by Alex Gugel , all rights reserved

Mesa Verde

Mesa Top Loop

brochure Mesa Verde - Mesa Top Loop

Brochure of the Mesa Top Loop at Mesa Verde National Park (NP) in Colorado. Published by the Mesa Verde Museum Association.

SUGGESTED DONATION $1 MESA TOP LOOP MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK “Welcome to Mesa Verde. I’m a Pueblo person... I want you to know that there are still descendants of the people who lived here, that we are still here on this world and we didn’t mysteriously disappear. We still do a lot of the same things that our forefathers did when they were living here… carrying on the tradition, culture, songs, dances, languages.” Y MESA TOP LOOP ou are about to embark on a remarkable journey through time. At the 11 stops along this six-mile (9.5 km) drive you will discover pithouses, pueblos, and cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Pueblo people over the seven centuries they called Mesa Verde home. Here, they built homes, raised families, celebrated with friends, and buried loved ones. With this guide, we will explore the traditions and innovations that helped the Pueblo people create a resilient culture that endures today among the 21 Pueblos of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. — Peter Pino, Zia Pueblo Mesa Verde is a sacred place where Pueblo people come to honor their ancestors. Please visit with respect: • Follow posted speed limits. • Be mindful of bicycle and pedestrian traffic. • Stay on marked trails; please do not enter closed areas. • Do not touch, sit, stand, or lean on fragile ancient walls. • Disturbing, defacing, or removing artifacts is illegal. • Leashed dogs are allowed on Mesa Top Loop trails. • Pick up and dispose of dog waste. • Smoking or eating in any site is prohibited. 2 3 MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK MESA TOP LOOP Pithouse 600 CE Navajo Canyon View What makes a place a home? Abundant resources? Closeness to family? Generations of memories? Here you see one of the oldest permanent structures built on the mesa, where early Ancestral Pueblo settlers enjoyed many of the same comforts we enjoy in our homes today. Though nomadic people lived in the surrounding area for thousands of years, permanent farmsteads began to appear on the mesa around 550. Planting corn, beans, and squash, along with continuing to hunt and gather wild foods, gave them a more reliable and balanced food supply. The transition to farming allowed the Pueblo people to set down roots. This new lifestyle spurred traditions and innovations that would last for centuries. Resourceful and attuned to their environment, the Ancestral Pueblo people took advantage of the earth’s natural insulation by building pithouses—semi-subterranean homes. The atlatl and spear were replaced with a lighter and more accurate hunting tool: the bow and arrow. Light and portable basketry made way for durable pottery, better for storing and cooking food. Hopi families continue the tradition of dryland farming. Corn remains at the heart of Pueblo art, culture, and ceremony. 4 8,571 feet (2,621 m) 6,350 feet (1,935 m) Imagine you are an Ancestral Pueblo person looking for a place to build a home. Can you identify the resources that make this a good place to live? You are standing at 7,000 feet (2,130 m). This might seem like a high place to farm. However, the southward slope of this plateau provides more sunlight and warmth, lengthening the growing season. The prevailing southwesterly wind also deposits rich sediment. Mesa Verde receives an average of 18 inches (46 cm) of precipitation annually, split between winter snow and late-summer thunderstorms. This pattern allows for farming without irrigation. The porous sandstone caprock soaks up some of the seasonal moisture. The water percolates through the rock before seeping out, forming springs below the canyon rim. These seep springs provide an important water source to plants, animals, and people alike. Over time, water-laden rock dissolves carving the alcoves you see across canyon. The mesa is home to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals. These species provided food, tools, clothing, and medicine. Today, the landscape provides a dramatic backdrop, but for the Ancestral Pueblo people, the land supplied everything. What natural resources make your home a good place to live? 5 MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK MESA TOP LOOP Objects from the Cliff Dwellings: Due to the arid climate many objects found in the cliff dwellings are remarkably well preserved. Prairie dog skin pouch filled with salt Coiled length of yucca fiber rope, 1,300 feet (400 m) long Woven cotton cloth with geometric pattern Decorated black-on-white jar and mug If archeologists were to excavate your home many years from now, what would they find? How would they interpret your life? 6 Square Tower House 1200-1300 CE At the first stop, you saw one of the earliest permanent homes built on the mesa. Here, you see one of their most spectacular architectural achievements, built six centuries later. This cliff dwelling includes the tallest standing architecture in Mesa Verde, a four-story, 27-foot (8 m) tall structure that was part of an even larger building complex. Although the site has been stabilized by archeologists, 90% is original. Painted murals and pecked rock art are found throughout Square Tower House. From the overlook, look for original roof beams and intact plastered walls. What do such elaborate decorations tell us about Ancestral Pueblo society? Perhaps it suggests that the builders were not only concerned with meeting their basic needs, but also recognized the importance of art and beauty as essential components of a thriving community. As you continue along the Mesa Top Loop, notice how the architecture and technology changes over time. What remains the same? Just out of view, at the east end of the alcove, three rooms are built high above the site. Loopholes, small openings built into the walls, indicate that these rooms may have provided a lookout for the village below. 