Mesa Verde National Park


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Historical Cliff Dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park History

On June 29, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man," the first national park of its kind. Today, the continued preservation of both cultural and natural resources is the focus of the park's research and resource management staff.

Spruce Tree House, Historic PhotoMesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve sites built by "Pre-Columbian Indians" on mesa tops and in canyon alcoves. The park, containing 52,073 acres of Federal land, is a unit of the National Park System, and the NPS, a division of the Department of Interior, administers this site.

Mesa Verde, Spanish for "green table", rises high above the surrounding country. For 750 years, the Ancestral Puebloans occupied the area within the park. From the hundreds of dwellings that remain, archeologists have compiled one of the most significant chapters in the story of prehistoric America. If you are able to leave your modern self behind and think only in the past, you may be able to understand and enjoy a fascinating story of life in earlier times.

Spruce Tree House, Historic PhotoThere are over 4,000 known archeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. Only a few of these sites have been excavated. Unoccupied for many centuries, they have been weakened by natural forces. Some were badly damaged by looters before the area was made a national park. Maximum protection must be given to the dwellings in order to preserve them. One regulation is strictly enforced: visitors may enter cliff dwellings ONLY when accompanied by a Park Ranger. However, there are over 20 mesa top sites and view points which may be visited on your own. Some sites are closed during winter.

Archeological sites of many different types are accessible to visitors. They range from pithouses built during the 500s to the cliff dwellings of the 1200s. The cliff dwellings are the most spectacular, but the mesa top pithouses and pueblos are equally important. Seen in their chronological order, these sites show the architectural development of Mesa Verde.

Cliff Palace, Historic PhotoThe Mesa Verde area was inhabited for about 800 years by agricultural people who began to drift into the area shortly after the beginning of the Christian Era. We call the first farming people in the Mesa Verde area the Basketmakers (A.D.1-400), because weaving excellent baskets was their outstanding craft. At this early date, the people did not make pottery, build houses, or use the bow and arrow. No sites dating from the early Basketmakers have been found within the boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park.

Around the year A.D. 400, the people began to make pottery and build roofed dwellings. Around the year A.D. 750, they began to use the bow and arrow. Although the people were still the same, the culture was changing. Archeologists call these people the Modified Basket-makers (A.D. 400-750). The pithouses were built in alcoves and on the mesa tops. Scores of pithouse villages have been found on the mesas, and two pithouses have been reconstructed at Mesa Verde.

Long House, Historic PhotoStarting about A.D. 750, the people grouped their houses together to form compact villages. These have been given the name of "pueblo", a Spanish term meaning village. The name, Developmental Pueblo (A.D. 750-1000), simply indicated that during this period there was a great deal of experimentation and development. Many types of house walls were used; adobe and poles, stone slabs topped with adobe, adobe and stones, and finally layered masonry. The houses were joined together to form compact clusters around open courts. In these courts were pithouses which grew deeper and finally developed into ceremonial rooms we now refer to as kivas.

Balcony House, Historic PhotoDuring their last century, some Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde left the mesa tops and built their homes in the alcoves that abound in the many canyon walls. This last period marks the climax of the Pueblo culture in Mesa Verde and is known as the Classic Pueblo Period (A.D. 1100-1300). The exact number of dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park is unknown, but over 600 cliff dwellings have been documented.

Beginning in A.D. 1276, drought struck the region. For 23 years precipitation was scarce. One by one the springs dried up and the people were in serious trouble. Their only escape was to seek regions which had a more dependable water supply. People left village after village. Before the drought ended, these people had left Mesa Verde area.

1765: Don Juan Maria de Rivera, under orders from Tomas Velez Cachupin, then governor of New Mexico, led what was possibly the first expedition of white men northwest from New Mexico. Rivera set out from Santa Fe to the San Juan River, crossed the southern spur of the La Plata Mountains, then traveled down the Dolores River, crossed eastward over the Uncompahgre Plateau and then down the Uncompahgre River to the Gunnison River.

Cliff Palace, Historic Photo1859: Professor J. S. Newberry, in his geological report of an expedition under the leadership of Captain J. N. Macomb to explore certain territory in what is now the State of Utah, makes the first known mention of Mesa Verde. It seems quite evident from his description that Newberry must have climbed to one of the highest points of Mesa Verde, possibly Park Point, and the manner in which he uses the name Mesa Verde suggests that the name was in common usage. Newberry must not have explored much of Mesa Verde because he makes no mention of cliff dwellings.

