Four Corners National Parks
Mesa Verde National Park

Mysteries of Mesa Verde

The image below of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is probably the most universally recognized symbol of ancient cliff dwellings in the world. While there were similar structures at many other locations in the American South West and elsewhere in the world, nowhere else on earth is as intimately associated with such structures as the "Green Mesa."

At Mesa Verde, in addition to ancient ruins, remain some mysteries. What happened in 1200 A.D. that prompted the Anasazis to abandon the mesa tops where they had lived for centuries and to move to cliff crevices where they set to work building the famed cliff dwellings that we see today? What happened in 1250 A.D.? Before that date, the construction ratio of rooms to kivas (religious and communal rooms) had been about 6-1. After that date, the ratio was 80-1! What happened in 1275 A.D. when, after a massively energetic 75-year building program, the people suddenly deserted forever the Mesa Verde and the homes and villages they had worked so hard to build?

Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde was one of three centers of Anasazi civilization and today it is world class popular. It is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Park. Patricia Schultz includes Mesa Verde in her "1000 Places to See Before You Die." The National Geographic Traveler magazine called Mesa Verde one of "50 destinations of a lifetime" across the globe. In 1998, Conde Nast chose Mesa Verde as one of the three top historic destinations in the world. 

Mesa Verde is the first and most popular of our national parks and monuments to be dedicated to preserving human works rather than natural wonders.

Mesa Verde covers 52,121 acres of finger-like mesas cut by steep-walled canyons. There are over 4,000 Anasazi sites at Mesa Verde. Most have never been excavated. Of these, set into alcoves in these canyons are more than 600 cliff dwellings. 

Cliff Palace -- Icon of Mesa Verde
Cliff Palace is probably the most widely recognized image of Mesa Verde. It is the largest cliff dwelling in the country. It had 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. By comparison, most of the 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde are small, with from 1 to 5 rooms each.
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Entrance to Mesa Verde National Park
In the background is Mesa Verde, and on top of that mesa is where the famed cliff dwellings are. You are going to drive your vehicle up there. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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Mesa Verde Entrance

We had a wonderful drive up from Ship Rock. It was mid October, the sky was deep blue and cloudless, and the air clear and brisk. Cottonwoods all along the way were golden and the route was scenic. It was just perfect early autumn.

To get to the cliff dwellings, we were going to have to drive to the top of the mesa in the picture on the right. That was scary. My faith was that if 600,000 people visit Mesa Verde a year and every one of them had to get up there, so could I (amen).

The drive turned out to be steep with sharp turns, but surprisingly easy  The Park Service has built a number of nice pull-offs with fine views. One of the things I could see was the result of the great wild fire of 1999. Blackened trees were everywhere and the Wetherill mesa section of the park was still closed.

Cliff Dwellings

While the Anasazis lived at Mesa Verde from 450 AD to 1300 when they all left for good, the famed cliff dwellings were almost all built during their last 75 years there. In the beginning, they lived in "pithouses" in mesa top villages. Later they build stone complexes above ground. For unknown reasons at the start of the 13th century, they built and moved to cliff houses. At the same time, the Anasazi at Hovenweep moved from mesa tops to canyon rims and built the famed towers of Hovenweep and the Chacoans moved from Chaco Canyon forever..

Spruce Tree House is one of the finest and most popular examples of a cliff dwelling. It was built between 1211 AD and 1278 and was the third largest cliff dwelling with 130 rooms and 8 kivas. Somewhere between 80 and 150 people lived there. It also seems to have been the center of a small community of 30 or 30 smaller cliff dwellings. The walk to Spruce Tree House is probably the "easiest" walk into a cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park. The trail down into Spruce Canyon is steep. It is paved and has no steps or ladders to climb, and it is supposed to be wheelchair accessible. (Maybe with a couple of people carrying the wheelchair.) 

Spruce Tree House
While the Spruce Tree House tour is self guided, a ranger has to escort me into the tower. Note the benches. The NPS has placed a large number in strategic spots. Brian took full advantage of them. (Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000)
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A Partially Restored Pithouse
The NPS has a whole area at Mesa Verde devoted to the history of Anasazi architecture and culture there. Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000)

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The earliest form of permanent housing used by the Anasazi people when the settled in Mesa Verde around 550 AD is the pithouse. It is basically a two-room building sunk a few feet into the ground. It had a living room with four main corner posts that supported the roofing, plus a smaller room probably used for storage, and a sipapu. A sipapu was a small hole or pit in the floor that was a symbolic entrance from the underworld. In the enlarged picture on the left, it can be seen in the center of the area dividing the two rooms. The pithouse was the dominant Anasazi architectural structure from 500 AD to 750. Examples can be found from Chaco Canyon to the Grand Canyon. The pithouse probably developed into the kiva during the next phase.