7 MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK Pithouse & Early Pueblos 700-950 CE Here you will find the remnants of an evolving village and the beginnings of a new style of home. The original village was composed of both pithouses and above-ground rooms made of jacal—a wooden lattice plastered with mud with large stone slabs supporting the base. Later generations built single-stone-wide masonry walls. This innovation allowed for bigger rooms and larger villages. When families started living in these above-ground room blocks, they continued to build pithouse-like structures nearby. Dug deeper into the ground, the pithouse began to resemble a kiva. Kivas are multi-purpose underground rooms that remain central to Pueblo community life today. A flat, ground-level roof of latticed beams covered the kiva. As with a pithouse, an opening in the roof provided entry via a ladder. Architectural and technological innovations occurred hand-inhand. Plain grayware ceramics were replaced by painted black-onwhite pottery and stronger corrugated vessels that could be set in fires for cooking. Trade: Trade items appear more frequently in villages around this time, pointing to increased contact with the wider world: cotton from Arizona; salt from Utah; obsidian and turquoise from New Mexico; shells from the Gulf of California; cacao and macaw feathers from Mexico. What ideas might have been traded alongside these exotic goods? Turquoise beads and pendant 8 MESA TOP LOOP Oldest Towns in the United States: Several Pueblos, including Acoma in New Mexico, are the oldest continually inhabited towns in the United States, dating back nearly 1000 years. Mesa Top Sites 900-1100 CE Look closely at this site and you will see three villages built one on top of another. The people of the first village constructed their homes of jacal. Later occupants built a second village on the same site with single-stone-wide sandstone masonry. A third village, built around 1075, represents a major innovation with its use of double-stone, rubble-core masonry—two outer walls with soil and rock fill between them. This sturdy construction allowed for the building of large multi-story room blocks and towers. This village features three circular towers, which may have been used as signaling stations, astronomical observatories, watchtowers, or ceremonial structures. The kiva was a vital part of all three villages, gradually evolving into what archeologists refer to as the Mesa Verde style kiva. As villages continued to increase in size and population, farming became increasingly important, requiring agricultural advancements. Farmers built check-dams—stone terraces built in natural drainages, which created more productive farmland and prevented water runoff and soil erosion. 9 MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK MESA TOP LOOP Getting Around the Mesa: Archeologists estimate that more than 5,000 people once lived on Mesa Verde, with many more in the surrounding region. Trails and steps carved into cliffs provided a web of connections linking villages to their farms and neighbors. These trails would have been busy with farmers, masons, merchants, and families visiting neighbors. Sun Point Pueblo 1100s-1200s CE Sun Point View 1200-1300 CE The canyon junction before you was once a bustling community. Over 30 cliff dwellings occupy these canyon alcoves and ledges. How many can you spot? Look around you. Imagine living here 800 years ago, seeing your neighbors’ doors glowing with firelight and hearing the sounds of singing, laughter, barking dogs, and crying babies echoing off the canyon walls. Think of all the many relationships that connected this community. What does your community mean to you? Nankoweap Granaries, Grand Canyon National Park This was one of the last mesa-top pueblos to be built at Mesa Verde: a 30-room village with a large kiva and tower connected by a tunnel at its center. The site lacks the building materials, such as wooden roof beams, by which archeologists usually date occupation. Perhaps the missing materials were recycled to construct nearby cliff dwellings. Pottery types found here lead archeologists to estimate that this village was occupied for only ten years. A decade may seem like a short time to invest in a home, but did you know that the average American today moves more than ten times in their lifetime? What prompted your last move? 10 Cliff Dwelling Phenomenon: While Mesa Verde is home to some of the largest and most well-known cliff dwellings, this was not the only place they were built. Widespread communities, from the greater Four Corners Region to the Sierra Madre Occidental of Chihuahua, Mexico, built homes and granaries high in cliff walls all around the same time. This architectural trend indicates an exchange of ideas and technology between diverse communities far and wide. 11 MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK Oak Tree House 1200s CE The families of Oak Tree House were part of a larger community, neighboring many other cliff dwellings in Fewkes and Cliff Canyons. While most cliff dwellings are small, with fewer than 10 rooms, this neighborhood includes many of Mesa Verde’s largest cliff villages. Why move into a cliff dwelling? Like other cliff dwellings, Oak Tree House is tucked neatly into an alcove that protects the village from wind, rain, and