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Inside Mesa Verde Cliff Palace: North America's architectural wonder

“Even though we physically moved away, the spirits of my (our) ancestors are still here. If you stop for a minute and listen, you can hear the children laughing and the women talking. You can hear the dogs barking and the turkeys gobbling. You can hear and feel the beat of the drums and the singing. You can smell the cooking fires. You can feel their presence, their warmth, their sense of community” – T J Atsye, Laguna Pueblo 

Within Colorado‘s sprawling Mesa Verde National Park, there are numerous abandoned cliff dwellings that the Ancestral Puebloans built, the direct predecessors of today’s Puebloans. Mesa Verde was once the Puebloan’s homeland region, and it is smattered with relics from their past. All across the park, there are cliff dwellings to be found. However, the most significant of them all is Cliff Palace.

Open from 8 am to sunset, you can access the Palace via the loop road, whilst on the track, you’re taken to other marvels such as Balcony House and overlooks to the other cliff dwellings. The cliff dwellings are wedged into the cliffs, protected by the rocky overhangs above them and the deep ravines below them. Due to the old structures’ unpredictability and the danger posed by such awe-inspiring but imposing natural beauty, you can only enter the Cliff Palace and Balcony House by a ranger-guided tour.

Tree-ring dating has shown that the construction and upkeep of Cliff Palace was continuous from 1190 CE to 1260. However, it has been found that the majority of the building was done within only 20 years, a mindblowing feat when you note just how innovative it is, given the diverse architecture and the topography of the region.

It is thought that the Ancestral Puebloans constructed the Cliff Palace and their other buildings as they were driven to these invulnerable positions by “increasing competition amidst changing climatic conditions”.

One of the biggest mysteries about this architectural wonder is why it was abandoned. It is certain that it was totally abandoned by 1300, but the debate continues to rage about why this sudden exodus occurred.
Some argue that a series of megadroughts affected the food production in the area, causing the Puebloans to abandon it and search for a home elsewhere.

Cliff Palace was built primarily out of sandstone, mortar and wooden beams, and many of the walls were decorated with colourful earthen plasters. However, both would erode due to the changing and very harsh weather conditions the region faces, notably the extreme heat and cold, which does not pair well with mortar and wood. The diverse fauna of the area also did its bit to erode the once glorious structures.

Over a six century period, the Palace transformed from a majestic assemblage of buildings, courtyards and underground kivas to an array of crumbling stone installations. Due to the materials used and the weather cycles, Cliff Palace needed continuous upkeep, so to be left untouched for 600 years meant that it faced a ruin that the Ancestral Puebloans could never have imagined.

For a long time, it was only the Native Americans of the region who knew about the existence of Cliff Palace.

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As America was colonised and people started to move west, it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1888 by Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason whilst they were searching for their stray cattle. What followed was a period of reckless archaeological visits and looting, leaving the Cliff Palace in further disrepair.

It was not until Jesse Walter Fewkes, the director of Ethnology at the Smithsonian, stepped in at the turn of the century to conserve and prevent further damage being done to Cliff Palace and other Puebloan sites. After Cliff Palace and its sister sites started to be cared for properly.

(Credit: Alamy)

One notable facet of Cliff Palace when visiting is the small size of the doorways of Cliff Palace. Experts state that at the time of inhabitance, an average man was under 168cm whilst the average woman averaged around 152cm. Another mystery of the site is the kiva in the centre of the structure. It’s situated where the entire network is partitioned by a series of walls with no doorways or access. The walls of this underground chamber were once plastered with one colour on one side and a different colour on the opposing. This has left many scholars and visitors scratching their heads about its purpose.

One of the site’s defining features is the large square tower that stands to the right, nearly touching the cave’s roof. Unsurprisingly, it was in ruins by the 1800s, but it was carefully restored by the National Park Service, re-establishing it as the most impressive structure in Cliff Palace. It stands at nearly 8m and has four levels, a testament to the work of the Ancestral Puebloans.

It is also thought that whilst Cliff Palace was a social and administrative centre, with a specific ceremonial purpose, it also housed other clans than the Mesa Verde people. This thinking stems from the fact that there are more standard rooms than the traditional Puebloan kiva, at a rate of nine to one. This indicates that Cliff Palace housed a tight-knit mix of different peoples, a colossal point if true.

Without a doubt, North America‘s most breathtaking Archaeological site, Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace, is worth a visit. As well as providing insight into the progressive lives of Ancestral Puebloans, and the history of the area, it also tells us about our own culture and how it intersects with those who were there long before us.

Watch a short clip of Cliff Palace below.