Stone and Mortar House

The next step in Anasazi architectural style after the pithouse was the above ground pole and adobe row house,. This was the prototype for the pueblo style, and had 50 or so rooms joined together. 

Around 1,000 AD, the proto-pueblo style was succeeded by stone masonry. From a distance the walls look a lot like large, adobe bricks. However, they are shaped stones, often two or three rows deep and 3 or 4 stories high.

The Chacoan Anasazis as well as those at Hovenweep, Canyon de Chelly, and elsewhere all used the same building styles at roughly the same time. Noticeable difference however began to develop. For example, compare the detail in the enlarged picture on the right a with a detail from Hovenweep and from Chaco Canyon.

 Stone and Masonry House on Mesa Top circa 1045 AD (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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Cedar Tree Tower and Kiva
(Photo by Elisabeth VanderPutten October 2000)

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Mesa Top Tower

Cedar Tree Tower in the Mesa Top section is one of the relatively rare early towers at Mesa Verde, and was built before the Anasazis moved to cliff dwellings. Most towers were built after 1100 AD. This places it earlier than the famed tower building at Hovenweep.

Anasazi towers at Mesa Verde and elsewhere were typically associated with a kiva, although their function is not known. Some archeologists think that because of their association with kivas they had a religious function. Another theory is that they were part of a communication system.

The kiva with Cedar Tree Tower is relatively small compared to the great kiva below

Terrace Farming

During their first few centuries at Mesa Verde, the weather was kind to the Anasazis. They had adequate rainfall, good crops, and population growth. The weather then became more erratic, rain less dependable, and crops less sure..

People began to experiment with a variety of water saving techniques, including terrace farming, check dams and other water diversion projects..

The use of terrace farming became widely practiced. When rainfall on the mesa tops was scarce, crops there would be stunted. However, by terracing slopes and canyon sides, runoff and soil loss were reduced. Partial shade also lessen evaporation. These helped produced significantly better crops.

Terrace Farming near Cedar Tree Tower
(Photo by Elisabeth VanderPutten October 2000)

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Square Tower House
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)

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Typical Large Cliff House

Square Tower House is one of the most frequently photographed sites at Mesa Verde and another example of a large cliff dwelling. Started about 1200 AD and abandoned 75 years later, this 4-story structure is the tallest building at Mesa Verde and one of the largest. It had 80 rooms and 7 kin kivas. By comparison, most cliff dwelling had 5 or 6 rooms simply because most crevices at Mesa Verde were too small to accommodate anything bigger.

There is spring below, and hand and toe holds carved into the sandstone for access to the mesa top where crops and other water sources were located. The amount of work in building this must have been daunting.

One thing that impressed me when I viewed dwellings the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde is the same thought that occurred to me at Bandelier: how small and hard the world must have been for the people who were born, lived and died there.


Anasazi Kivas were key-shaped, below ground rooms probably used for religious purposes. Unlike modern kivas at Taos Pueblo, for example, which are square and from which women are prohibited, those at Mesa Verde seem to have been used by men and women alike. As the NPS notes of Mesa Verde, "Kivas probably also served as a place for social gatherings and daily chores like weaving." 

Lining the wall was a stone bench. Entrance was by ladder through a hole in the roof. In the center of the floor was a fire pit. A ground level shaft provided air for the fire. There was also a sipapu or a hole or pit in the floor that symbolized the entrance to or from the underworld from which the Anasazis believed they originated. Religion was a profoundly important part of Anasazi life.

Something happened at Mesa Verde about 1250 A.D..The ratio of kivas to rooms changed dramatically around that time. Before then, the ratio had been on average about 1 kiva for 5 or 6 rooms.  After 1250, the ratio changed to 1 kiva for every 60-90 rooms. Twenty-five years later the Mesa Verdeans vanished.. What happened remains unknown.

The Great Kiva
This Great Kiva which has been partially restored is in the section of Mesa Verde which has the exhibits of historical buildings. It is interesting to compare this great kiva with the much smaller one with Cedar Tree Tower above.  Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten October 2000)

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