Magical Architecture: Mesa Verde

It’s Like a Miniature City Cut Inside a Cliff

As a kid, I got a lot of my inspirations from Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge Comics. One episode that particularly got me going was entitled “The Seven Cities of Gold,” about a city of cliff dwellings made of gold that the Spanish conquistadores had somehow overlooked. It was called Cibola.

After the city was accidentally destroyed by Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I vowed to find it—and I did. It was at Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez, Colorado. Here are a few images from the comic:

Uncle Scrooge Finds the Seven Cities of Cibola

If you ever get a chance to visit Mesa Verde, be sure to visit the Cliff Palace ruins. You can actually climb down to see them with a ranger (that is, when the coronavirus infestation finally dies down). Martine and I saw them some years ago, though Martine was troubled with altitude sickness. The elevation there is between 7,000 and 8,500 feet (2133 to 2591 meters).

Anasazi Ruins at Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Life must have been difficult for the Cliff Palace dwellers, as they had to haul water in using ladders. The ruins were deserted around the same time that many other Anasazi ruins, such as Chaco Canyon, were abandoned.

What happened to the inhabitants? As I wrote earlier regarding Chaco, I am sure their descendants are the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico.

The Towers of Hovenweep

Hovenweep Isn’t Far As the Crow Flies from Chaco Canyon

One of the things I love about the archaeology of the Southwestern U.S. are the many mysteries relating to the Anasazi, “The Old Ones.” A few days ago, I wrote about Chaco Canyon, which turned my mind to Hovenweep in Southeast Utah, which I visited twice. Hovenweep National Monument is out of the way, so it doesn’t receive as many visitors as Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde, or even Chaco Canyon.

The view east from Hovenweep is toward Sleeping Ute Mountain in Colorado. We are very close here to the Four Corners area, where the boundaries of four states come together: Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Here is the view of Sleeping Ute Mountain:

Sleeping Ute Mountain in Nearby Colorado

I suspect that Hovenweep was at or near the boundary with some other ancient people. Why else would they feel the need to construct towers, which look as if they were intended for self-defense. The ruins are built around a tiny canyon which is crossed by the trail that surrounds the site. Here I suspect was the source of the water they needed in this dry area, though Martine and I did not see any when we were there.

As with most Anasazi ruins, there are a whole lot more questions than answers. (But isn’t that always the case?) The Anasazi left a lot of pictographs but no body of writing—and certainly no explanations. In their time (roughly from 200 BC to AD 1500—just before the Spanish showed up), they built a lot of interesting structures in the San Juan River valley that was their center. What happened to them? They probably became the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. They were probably forced to move from places like Chaco and Hovenweep because the drought that bedeviled them became chronic.

Surviving Wall of One of the Hovenweep Towers

The Center of the Anasazi World

Anasazi Pictographs at Chaco Canyon

I remember writing in yesterday’s post that I spent three consecutive vacations in New Mexico, where I just happened to fall in love with Hatch chiles. But what did I go to New Mexico to see? The answer could be expressed in two words: Chaco Canyon.

Insofar as I am concerned, the most incredible archaeological site in the United States could be found in Northwest New Mexico at the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. At one point—between AD 900 and 1150—Chaco Canyon was like the Rome and the Vatican City of the Anasazi world. Within the park, there are literally hundreds of ruins, pictographs, and ceremonial roads within a relatively small area. One could approach it from U.S. 550 between Espanola and Farmington by turning onto a washboarded dirt road around the site of the former Nagheezi Trading Post, or via New Mexico 371 from Thoreau to Crownpoint, and then on New Mexico 9, once again getting on a washboarded dirt road.

The Largest and Most Spectacular Ruin: Pueblo Bonito

For three consecutive years, I camped at Gallo Wash with a large ice chest full of Hatch chiles and other edibles, getting my water from the only source in the park: The National Park Service Visitor Center.

There are other Anasazi ruins in the Southwest: I have been to Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Navajo National Monument (Betatakin), Aztec, Salmon, Bandelier, and Canyon de Chelly. But it was only at Chaco that there seemed to be a large population, with multiple ruins in easy walking distance of one another. I even climbed the butte above Pueblo Bonito, running into a coiled rattlesnake that was a little discomfited at encountering me. Trust me, the discomfiture was mutual, but both of us managed to avoid harm.

Fajada Butte, Location of the Famed Sun Dagger

Entering the park from the Nagheezi Road, one encounters Fajada Butte (shown above), atop which there is a rock meant to project a downward-pointing dagger at sunrise during the Spring Equinox. I did not venture to climb the butte, as it is probably forbidden anyhow (and dangerous). Nearby to the right is Gallo Wash, where I camped.

If there is one place in the Southwest that I can recommend to tourists interested in archaeology, it would have to be Chaco Canyon.


The Anasazi Moment

Doorway in Aztec Ruins

The ruins don’t have anything to do with the Aztecs. It was a common 19th century misconception, like the one about the Egyptians building the Mayan pyramids because, somehow, the Mayans weren’t smart enough to build piles of rubble and put a smooth face on them. No, the ruins at Aztec, New Mexico, are one of the settlements of the Anasazi Indians, as they made their way through the Four Corners region some nine hundred years ago.

Chaco Canyon holds the most spectacular ruins, but there are numerous outliers, such as the ruins at Aztec, Salmon, Chimney Rock, Pueblo Pintado, and elsewhere. It looks as if the area went through a period of protracted drought, sending the Anasazi southeast to the valley of the Rio Grande River, to the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, and to Zuñi. There they became the twenty-odd Pueblo Indian tribes, which still exist today.

They entered history abruptly in 1680, when they forcibly expelled the Spanish from New Mexico under a leader called Popé—the only North American peoples to successfully revolt—though they were reconquered some twelve years later. After that, when the United States marched in, they became more docile and did not require any army forts to keep them in line.

The ruins at Aztec are quite spectacular. A large kiva has been restored and even today looks very church-like in a Protestant sort of way. The Pueblo tribes still visit the ruins as they think of the paths their various peoples took to find a place where they could thrive.

Restored Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Some day I would like to return to New Mexico and spend more time at Chaco Canyon, which at one time supported a large population before the waters dried up. In the meantime, it was interesting to see Aztec Ruins National Monument and nearby Salmon Ruins just outside of Bloomfield.

What Ever Became of Them?

The Anasazi Ruins of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon

You’re familiar with the patter: These ancient people had an advanced civilization, and they suddenly disappeared. What ever happened to them? Actually, they didn’t go very far: You can find their descendants among the Hopi and the twenty-three tribes of Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, ranging from Taos to Acoma to Zuñi. What made them move from Chaco Canyon and the other Anasazi communities of the Four Corners, such as the ones at Mesa Verde, Betatakin, Chimney Rock, and Keet Seel? Some time around the 13th century, many of the local rivers dried up; and the Anasazi were forced to move.

I ran into the same type of “mystery journalism” in Mexico. What ever happened to the Mayans? These brilliant peoples inherited all those wonderful ruins such as the ones at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal—and now they’re all gone, or are they? All I know is that there are millions of Maya still inhabiting Yucatán, Chiapas, and much of Central America—and many of them still speak Mayan.

One of the reasons I want to go to New Mexico is to see Anasazi ruins. The best site is Chaco Canyon, of course, but I’ll be traveling this time with Martine, who doesn’t like long washboarded dirt roads and sleeping in campgrounds. So I will try to see some of the more peripheral Anasazi cities such as Chimney Rock, Salmon, or Aztec. (No, they are not related to the Aztecs of Mexico.)

No doubt I will be seeing thousands of Anasazi, or at least their descendants.