This article by Dr. Watson Mills is the first in a 28-part series covering the Smithsonian Institute’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.” The list is divided into seven sub-categories, and Mesa Verde is the first in the category “Portals into the Past” (the others are: Pompeii, Tikal, and Petra). These four sites afford tourists the opportunity to wander down the streets of ancient cities on three continents and to experience something of past cultures.

The entry in “Craig’s List” might read like this: “Wanted: Room built into the side of a cliff with a panoramic view of the canyon below.” There are only a few places in these United States where you would be able to find such a place. One is Mesa Verde where the Puebloans built some remarkable structures just like this more than a thousand years ago. Mesa Verde is located in the Four Corners region of the United States – where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah intersect. These structures are almost exclusively residential, though a few were used for storage and as places to preform ancient rituals.

Some years ago, having just returned from a trip out West during which I visited Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, I took my then kindergarten-aged granddaughters to a playground near their home in Marietta. I watched them climb the ladder to the top of the sliding board. “Hold on tight” I advised them as they clambered upward. For a moment, my mind returned to Meas Verde. I imagined a mother or father watching their young ones scurrying up the wooden ladders a thousand years ago in what is now southern Colorado. But their concern for their children’s safety would certainly have been far less than mine because their children would have been climbing ladders and negotiating the rock faces surrounding their cliff-dwelling community from the time they learned to walk. To those children, climbing was a natural and regular part of their daily lives. Using only shallow hand and footholds, these youngsters would sometimes make these climbs carrying woven backpacks full of corn or other food they had harvested. It is difficult to imagine the skill and dexterity required.

Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Smithsonian Institute’s “28 Places to See before You Die.” The Park protects some of the best-preserved ancestral Puebloan archaeological areas in the world. The park was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to “to preserve and interpret the archeological heritage of the ancestral Puebloans who made it their home for over 700 years.” It occupies 52,485 acres and has more than 4,300 sites, including about 600 cliff dwellings. The name “Mesa Verde” is Spanish for “green table.” The park is best known for the pueblos that were built into the face of the sandstone cliffs that overlook the canyons below.

More than 2,000 years ago, this area was seasonally inhabited by groups of nomadic Indians who survived by using a combination of hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming of crops such as corn, beans, and squash. These early inhabitants grew their crops and built their communities without having the use of iron as many other contemporaries did by this time.

During each season of the year, this outpost between mountain and desert, between valley and river, reflects its own unique brand of beauty. Spring is often short-lived and winter usually morphs into early summer overnight. The snows melt away and the rains set in prompting the grasses to grow and the flowers to bloom. This place reflects a rare beauty in this otherwise desolate desert, yet this rare and marvelous lushness lasts only briefly as the relentless sun and warm winds soon parch the mesa when summer settles in. Later, the early, colorful days of fall come to an end, signaling the onset of another harsh winter with its heavy snows.

It was not until the 7th century AD that the occupants began to construct the massive cliff dwellings for which the park is best known. When they began to do this, they moved from the mesas and constructed dwelling inside the sandstone cliff faces below. These dwellings range from the simple one-room type to the much more elaborate “apartment” complexes that sit against the back walls of the canyon. These large structures rise three and four stories. Comparable structures of this scale and complexity would not otherwise be seen in America until the third quarter on the 19th century. The construction of these complexes with the careful attention to interior detail reveals techniques of construction and finishing that were far beyond anything that was known at the time.

Archaeologists have long pointed out that the initial dwellings at Mesa Verde were constructed usually on the mesa top and less frequently on canyon floor. The earliest of these dwellings were called pithouses and were often clustered into small communities like a tiny village. Some of the very earliest inhabitants lived in caves along the valley floor.

So why did the later inhabitants abandon these modes of dwelling and move up to the cliff alcoves away from the water and the crops? Some have suggested that they made this move to provide protection from invaders? Others have pointed to the rock ledges as having had some kind of ceremonial or spiritual significance? Obviously being above the canyon floor inside a cliff “house” would provide shade from the summer sun and protection from the snows of winter. There is no consensus about these possibilities, so we are left to wonder about the exact reasons for building the cliff dwellings.

The dwellings constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries are the best preserved. These are made of stone, wood beams, and plaster. Tourists who are willing to climb the ladders from the canyon floor may walk about inside some of these ancient homes. Tourists are often amazed to find handprints and/or fingerprints in the plaster walls made by these ancient builders.

Perhaps the best known of all the surviving dwellings is the Cliff Palace, which is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It accommodated about 100 residents at the height of its use in the 1200s. Many researchers conclude that it had special significance for its original occupants, perhaps functioning as a social and/or an administrative site. The rooms of Cliff Palace were constructed out of natural sandstone, wooden beams, and mortar adapted to the natural clefts in the cliff face. The mortar was made of soil, water, and ash. Tiny pieces of stone are also embedded in the mortar adding to the strength of its construction. This particular construction technique represented a shift from structures built prior to 1000 AD in the Mesa Verde area. Earlier dwellings were constructed using primarily adobe bricks which were made of clay, sand and straw or sticks.

Rooms in Cliff Palace measured about 6 by 8 feet. Families lived together, and historians say that two or three people often shared a room. Many rooms were originally plastered in bright colors, usually pink, brown, red, yellow, or white. Smaller rooms near the back of the cliff were used for storing crops, such as corn, squash, and beans. The unusual large, circular rooms are called kivas and were used for rituals and ceremonies, although archaeologists and anthropologists are not sure exactly how these ancient rites were performed.

Tourists often comment about the size of the doorways at the Cliff Palace and infer that its occupants seem to be have been extremely small in statue. Scientists now estimate that the average male measured about 65″ and the female about 60″ tall. These measurements compare almost exactly to European people of the same time period. The average life span of the Puebloans was relatively short at 32-34 years, though some people did live into their 50s and 60s. Approximately 50 percent of the children died before they reached five years of age.

These cliff dwellings were abandoned sometime around AD 1300. Archeologists have debated “why,” after all the time and effort it took to build these beautiful dwellings, did people leave the area? The Cliff Palace, for example, was built during the 13th century. Why was it abandoned less than a hundred years later? These questions cannot be answered conclusively but most researchers suggest the decision to abandon the site was likely due to either drought, lack of resources, war, or some combination of these factors. Nonetheless, these cliff dwellings remain as compelling examples of how the ancestral Puebloans literally carved their existence into the rocky landscape of today’s Southwest.

Next time: “Pompeii: An Ancient Roman City Frozen in Time”