In Mesa Verde National Park, the remnants of a once great civilization stand on the side of a giant mesa. The words "Mesa Verde" themselves translate to Green Mesa, and the valley was once a fertile land, with rivers and well-cared for gardens. Though now mostly desert and isolation, the sprawling remains of the Anasazi cliff cities remain, and one of the largest of these is Cliff Palace.

Visitor Information

Entrance to the park is $10 a vehicle, $5 for bikers, hikers, etc. and entrance tickets are good for six days. After entrance to the park, a ranger-guided tour (mandatory) is about two bucks to take the long hike down and then up again to the city. Make sure you're in shape and dress appropriately (Tux optional).

The Physical Structure of Cliff Palace

Built around 1100 AD in the “Classic” Pueblo III style* (Kempe 106), it is built into the natural cleft of a sandstone mesa. The cave stretches back ninety feet, is three hundred twenty five feet wide, and the arched roof reaches sixty feet above the cave floor (Kempe 108), which is about five and a half modern stories tall. From the roof of the cave to the top of the mesa is a hundred feet, while the distance from the floor of the cave to the canyon below is a dizzying seven hundred feet. Inside the one massive cave sits a four-story apartment type complex, with over two hundred rooms (Kempe 112). In addition to these rooms there are twenty-three “kivas,” male-only religious saunas that were the centers for much of the more important tribal activity, such as religious ceremonies, gambling, and weaving, then a male-only task.

The materials used for constructing this “city in a hill” were adobe and stone, fashioned into large blocks and bricks that distributed the weight of the building evenly. For important structures, such as certain entryways and kivas, a more advanced support system using columns and beams that distributed the pressure of the building to a more localized area (Morrow 78) was used. Though spreading the weight evenly sounds like a good idea, the second approach was better and more durable: look at the example of how an arch is built (centralized pressure increases it's holding capability) versus just putting a plank on two books to create a bridge. All other things equal, the arch will support more. The city would expand as time passed and the population grew, and the less structured approach of bricks and block allowed easier additions to the complex however, and so this method prevailed.

Perhaps just as impressive as the city itself was the immense infrastructure built to support it: a vast network of roads, farms, and gardens sprung from Cliff Palace. Four hundred miles of ancient roads have been discovered in Anasazi territory, spanning up to thirty feet wide (Morrow 84). These roads allowed the Anasazi to quickly (relative to the times) conduct trade missions, religious ceremonies, and herd animals. The lands around the cities were full of lush gardens, fed by plentiful canals and dams.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Cliff Dwellings for the Anasazi People
or Why the %$#?! did these people live in caves?

One of the first apparent advantages of living seven hundred feet high is defense, which indeed became important as warring tribes moved northward**. But perhaps an even greater factor in their dwelling place was escape from the heat: the shade kept the temperature much cooler in the day then in the rest of the canyon, and the warm rocks moderated the freezing temperatures at night. In addition to protection from the heat, the cliff shelter protected the housing and the people from all the elements: centuries later, Cliff Palace is amazingly well preserved while similar adobes built out into the open have been long ago worn away.

Of course, living so high had its own problems as well. Water was scarce, so long treks had to be made almost daily to replenish the village store. Some natural spring existed in the cave, but these were not enough as hundreds of people began living there. Also, transporting the crops was a hard trek down towards the city (from the top of the mesa, where the farms were), some of the journey being on a small outcropping barely large enough to stick one’s foot, and these perilous journeys were made without the “modern” convenience of even a horse and cart, but were done solely on foot (no pun intended).

*The Anasazi architecture evolved through 7 distinct phases, three "Basketweaver" and five "Pueblo" Stages. Pueblo III was the style during the height of the Anasazi civilization, though not necessarily the technical peak.

**A side note: although they were replaced by a warrior tribe, it is believed the Anasazi were killed by drought, not for lack of defense.

Works Cited
Kempe, David. Living Underground--A History of Cave and Cliff Dwelling. London:
    Herbert Press, 1988.

Ed. Morrow, Baker and Price, V.B.. Anasazi Architecture and American Design. 
    Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

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