1874: The first cliff dwelling in the Mesa Verde area known to have been entered by white men, was Two-Story Cliff House in Ute Mountain Tribal Park, discovered by W. H. Jackson in September. Jackson was a photographer for the U. S. Geological and Geographical Survey. He had heard of ruins in Mesa Verde from miners and prospectors. One of these prospectors, John Moss, led Jackson into Mancos Canyon where the cliff dwelling was discovered. Jackson found other small cliff dwellings in the canyon, but Two-Story Cliff House was the only one he named.

1875: The second cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde area to be named was Sixteen Window House. It was discovered by W. H. Holmes, leader of another government survey party that passed through Mancos Canyon.

1884: Balcony House was entered by a prospector, S. E. Osborn. His name and the date March 20, 1884, were found in a dwelling in lower Soda Canyon.

1886: The first known suggestion that the area be set aside as a National Park appeared in an editorial in the Denver Tribune Republican, December 12, 1886.

Balcony House, Historic Photo1888: On December 18, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, rode out on what is now Sun Point in search of lost cattle and first saw Cliff Palace. That afternoon, Richard found Spruce Tree House, and the next day, the two men discovered Square Tower House. Al Wetherill, Richard's brother, saw Cliff Palace sometime the year before, but he did not enter the dwelling, so the credit for "discovering" the dwelling has been given to Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason.

1889: Four of the Wetherill brothers returned to Mesa Verde to explore and dig in the ruins. In a 15 month period, they claimed to have entered 182 cliff dwellings, 106 in Navajo Canyon alone.

1890: In the January 1, 1890 issue of the Durango Herald, there is an article on Montezuma County, expressing the idea of setting aside the Mancos Canyon cliff dwellings as a National Park.

Between 1887 and 1892 the Wetherills made several trips into Mesa Verde primarily for collecting archeological material. There were at least eight individual collections assembled by the Wetherills during this period, several of which were later combined and sold as four collections.

1891: Baron Gustaf E. A. Nordenskiold, of the Academy of Sciences, Sweden, visited Mesa Verde in 1891. He is credited as being the first scientist to visit the cliff dwellings. He made a collection of about 600 items which were sent to Sweden and are now in the National Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

1901: The first bill introduced before Congress to create a National Park in the Mesa Verde was introduced February 22. The bill provided for the creation of the "Colorado Cliff Dwellings National Park". It never returned from the Public Lands Committee.

Wetherills in Spruce Tree House, Historic Photo, We Can't Do That Today1901 to 1903: Two bills were introduced during the 57th Congress in the House of Representatives for the creation of the park. Both bills died in committee. Congressional authority was secured, however, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate for the relinquishment of the Mesa Verde tract from the Utes and an appropriation for the survey of the area.

1903 to 1905: Two more bills were introduced in the 58th Congress for the creation of the "Colorado Cliff Dwellings National Park". One of the bills (the Hogg bill) was reported back from committee with several amendments but did not receive any further action.

1906: The first bill for the creation of "Mesa Verde National Park" was introduced in the 59th Congress in 1905. This bill was subsequently passed on and Mesa Verde National Park was created June 29, 1906. It was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Another bill passed by the 59th Congress was an "Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities", commonly referred to as the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. This Act made it a Federal crime to collect or destroy any historic or prehistoric object or building on federally owned land.

1908: Two years after the establishment of the park, excavation and repair of the major sites was begun so that visitors could see and enjoy the park. Most of the early work was done by Jesse Walter Fewkes, archeologist, Smithsonian Institution.

1959 to 1972: The Wetherill Mesa Archeological Project is underway. Excavation of three cliff dwellings (Long House, Mug House, and Step House), a survey of Wetherill Mesa, and excavation of selected mesa-top sites are completed.

