Tucson, Arizona. Text written by Scott Thybony
Video recorded: July 2013 HINT: If video starts/stops often, PAUSE the playback for 15-30 seconds to allow the video buffer memory to fill. To resume playback press PLAY.
Ancestral Pueblo People and Their World ... About AD 550, long before Europeans explored North America, some of the people living in the Four Corners region decided to move onto the Mesa Verde. For over 700 years these people and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of canyon walls. In the late 1200s in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture. Archaeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as "the ancient foreigners." We now call them Ancestral Pueblo people, reflecting their modern descendants.
Mesa Verde map above shows the major archaeological sites.
Map source: Mesa Verde National Park Map
Local ranchers first reported the cliff dwellings in the 1880s and since then archaeologists have sought to understand the lives of the people who lived there. Despite decades of excavation, analysis, classification, and comparison, our knowledge is incomplete. The cliff dwellings speak eloquently of a people adept at building, artistic in their crafts, and skillful at making
a living from a difficult land. The structures are evidence of a society that, over centuries, accumulated skills and traditions and passed them on from generation to generation. By the Classic Pueblo Period, from 1150 to 1300, Ancestral Pueblo people were heirs of a vigorous civilization, whose accomplishments in community living and the arts must be ranked among the finest expressions of human culture in North America.
Using nature to their advantage, about AD 1200 Ancestral Pueblo people began to build their villages beneath the overhanging cliffs. Their basic construction material was sandstone that they shaped into rectangular blocks about the size of a loaf of bread. The mortar between the blocks was a mix of dirt and water. Living rooms averaged about six feet by eight feet, space enough for two or three people. Isolated rooms in the rear and on the upper levels were generally used for storing crops. The construction testifies they were experienced builders.
Many daily activities took place in open courtyards in front of the rooms. Fires built in summer were mainly for cooking. In winter, when alcove rooms were damp and uncomfortable, fires probably burned throughout the village. Smoke-blackened walls and ceilings are reminders of the biting cold these people lived with for several months each year.
Ancestral Pueblo people spent much of their time getting food, even in the best years. They grew most of their food, but supplemented crops of beans, corn, and squash by gathering wild plants and hunting deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other animals. Their only domestic animals were dogs and turkeys. Fortunately, Ancestral Pueblo people tossed their trash close by - scraps of food, broken pottery and tools, anything not wanted, went down the slope in front of their homes. Much of what we know about daily life here comes from these garbage heaps.
Someone standing across the canyon from Spruce Tree House in the mid-1200s could have witnessed a scene like the illustration above. This was one of the largest villages in Mesa Verde. It had 130 rooms and eight kivas. Some 60 to 90 people lived here at any time. (Painting by Roy Anderson)
The season depicted is autumn, the villagers' busiest time of year. The harvest is underway. Some men are still gleaning the fields, while others are spreading the crops on a rooftop to dry. These are the stores that will see them through the long winter and even the next year or two if there is drought. Women are making pottery and grinding corn. Children scamper about, and old men sit in the sun telling stories.
Hundreds of years before this village was built, their ancestors probably lived in pit houses as shown on the left.
Before the Cliff Dwellers ... The first Ancestral Pueblo people settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") about AD 550. Archeologists' call this early period 'Basketmaker' to reflect the finely crafted baskets made then. The people farmed corn, beans, and squash, hunted wild animals, and gathered a wide variety of edible and useful plants. They made ingenious tools from stone, wood, and bone, and built pit houses for homes. Pit houses were often clustered as small villages on mesa tops and in cliff alcoves. The people became prolific potters and acquired the bow and arrow, a more efficient hunting weapon than the atlatl, an ancient type of spear thrower.
These were fairly prosperous times for the people, and their population grew. About AD 750 some people began to build houses above ground, with upright walls fashioned of poles and mud. They built their houses one against another in long, curving rows, often with a pit house or two in front. Pit houses would later evolve into kivas. Archeologists call this period 'Pueblo,' Spanish for town or village, to reflect this architectural change.
By AD 1000, architectural skills had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to stone masonry. Walls of thick, double-coursed stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined as units of 50 rooms or more. Pottery also evolved, as black drawings on a white back-ground replaced simple designs on a dull gray background. Farming accounted for more of their diet than before, and much mesa-top land was cleared for agriculture.
Between 1150 and 1300, the Classic Pueblo Period, thousands of people lived on Mesa Verde. Many lived in compact villages of several rooms, often with kivas or courtyards. Carefully shaped building stones, finely built and plastered wall surfaces, and advancing artistry in pottery-making characterize this period. About 1225, another major population shift saw people moving back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors' centuries before. Why did they make this move? We don't know: perhaps for defense; perhaps for better protection from the elements; perhaps for religious or other reasons. Whatever the events and circumstances, the people began to build the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous.
Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late 1190s to late 1270s. They range from one-room houses to community centers of about 150 rooms: Cliff Palace and Long House. There is no standard ground plan. Builders fit the structures to the available space. Most walls were single courses of stone, perhaps because alcove roofs limited height and protected the walls from weather erosion. Masonry work varied in quality-rough construction is found alongside walls of well-shaped stones. Many rooms were plastered on the inside and decorated with painted designs.
Ancestral Pueblo people lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about 1300 Mesa Verde was deserted. Several theories offer reasons for their migration. We do know that the last quarter of the 1200s saw drought and crop failures, but they had survived earlier droughts. Maybe after hundreds of years of intensive use the land and its soils, forests, and animals were depleted. Perhaps there were social and political problems, and the people simply looked for new opportunities elsewhere.
When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they joined thousands of other Ancestral Pueblo people who were moving south into today's New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin or establishing new communities. Today the Hopi of northern Arizona and the people of Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, and the pueblos along the Rio Grande trace their ancestry to the Ancestral Pueblo people of this area. Some are descendants of the ancient builders of Mesa Verde.
Pit houses ... People lived in pit houses here from about AD 550 to 750. The pit house (left) was semi-subterranean and featured four corner timbers that supported the roof. The firepit had an air deflector to help air circulate through the room. An antechamber might contain storage bins or pits. Some pit houses included a sipapu, a small hole in the floor, which may have had important symbolic meanings.
Kiva comes from the Hopi language and is used in Mesa Verde to refer to round chambers, usually underground, built in or near almost every village or homesite. Most have similar features and were likely used for combined religious, social, and utilitarian purposes. Entry was by ladder through a hole in the center of the roof. The roof, made of timbers, juniper bark, and mud, often formed part of a plaza or public space. In modern Pueblo communities the kiva is still an important ceremonial structure.
Tools ... Ancestral Pueblo people used all available materials. with no metals. From locally available trees, plants, animals, and stone they made tools for grinding, cutting, pounding, chopping, scraping, perforating, polishing, and weaving. They used the digging stick for farming, stone axe for clearing land, bow and arrow for hunting, and sharp-edged stones for cutting. They around corn with the metate and mano and made wooden or clay spindle whorls for spinning. From bone they fashioned awls for sewing and scrapers for working animal hides. Other than the mano and metate, most stone tools were made from stream cobbles, not the soft, cliff sandstone.
Basketry and Pottery ... The finest baskets made at Mesa Verde were created before the people developed fired ceramic pottery. Using the spiral twilled technique (right), they wove handsomely decorated baskets of many sizes and shapes and used them for carrying water, storing grain, and even for cooking.
They waterproofed baskets by lining them with pitch and cooked in them by dropping heated stones into the water. The most common coiling material was split willow, but sometimes rabbitbrush or skunkbush was used. As pottery-making techniques advanced about AD 550, basket-making declined. The few baskets found here from the Classic Period are not as well made as earlier baskets.
Trade ... Mesa Verde's economy was more complex than you might think. Even in a small farming community, some people would have more skill than others at weaving, working leather, or making pottery, arrow-points, jewelry, baskets, sandals, or other specialized articles. A surplus would be shared or bartered with neighbors. Exchanges also took place between communities. Seashells from the Pacific Coast and turquoise, pottery, and cotton from the south came to Mesa Verde, passed from village to village or carried by traders on foot over a far-reaching network of trails.
Family Life at Mesa Verde ... This Ancestral Puebloan family wore wearing hides, warm footwear, and feather-cloth robes for winter. The turkey was important in their economy-providing food, feathers used in weaving, and bones used for tools. Archeology has yielded some facts about Mesa Verde's ancient people, but without a written record we cannot be sure about their social, political, or religious ideas. We must rely for insight on comparisons with modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona. In the Classic Pueblo Period at Mesa Verde (from 1150 to 1300) several generations probably lived together as a household. Each family occupied several rooms and built additional rooms as it grew. Several related families likely made up a clan, probably matrilineal, that traced descent through the woman's line. If the analogy with current Hopi practice is accurate, each clan would have had its own kiva and its own agricultural plots.
Text and graphics source: Mesa Verde National Park site brochure, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Video recorded: July 2013 HINT: If video starts/stops often, PAUSE the playback for 15-30 seconds to allow the video buffer memory to fill. To resume playback press PLAY.
Canyonlands preserves a wilderness of rock at the heart of the Colorado plateau. Water and gravity, this land's prime architects, cut flat layers of sedimentary rock into hundreds of canyons, mesas, fins, arches, and spires. At center stage are two canyons carved by the Green and Colorado rivers. Surrounding the rivers are vast, very different regions: Island in the Sky on the north, The Maze on the west, and the Needles on the east.
