Life on the Edge

12 18 cliff palaceOn this day in 1888, two ranchers called Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason were riding across a high plateau in south-western Colorado. The weather was bad and they were looking for stray cattle, when they discovered a vast canyon. Through the blowing snow, they could see something on the side of a steep cliff. It wasn’t one of their cows. It looked like a city, squashed into a crevice in the rock face. They were probably the first non-Native Americans to see what they would later name Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace was a settlement built by a tribe now known as the Ancestral Puebloans. They built many dwellings high in the cliffs, but Cliff Palace is probably one of the largest and best preserved. The buildings are made from stone, wooden beams and a mortar made from soil, water and ash. From a distance, they are hardly distinguishable from the surrounding sandstone cliffs. Some of the buildings are four stories high and reach the ceiling of the cavern. There are rooms for people to live in and others for storage. None have doors at ground level. You would have needed a ladder to get in.12 18 kivas Also there are twenty-three kivas, which are round rooms, sunk into the ground. They were used for ceremonial purposes. Originally, they would have had a wooden beamed ceiling. Each had a fire pit in the centre and a ventilation shaft in the wall, with an opening at floor level to provide a draught for the fire. There was also another small hole in the floor called a sipapu, which I am reliably informed represented the portal through which the ancient ancestors came into the world. There were probably around a hundred people living at Cliff Palace, but the presence of so many kivas suggests that it was a pretty important place. So it might have been visited by surrounding communities too.

The crevices in which cliff dwellings like Cliff Palace were built, were formed by water seeping through the sandstone until it reached a bed of shale. Because the water could penetrate no further, it would collect there. In the winter it would freeze, causing the rock to crack and fall away, eventually leaving the alcoves into which the Ancestral Puebloans packed their buildings. There are around six hundred of these dwellings in the Mesa Verde National Park.

The Ancestral Puebloans were an agricultural people. They would have grown beans, squash and corn. Obviously, they would have had to grow these somewhere else, so quite why they decided to live so far away from their crops is not clear. Perhaps it provided shelter. It would have been cool in the summer and protected them from the worst of the winter weather. Maybe it was just safer, if they had enemies they needed to hide from. It could have been religious, it could have been that they just liked the view.

The construction of Cliff Palace has been dated to between 1190 and 1260. It was abandoned around 1300. Again, we don’t know why. They may have been driven out or it may be that farming became difficult due to drought. We know that the period between 1276 and 1299 was very dry, so they may have just had to move somewhere else. The Ancestral Puebloans never wrote anything down, and the many tribes who are descended from them don’t remember either. So we’ll never know why they built their cliff dwellings, what they did there or why they left. But the mysterious, compact little city that they left behind is a thing of beauty. For anyone who listens to ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ it is how I imagine the impossibly tiny city below the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex.

photo credit: lance johnson licensed under creative commons