Historical Architecture

Visitors to Mesa Verde Park can get a sense of the strong cultural traditions of the region reflected in the 'Modified Pueblo Revival' architecture and the use of indigenous stone and timber as primary building materials in Park structures. The Mesa Verde Administrative District was built in Modified Pueblo Revival style that was designed to enhance and compliment the surrounding landscape. The landscape features of native vegetation, flagstone steps, and stone curbs in turn compliment the buildings. Sandstone was the principal material used and was layered to form walls approximately 18 inches thick, held together with mud mortar and then finished smooth. The ceiling and roof structures are supported by peeled pinon, fir, and juniper beams (vigas) that extend out from the walls. The large woodwork of beams, doors, and lintels bear adz marks for added texture and a rustic character. Interior walls are plaster and some typical interior features are southwestern fireplaces, flagstone or tongue in groove flooring and bancos (built in benches).

Early Hopi architecture was the basis for Modified Pueblo Revival developed by Jesse Nusbaum and his wife Aileen, during Jesse's initial tenure as park superintendent from 1921 to 1931. This style of architecture was derived from the Nusbaums study of the 1886 -1887, Bureau of American Ethnology Report by Cosmos and Victor Mindeleff, which analyzed early Hopi architecture before Anglo influences. It was the Nusbaum's intent that Modified Pueblo Revival would not imitate or detract from the existing cliff dwellings. The architecture was designed to show a later style in Pueblo construction, a style of architecture of the probable descendants of the people who once lived in the Cliff Dwellings. Jesse believed that a compatible blending of new and old would enhance interpretation of the ancient ruins. Jesse and Aileen together developed the plans for the Modified Pueblo Revival structures in the park; Aileen typically did the building design sketches and plans. Modified Pueblo Revival style established an architectural theme that became unique to Mesa Verde National Park. Nusbaum, an archeologist, left his position working under Dr. Edgar L. Hewett at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe to accept the Mesa Verde Superintendent position. He served as Superintendent from 1921 - 1931, again in 1936 - 1939 and 1942 - 1946.

The Mesa Verde Administrative District was designated a National Historic Landmark in May of 1987. A National Historic Landmark demonstrates exceptional value or quality in interpreting and illustrating the heritage of the United States. The Administrative District is a unique historic area that resulted from the Nusbaum's desire to develop an architectural style suited to the cultural environment of the Park. The Modified Pueblo Revival buildings they were the first structures built in a National Park that emphasized a cultural theme. The contributions of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the Historic Landmark were also significant, as the CCC built and remodeled many of the buildings in the Administrative District during the CCC era of 1933 to 1942. During the Nusbaums separation from Mesa Verde between 1931 - 1936 Jesse remained involved in planning the construction of additions to the park buildings which he and Aileen had designed. The CCC alterations replicate the workmanship and materials of the original properties. The stone used in the building construction and remodeling was quarried by the CCC enrollees.

Recorded Architectural Details and Features

The architectural documentation phase of ASCP records architectural details and features. An example of a detail is the way that an individual stone is shaped and fitted into place during construction. Features include openings such as doorways or shelves built into the wall surface. A second objective of this module is to form the organizational backbone for attaching the other data modules such as rock art, wood inventory, or inscriptions. This is done by proveniencing architectural features throughout the site, a process of applying precise and consistent terminology for each wall and room. Features and details, along with all the other data in the various linked modules, can then be connected and cross tabulated with each wall or room.

Taken altogether, features and details tell us about individual room uses, and help to determine the size and composition of Ancient Puebloan households. It is possible then to more accurately determine the numbers of households at an given site, and more accurately estimate populations. For example, at Cliff Palace, evidence indicates that only 20-25 households occupied the site on a full-time basis. The evidence is partially in the form of hearths or fireplaces (a feature) or sooting on the walls (a detail). The hearth is currently buried.

When linked with tree ring dating methods, the approximate dates for certain technological innovations and inventions at Mesa Verde can be determined. For example, the earliest dated T-shaped doorway in a cliff dwelling is at Oak Tree House, which was probably built in A.D. 1205. Other sites where this kind of information has been studied include Spruce Tree House, Lancaster House, and Spring House.

Early pioneers and explorers  left their names, initials, or the dates of their visits on wall surfacesHistoric Inscriptions The study of Euroamerican historic inscriptions on walls or the bedrock in archeological sites is very specific and requires an unusual mixture of field observations, library research on old newspapers, and archival study of old photographs or personal letters. For this reason, ASCP contracted with an experienced expert, Fred Blackburn, to undertake the work.The objective of historical inscription research is to determine the discovery of the sites by early pioneers, explorers, or expeditions. Occasionally, they left their names, initials, or the dates of their visits on wall surfaces. Many of these records are visually quite subtle, but when discovered, they help to verify written records and understand the activities or access routes by early Euroamericans.

