Mesa Verde National Park

By: Tyler Swinney

Now more than ever, I have been reviewing photos from recent travels. I suspect this is a consequence of current travel limitations, or maybe it’s the nostalgia of wishing to re-experience fond memories. Regardless, I continually find my way back to the images from a meaningful vacation that I took in 2019 to the American Southwest. Although we visited dozens of archaeological sites, our trip to Mesa Verde National Park holds special significance due to the incredible indigenous architecture and amazing landscape.

Mesa Verde is a large National Park that includes around 600 cliff dwellings which are rock and adobe structures that are built into an eroded portion of a cliff. Cliff houses are the most well-known cliff dwellings and are congregations of multiple residential structures that can be several stories tall. Many cliff houses required incredible engineering skills to construct and are only accessible by climbing precarious ladders or stairs, carved into the bedrock, from above or below!

One of the most famous cliff houses is Cliff Palace. Including 150 rooms and 24 kivas (round, subterranean chambers used for religious, social and utilitarian purposes), Cliff Palace is one of the largest and most iconic structures in the park. Considering that the majority of cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde have less than five rooms, Cliff Palace undoubtedly held special significance to the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived at Mesa Verde during the 12th and 13th centuries. Above and below are images of me at Cliff Palace. The first image is from a nearby overlook. The second image is from a paid ranger-guided tour that we were lucky enough to join.

As a Midwestern archaeologist, Mesa Verde offered an entirely different type of archaeology than I am used to. The scale of masonry architecture is humbling and the perilous positioning of the cliff dwellings is thought-provoking. There is very little surface water anywhere in the region, so the logistics for acquiring food through hunting, gathering and agriculture were impressive. Visiting Mesa Verde had long been on my bucket list and at the time of our visit (late April 2019) about a third of the park was still closed due to snow pack. I’ll have to visit again to see the cliff dwellings on the Wetherill Mesa portion of the park. I’m looking forward to it.

Posted in Archaeology.