Stone-cliff dwellings

Mesa Verde National Park is a Southwest Colorado gem. Located about 35 miles west of Durango, the park offers visitors a phenomenal opportunity to examine the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made this area their home. Within this magnificent arena are nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These are some of the most notable and best-preserved sites on the continent.

Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so distinguished for its significant archaeological relevance. It serves as a testament to the rich cultural traditions and history of Native American tribes in the American Southwest.

The cliff dwellings, which were built in the late 12th and 13th centuries, are truly remarkable constructions. Made primarily of sandstone and mud mortar, they are tucked into the alcoves beneath overhanging cliffs in the steep-walled canyons. They range in size from simple one-room storage areas to complex villages of more than 100 rooms. It's mind-boggling to consider how much labor was involved in the formation of these dwellings, and the continued repairs and remodeling necessary in their upkeep.

These homes speak powerfully of a people skilled at building, who were also artistic in nature and adept at making a living from a land rife with challenges.

The most famous and largest of the dwellings is Cliff Palace, which boasts 150 individual rooms and more than 20 kivas (areas used solely for religious rituals). Studies reveal that approximately 100 lived here. It is also thought that Cliff Palace was used as a main social and administrative site, where special ceremonies were conducted.

Spruce Tree House is another expansive cliff dwelling, containing 130 rooms and eight kivas, with a population that ranged from 60 to 80 people. It was first discovered in 1888 by two ranchers who happened upon it while searching for stray cattle. A Douglas Spruce was found growing from the front of the structure, which provided a means of entrance to the dwelling for the men, as well as an apropos name.

Balcony House, with 40 rooms, is considered a "medium-size" dwelling. It offers a good illustration of how room and passageway construction developed over the years.

The park also contains early pit houses (dating from AD 550 to 750), above-ground pueblos and religious structures, which can be accessed via the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Drive. Check out the view at Sun Point. Visible from this spot are a dozen cliff dwellings set in the high reaches of the canyons, along with the unique mesa-top building called Sun Temple.

Mesa Verde was a thriving mecca and home to thousands of people until the late 1270s; at which time, the population began migrating south into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. By 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. Theories are offered to explain the migration, from drought and crop failures to animal depletion and social and political problems. Or maybe, as some say, the people just wanted to find new opportunities elsewhere.

Debbie Stone is a former reporter and feature writer for The Woodinville Weekly. She is currently touring the Southwest states.

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