They share a common primitive spirit and wild West atmosphere. Few people knew these remote lands and rivers well when the national park was established in 1964. Only Indians, cowboys, river explorers, and uranium prospectors had dared enter this rugged corner of southeastern Utah. Canyonlands remain largely untrammeled - its roads unpaved, trails primitive, and rivers free-flowing. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, and other native animals roam its 525 square miles. Canyonlands is Wild America.
Shafer Canyon from the Neck, Island in the SkyCanyonlands Map: Island in the Sky Park MapViews from Island in the Sky reach from the depths of the Green and Colorado rivers to the mountaintops and above. Across canyon after canyon they stretch to the horizon 100 miles distant. Island in the Sky-a broad mesa wedged between the Green and Colorado-is Canyonlands' observation tower. From it you see vistas of dimensions hard to comprehend. Closest to the mesa's edge is the White Rim, a nearly continuous sandstone bench 1,200 feet below the Island. Another 1,000 feet beneath White Rim are the rivers, shadowed by sheer canyon cliffs. Beyond them lie The Maze and The Needles. (Shafer Canyon overlook shown here.)
Outside the park three mountain ranges break the land's flat-topped pattern. To the east rise the La Sals; to the south the Abajos; to the southwest the Henrys. Rain that skips Canyon-lands' arid soil keeps these mountains mantled in forests of pine and fir. On the Island, vegetation is more sparse. Fields of Indian ricegrass and other grasses and pinyon-juniper forests survive on fewer than 10 inches of rain a year. Coyotes, squirrels, and ravens, hawks, and smaller birds share these lands' food. Cattle and horses once grazed here; abandoned water troughs and fences recall those bygone days.
Rocky ledges leading down to and below White Rim are favored habitat for desert bighorn sheep. From the Island mesa these sheep look like tan, fly-sized specks. Only the most sharp observers spy them. Trails around the Island are good places to see wildlife, especially at dawn or dusk and in cooler months. Trails lead to striking vistas, to arches and other remarkable geological features. Geologists might single out Upheaval Dome as the oddest geologic feature on Island in the Sky. At 1,500 feet deep it looks not like a dome but like a crater. How was it formed? A recent theory does indeed suggest the cause was a meteor hit. Whatever its origin, today's landform of a jagged-edged crater is the result of erosion.
Most arches lie hidden in backcountry canyons as the well-deserved rewards of the long 4-wheel-drive trips or hikes to see them. The Grabens can also be reached by 4-wheel drive. To reach these vertical-walled, grass-carpeted valleys you must negotiate Elephant Hill--its steep inclines and sharp switchbacks test the skills of even the most accomplished 4-wheel driver. Past the Grabens, roads and trails lead to Confluence Overlook, 1,000 feet above where the Green and Colorado rivers meet.
Throughout this country Ancestral Puebloan Indians grew corn, squash, and beans, hunted deer and bighorn, arid-gathered native seeds, fruits, and roots. Their advanced culture was part of those peoples who built the great stone pueblos of Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. You see traces of the Ancestral Puebloans in all but a few canyons in The Needles. Many stone and mud dwellings and storehouses are remarkably well-preserved.
Tower Ruin, built on a ledge in a side canyon of Horse Canyon, superbly exemplifies Ancestral Puebloan architecture. These people, like the Archaic hunters and gatherers here centuries before them, also left records as petroglyphs etched into and pictographs painted on cliff walls. What the figures, faces, handprints, and other images may mean is largely a mystery. Unfortunately many pots, tools, and other items the prehistoric peoples crafted are gone, stolen by looters.
John Wesley Powell wrote his impressions of this region on his pioneering boat trip down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869: "We glide along through a strange, weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock." Remarkably, over 100 years later these rivers still run wild.
Above their confluence, the Green and Colorado meander through sheer-walled canyons. Below it the combined waters start on a 14-mile rush through Cataract Canyon rapids-one of the nation's most treacherous whitewater stretches. It rivals any in the Grand Canyon. The rivers' Jekyll-and-Hyde personality satisfies both those content with a quiet float and those eager for a helter-skelter river run.
The rivers attract varied wildlife. Deer, beavers, bobcats, and migratory birds find shelter in the riverside cottonwoods and willows. Hanging gardens of maidenhair fern, monkeyflower, and columbine cling to 1,200-foot cliffs along water seepage lines. A lazy pace best serves watching life along the rivers. Cliffside stone structures and rock art of ancient Indians are scattered along the rivers.
Text source: Canyonlands National Park site brochure, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
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