snow. Its southern exposure provided warmth from the low winter sun. An active seep spring located a short distance downcanyon supplied the village with fresh water. It’s easy to see why the Ancestral Pueblo people chose to live here. Fire Temple & New Fire House 1200s CE The large open area at the front of Fire Temple is much like the plazas at the center of Pueblo communities today, where social and ritual activities take place. Central plazas like this one began to appear more frequently around this time, suggesting larger, more inclusive community gatherings. This plaza is centered around a raised, round firepit flanked by rectangular floor vaults. When covered, these vaults might have served as foot drums. Painted figures of rain clouds, corn, cactus, people, and animals adorn the site. Look for white and red bands of plaster on the right and back walls. “The best way that we pray is through song and dance, so everyone in the community joins in. The plaza is alive… The plaza is an important part of Pueblo life, who we are, and how we carry on today.” –TJ Atsye, Laguna Pueblo 12 MESA TOP LOOP Sun Temple 1250 CE Bird’s-eye view of Sun Temple Walk around the walls of this large structure and notice how it differs from others you have seen. Sun Temple was likely a communal building that played an important role in the Cliff Palace community. While this D-shaped structure resembles other Pueblo sites such as Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, it is the only building of its kind in the Pueblo world. The skillfully crafted four-foot-thick walls indicate that extensive effort went into Sun Temple's construction. Archeologists excavated 24 rooms of various shapes and sizes as well as three circular structures inside the main complex. An additional circular structure stands detached to the southeast. No roof beams or household goods were found. Some experts suggest that the walls of Sun Temple may have been used by observers in Cliff Palace as a marker for astronomical events like the winter solstice sunset. Perhaps the builders intentionally left sun temple unroofed, as an observatory for such events, or perhaps it was never finished. Many questions remain. Corn Dance by Romando Vigil, San Ildefonso Pueblo 13 MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK Leaving Mesa Verde: MESA TOP LOOP Cliff Palace View Cliff Palace is North America’s largest cliff dwelling, with 150 rooms and 21 kivas. Cliff Palace was an important community center. It may have been an administrative site, an important place of business and cultural exchange, or simply a large village. It stands now as a grand testament to Ancestral Puebloan achievements in engineering, architecture, and design. For 700 years, Ancestral Pueblo people thrived here on Mesa Verde. While building on the wisdom of the generations before them, they enhanced, adjusted, and refined their way of life. Today, their descendants speak of them with honor and reverence, recognizing that both tradition and innovation are essential components of Pueblo culture. In the 1200s, massive changes reverberated across the Pueblo world. Many people on and around Mesa Verde moved into larger and better-protected communities. “Our culture flourished here, and though the people left, the culture was not lost.” –TJ. Atsye, Laguna Pueblo While many residents of Mesa Verde moved from the mesa tops into cliff dwellings, others began to migrate away from the region entirely. Archeological evidence points to a series of prolonged droughts, diminishing resources, and social upheaval as factors that may have contributed to these changes. By the end of the 13th century, the once bustling Mesa Verde region was almost completely depopulated. By the 1280s, the sounds of construction that had filled the air moved southward toward the Pueblos of today—on the Hopi mesas of Arizona and along the Rio Grande and its tributaries in New Mexico. “This place was never really abandoned. It’s still occupied by the spirits of our forefathers, so we come here to do pilgrimages to essentially connect with the spirits of our ancestors.” –Peter Pino, Zia Pueblo 14 Hopi Eagle & Deer Dance. Pueblo families return to Mesa Verde to celebrate and honor long lasting traditions. 15 To Our Visitors Mesa Verde National Park is home to over 5,000 archeological sites and 1,000 species of plants and animals, including several that live nowhere else on earth. Please respect and protect these cultural and natural treasures by observing the following rules: • Follow posted speed limits. • Be mindful of bicycle and pedestrian traffic. • Stay on marked trails; please do not enter closed areas. • Leashed dogs are allowed on paved walkways. • Pick up and dispose of dog waste. • Do not touch, sit, stand or lean on fragile ancient walls. • Disturbing, defacing, or removing artifacts is illegal. • Smoking and eating is prohibited in sites. Mesa Verde is over 7,000 feet above sea level. Stay hydrated and pace yourself, especially when it is hot. Be mindful of your activity if you have health problems. In memory of Peter Pino. This publication is produced by the Mesa Verde Museum Association in cooperation with Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Cultural Site. Thank you to the cultural resource and interpretation staff of Mesa Verde National Park for writing and fact checking. Illustration credits: “Square Tower House” Photo by Jacob W. Frank. “Many Hopi families teach their children how to raise corn by hand.” Photo by Maria Elena Peterson, courtesy of Michael Kotutwa Johnson. “Corn Dance” Painting by Romando Vigil, San Ildefonso Pueblo. For more ways to support your park, visit

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