Mesa Verde National Park is spread over more than 52,000 acres (21,000 hectares) of a well-wooded mesa between Cortez and Durango, Colorado, at a general elevation of 7,000 feet (2,100 meters). Within its boundaries are the ruins of almost 4,000 Amerindian settlements, some up to 1,300 years old. The largest and most remarkable is the so-called Cliff Palace, a multistory building like a modern apartment block built under overhanging cliffs. It accommodated probably 100–150 people in its 151 rooms and 23 kivas, and its size and complexity make it a preeminent feat of “architecture without architects.”
Who were these exceptional builders? They are generally known as the Anasazi (Navajo for “ancient ones”), and their civilization was centered around the region where the states of Arizona, New Mexico,
Colorado, and Utah now join. Some scholars identify the Anasazi as the ancestors of the Hopi and other indigenous Pueblo groups of the southwest United States, and modern Pueblo Indians prefer to call them “ancestral Puebloans.” The precise origins of the Cliff Palace dwellers are unknown: certainly there were permanent settlers in the region before a.d. 500, farming and using caves or adobe structures for shelter and digging covered storage pits. By about 700 villages were being built: those in caves consisted of half-buried pit houses, while those on open ground had straight or crescent-shaped row houses with rooms both above and below ground. For the next three centuries the same house types—though somewhat larger—persisted, and stone masonry began to replace earlier pole-and-mud construction. The pit houses are the predecessors of the kivas, underground chambers common in the next phase of building.
Known as the Classic Pueblo period (a.d. 1050–1300), this was the era of the Cliff Palace and other villages built in similar sheltered depressions, as well as large freestanding apartment-like structures along the walls of canyons or mesas. Most consisted of two to four stories, differing little in construction from the earlier masonry and adobe houses, and often stepped back so that lower roofs formed a sort of patio reached from the floor above. All were built in places difficult to reach, some accessible only via almost vertical cliff faces, hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. The population of the region became more concentrated, perhaps acting upon the conviction that there is safety in numbers.
The Cliff Palace clearly was located with defense rather than esthetic appeal primarily in mind. The only access to it was by hand- and footholds—large enough for only fingertips and toes—carved in the rock. Afraid of something or someone (there is now no indication of what or whom), the Anasazi built fortresses unique among indigenous Americans. Their main building material was sandstone, laid in a mortar made from mud reinforced with tiny stone chips; the masonry was covered with a thin coat of plaster. Deliberately small doorways, set a foot or two above the floor, were probably intended to keep out winter drafts; they could be covered with rectangular sandstone slabs about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) thick.
The Cliff Palace was first excavated and stabilized by Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1909, more than twenty years after it was first seen by European Americans. Archeological work did not resume until about eighty years later, when evidence was discovered of a hierarchical society: a wall divides the Cliff Palace into two parts. It has also been suggested that the site was not continuously occupied except by a small caretaker population of perhaps 100 people. Then, its twenty-three large kivas would have accommodated larger numbers who gathered there only on special occasions, perhaps for the distribution of surplus food. The kiva, traditionally described as a ceremonial room, was a sunken, usually circular chamber entered through an opening from the “plaza” above. It had a ventilated hearth, and ledges and recesses surrounded the central space. The Anasazi may have used the Cliff Palace as living quarters during the winter lull in the agricultural year. The investigation of the site continues
Mesa Verde was abandoned quite suddenly, around a.d. 1300. The Anasazi left so much behind that it has been suggested that their departure was hasty.
But that is speculation, and other sources suggest that they depleted the resources of the region, leading, through a tragic path of famine and internal wars, to the demise of their culture. Others cite the migration of Navajos and Apaches from the north, and yet others a fifteen-year drought at the end of the thirteenth century. For whatever reason, the Anasazi departed, leaving behind them the amazing and mysterious ruins of an architecture that is one of North America’s greatest archeological treasures.