Some of these visitors may be among the first archeologists in the Mesa Verde area. For example, early excavators may have marked room numbers on the walls. The records research may identify which room the artifacts came from even though the original maps have become lost through the years. If so, room numbering marks at the site may be the only way to match the artifacts with the rooms they were found in.

Rock Art

The ancient inhabitants of cliff dwellings left images hammered, incised, or painted on the alcove bedrock, boulders, or sometimes on individual building stonesThe ancient inhabitants of cliff dwellings left images hammered, incised, or painted on the alcove bedrock, boulders, or sometimes on individual building stones. Painted images are termed pictographs, and those that are hammered or incised are considered petroglyphs. More than just art, these images have social or ritual importance to ancient and modern Native peoples. For example, the images may supply evidence that clan groups passed by during group movements of long ago, and serve as group identity markers. They also may help to record social or ritual responsibilities of a group within a cliff dwelling, or depict an ancient event that has been passed down verbally for many generations. For these reasons, not only is it important to observe and carefully record the images at sites, but also to invite participation from modern tribal or pueblo officials and elders to help explain or interpret them.

The architectural documentation database link helps create a physical context for discussions of social and individual meaning. Because studying these images is quite specialized, ASCP set up a contract with specialist Sally Cole, who has many years of experience in recording images and working with Native people to share their views. Ms. Cole worked throughout the park at sites such as Square Tower House, Balcony House, Spruce Tree House, Spring House, Painted Kiva House, and many others. The images at Mesa Verde take many forms. In some cases, they are included as decorations to plastered wall surfaces. One of the best known designs is a group of three painted triangles extending upwards from a plastered band, resembling mountains. Often, a row of dots was placed above the triangles and the associated plastered band. Since this motif is most commonly found at Mesa Verde National Park, Ms. Cole believes that it can be used to help identify the association of sites found at a distance from here with Mesa Verde, and thus help define a broader sphere of Mesa Verde cultural influence. Petroglyphs include animals such as bighorn sheep, lizards, birds, geometric designs such as spirals or zigzags, and representations of humans, sometimes with what seem to be head gear or weapons.

Wood Inventory and Tree Ring Data

Wood can be used to study ancient timber harvesting practices, the ways that wood was shaped with stone tools, and choices about how to build roofs, balconies, or doorways. Since the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde sometimes have well preserved roofs remaining after 700 years, it is a great laboratory that help to shape the foundations of dendrochronology, or tree ring dating. Using this process, we know that almost all of the park's more than 600 cliff dwellings were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Furthermore, studying sites in more detail indicates that most of the larger ones were built over a period that spanned 20-40 years.

Studying site rooms or kivas in even greater detail identifies the degree of remodeling or helps to determine whether there was an earlier building that either collapsed or was torn out during major village modifications. In such cases, timbers were recycled and re-used, as indicated by sooting on individual beams. These recycled beams may be sooted because they were in a room with a hearth. If there is no hearth or sooting in the rest of the room, ancient recycling is probably the behavior shown. Architectural context created by other database modules is invaluable for making such interpretations.

The Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona is among the nation's leading institutions in studying tree rings. They have professional teams that travel to collect samples throughout the country. Tree-ring samples are collected by coring beams or sawing out sections of wood. Reductions in the size of drill bits has allowed collecting much smaller samples, which lessens the impact to the old wood. The samples brought back to the laboratory for comparisons with a master chronology. This may help identify the year and sometimes even the season that the tree was cut down for use, and can also help determine the climate from long ago.

There is evidence at Mesa verde of manipulating living trees in order to harvest wood. Living trees at the park began to grow when the cliff dwellings were being built. One area of trees, called the Shulman Grove, has been suggested as a location where trees were purposely bent over, and the limbs harvested as they grew upward from a horizontal stem. This would have allowed beams to have been cut without killing the tree. More work is continuing in the Shulman grove; if this research is successful, Mesa Verde may prove to have the earliest tangible example of ancient timber husbandry in the nation.

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