Tuesday, 5/4/21: Stalking the Ancestral Pueblo People

The spectacular Mesa Verde National Park in the Southwest corner of Colorado.

We caught the trail of the Ancestral Pueblo People back at the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. We followed that trail to the El Morro National Monument, to Bandelier National Monument, to the Aztec Ruins National Monument, and now to the incredible Mesa Verde National Park.

Just inside the southwestern corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde is home to a number of incredible cliff dwellings. The Mesa is actually a deeply eroded former mesa, complete with many gorgeous canyons and vistas of snow capped mountains.

To start with, the drive through the park is eye popping. As the road climbs and switchbacks, many turn-outs and overlooks are provided. Farther in the park, stops at several adobe villages and settlements are available. Finally, the road forks with several accessible cliff dwellings at the ends of each fork. Normally, tours of the cliff dwellings are provided, however in these COVID times that has been curtailed. Still there are great overlooks and the insanely gorgeous hiking trails are available.

The 20-mile drive through the park to the cliff dwellings was breathtaking.

Two days ago, I bragged that the Las Conchas Trail in the Jemez Mountains was the greatest trail we have trekked. Well, I have to amend that. The rugged 3.5 mile Petroglyphs Trail at Mesa Verde topped that.

Cutting through huge boulders barely hanging onto cliff sides, and cruising under deep rocky overhangs, through a Ponderosa Pine forest clinging to the steep side of the Spruce Tree Canyon, was absolutely over-the-top spectacular. Adding to the splendor, we came across a panel of wonderfully preserved petroglyphs. So, what is the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs, you might ask? Petroglyphs are etched into the rock while pictographs utilize pigments to “paint” an image.

We had already learned how these ancient people went from hunter gatherers to settlement builders, but at Mesa Verde we saw the evolution of their building techniques. The first houses were built underground with mud walls and timber ceilings. Mud was eventually replaced by rock and mortar. Finally, multi level multi room above ground buildings were developed with very thick walls, almost mimicking the underground nature of the original mud huts. The ceremonial kivas remained underground and were an important feature in every village. Most villages had one large grand kiva with many secondary smaller ones.

This underground nature, whether actually underground or in thick walled buildings makes sense in the desert climate. Temperatures underground naturally stay relatively stable even during the hot summer days and cold winter nights.

It is interesting how some villages incorporated the cliffs and caves into their villages. There were no cliffs at the Aztec Ruins, so the village consisted of one large multi storied multi roomed building, a grand kiva and several small kivas, and a large open plaza.

Bandelier had both cave dwellings and a settlement. The Gila cliff dwelling and the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings built elaborate villages right into the cliffs. What all the areas had in common was that the pinnacle of their civilization was between the years 1100 and 1200.AD.

So, from this mud digging, archeologists envision the rendering below. My brother-in-law and I used to crack up over the Roman ruins we would see in Europe. There would be a row or two of rocks and the archeologist would conjure up a whole elaborate building, culture, religion, what was eaten for breakfast, and what time the family woke up in the morning. It is uncanny that they can deduce so much from so little.

The circle in the stone denotes that this kiva was a smoking room.

On the return trip, we drove through the town of Shiprock. From the town of Shiprock we could see the iconic butte called Shiprock. Although we couldn’t get a picture of Shiprock, we did get a picture of formation resembling a rocket ship preparing to launch. This was Navajo Nation territory and the terrain turned extreme desert. New Mexico does this. Within a couple of miles you can traverse many radically different ecosystems. You don’t like deserts? Make the next turn and you are in alpine forest.

Glossary of terms used for newcomers: 1) V-Jer. The name of our camper. 2) Saturn. The name of our Van. 3) Duende. Our mischievous gremlin that breaks things. 4) Tata. The good gremlin that helps us fix Duende’s dirty work. 5) The Black Hole. This is what we call Walmart because every time we go in for just a couple of items, we come out spending way more than we figured. 6) QT. Quaint Town.

Dave and Wanda

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