Trip Start May 19, 2009
11Trip End Jun 06, 2009
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At last - the site that inspired the Four Corners trip! We've been talking about going to Mesa Verde for years, and I'd have to say it's lived up to our expectations. Mesa Verde should be on every archaeologist's 'bucket list'.
Mesa Verde is a series of ancestral Puebloan sites (say that three times fast) in southwestern Colorado. The park entrance is about 8 miles east of Cortez, but the park itself is huge. You have to climb miles of switchback roads to get to the visitor's centre, and then there are miles of sites and lookouts to tour from there. It was a lovely sunny day, and the views coming into the park were amazing. We had to restrain ourselves from gasping in awe every time we turned the corner around another U turn, trying our best not to tempt David to take his eyes off the road, which was not only very winding, but had very steep drops. We all agreed that the trees along the side did not look strong enough to hold the Sequoia and 5 passengers if we strayed from the road. We joked about whether we'd have time to call 911 on our cell phones on the way down to the bottom of the canyon, and if so, if we should ask for an ambulance or the coroner...
The group assembled at the infomation centre, roughly in the centre of the park. We signed up for two ranger guided tours which just cost $3 each, but had to be booked ahead of time. The first one was to a site called Cliff Palace. This is a very picturesque collection of kivas and pueblo style dwellings nestled in a arched opening in the cliff face, directly below the mesa top. Many of the sites at Mesa Verde are cliff dwellings like this. The cliff faces in this area contained many larged arched shelters that were formed at the intersection between an upper, porous layer of sandstone and a lower, impermeable layer of shale. The water would seep down through the sandstone, and collect directly above the shale. Through freezing action, the water would expand and form wedges of ice that would break up the sandstone just above the shale (where the water was most concentrated), forming the perfect shelters. Not only are they shady and cool during the hot summers and sheltered in the winter, but many of them have a natural source of water, where the permeating water collects at the shale level.
The Cliff Palace tour is one of the most popular tours in the park. Ours was led by a very amiable young man who introduced himself as Ranger Jake. He warned us about the difficulties of the hike, that there would be lots of steps going down, and what goes down must come up again, so there would be ladders too. He also gave us a bit of background about the site. He talked about the importance of community that struck him at the sites, and hoped we would come away with a new sense of comunity and our responsibility to contribute.
Cliff Palace is a site that's best described in pictures (see the album for Day 1, which all the pictures I import seem to be going to). But in short, there were a series of structures built from sandstone and mortar, wedged under the arch, in what initially seems to be a bit higglety-pigglety. There are several towers, both round and square, and at least three circular stone lined depressions that were once kivas. Modern kivas are mostly used for ceremonial purposes, but Ranger Jake thought that these were probably also used for family living. They all had little firepits, and a ventilation door opening into an air shaft opposite the firepit to draw in fresh air, and a short little wall between to protect the fire from drafts from the air shaft. When the site was occupied, these kivas would have been roofed over, forming the pueblo floor above them. One of the kivas had three square slabs with a series of round disks placed on top of them - looking like giant cookie sheets! Ranger Jake said they were an experiment (modern) to test a variety of mortars to be used to repair the site. Above the kivas were a series of utilitarian rooms, some of which still retained the outer plaster and faded red paint used to decorate the dwellings. Above the, just below the rock face forming the top of the arch, were a second much simpler layer of construction with the odd door - these were used for storage, and archaeologists had found corn cobs and beans there. One of the beans had even been cultivated to form a heritage brand of beans you can buy now.
The second tour was to the Balcony House site. It came with a lot of warnings that it was not for the faint hearted. It involved strenuous climbs up ladders with sheer drops below, and a stretch of crawling on hands and knees through a rather narrow tunnel. I actually don't have a problem with heights, so this was just the kind of thing I love! But some of the others in the group wisely opted out an spent some time touring some of the other mesa top sites. Keith, Naomi and Dorothy went on an earlier tour with Ranger Jake, and Jack, Stuart, Betty-Ann, Robert, David and I took a later tour with a very likeable, tiny, spry little female ranger called Beth Wheeler. Robert was sure he'd come across that name before in a Zane Grey novel...
Beth Wheeler gave us the standard talk about how strenous the hike would be, and all the ladders we'd have to climb, and that we should think twice about coming along if we were afraid of heights or claustrophobic. Then she talked about the sites a bit, and hoped that the site and what happened to the people there would make us think a bit about environmental sustainability. Both she and Ranger Jake were very good guides - we found the parks people in general to be very professional, friendly, amiable, and sincere in their attempts to bring meaning to the sites.
Balcony House was considerably smaller than the Cliff Palace, but generally similar in construction, with one exception. It was the only one of the Mesa Verde sites to have a retaining wall behind which had been build a wide, balcony style 'street'. The retaining wall raised well above 'street' level, hence the name of the site. To get to the site, we had to climb a fairly long ladder. Everyone seemed to manage it quite well - there were even a couple of small boys (between 5 and 7 years old) that seemed to manage quite well with their parent's guidance.
The Balcony House also had some interesting bits of construction that I hadn't noticed at Cliff Palace. The plaser was better preserved, and there were some little shelf like areas on the side of one of the buildings formed from covering the logs sticking out from the floor construction with branches and then plastering over top. Some of the plaster had disintegrated and you could see the construction material underneath. There was also a wall sconce type of decoration on the inside of one of the square rooms. The lower part of the wall had been painted red, and along the top there were a series of sets of three red triangles jutting up.
The Balcony house site was divided in two by a wall, and you got to the second side by walking through a narrow crack in the rock. There was evidence that there had once been a door, but it had since been bricked up. You could see the outline of the door on both sides of the wall. Interesting!
Next came the most challenging part of the tour - a crawl through a very narrow tunnel. It was truly a tight squeeze! Betty Ann had a small backpack on, and it kept getting getting caught so she had to take it off to get through. One young fellow was laughing at her difficulties, but she had the last laugh, because he ended up having quite a bit of trouble fitting his shoulders through. He actually had to drop one shoulder and inch through sideways. She told him that she could always take off her pack, but there was nothing he could do about his shoulders if he got wedged in there.
We all got through in the end, and managed to negotiate the ladder back up to the top of the mesa without incident. Quite the adventure!
We spent the rest of the day driving along one of the loop roads, stopping at a series of mesa top sites - pit houses and kivas mostly. It gave us a good idea of the progression from early pit houses to kivas to full scale pueblo style cliff dwellings.
On the following day we returned to Mesa Verde and split up into smaller groups, doing a variety of things. Norma, Louise and I took the Petroglyph trail hike, which turned out to be quit wonderful. We walked along a path in the cliff wall, through shady pine trees with a variety of undergrowth like low oak bushes and mock orange bushes and even some poisin ivy. We had a guide booklet with descriptions of the flora and fauna and geology that corresponded to marked points on the trail. It really helped to put everything in context and helped us imagine what it must have been like to live on the cliff face.