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The Mystery of Mesa Verde National Park Massive Cliff Dwellings

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Mesa Verde National Park, located in Montezuma County, Colorado, America, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park. The park protects some of the best-preserved Hereditary Puebloan archaeological sites in the USA.

The Mesa Verdeans survived by hunting and farming. They lived in simpler pit houses and grew crops such as beans, corn, and squash. They created the mesa’s first pueblos around about 650, and around the end of the 12th century, they started to build the massive cliff dwellings, multistory structures of sandstone bricks and mortar, and wood beams were the three primary construction materials used for the alcoves tucked into deep rock, for which the park is best known.

The Ancestral Puebloans formed each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby riverbeds.

Rationalobserver, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace, the largest and most famous cliff dwelling, has more than 150 different rooms and more than 21 rooms for religious rituals known as kivas. They had a population of around 100 people.

Since sandstone is a porous material, moisture seeps right through it. However, beneath the sandstone layer is a layer of shale through which the moisture cannot penetrate.

The moisture then freezes and expands in the winter months, and chunks of sandstone are cracked and loosened so that later these pieces collapse, forming alcoves.

The majority of the alcoves within Mesa Verde National Park are small cracks or ledges able to support only a few small rooms. Few are only large enough to house a dwelling like the size of Mesa Verde Cliff Palace.

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Crafted out of mortar, sandstone, and wooden beams, Mesa Verde Cliff Palace has been remarkably well preserved from the components for over the past 700 years.

Following a period of environmental instability and driven by a series of severe and prolonged droughts, they evacuated the area. They moved south to Arizona and New Mexico locations, including Rio Chama, Pajarito Plateau, and Santa Fe.

Rationalobserver, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1880s, Cowboys found the cliff dwellings, and subsequent explorers plundered them until most of the mesa was changed into a national park in 1906.

According to the National Park Services, Mesa Verde was discovered in December 1888 by two cowboys Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason. They were riding across the top of the mesa looking for stray cattle. Through the blasting snow they discovered something in the cliffs which looked like “a magnificent city.”

The different Pueblo languages are Tiwa, Towa, Keres, Zuñi, and Hopi. Many languages are spoken these days, which could mean that Pueblo people spoke other languages in the past, although they lived in the Mesa Verde region. Most Pueblo people speak English today, and some speak Spanish.

How they dated the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde:

Dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) is a scientific tool that allows archeologists to find out when buildings were built, renovated, and abandoned. Wood charcoal found at the site does not burn to ash; therefore, they could view it under a microscope and see the ring structure. 

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Featured image credit: Rationalobserver, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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