RV Saga

Footprints of the Ancestral Puebloans – Mesa Verde and Aztec


Spiraling Rainbow Path

The stunning architectures, the symbol of spiral and rainbow in Chaco Canyon are still fresh in my mind. We were intrigued by Chaco culture and wanted to learn more about Ancestral Pueblo people. So we followed the footprints of Ancestral Pueblo people to Mesa Verde in Colorado and Aztec in New Mexico.


Spruce Tree House

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings are located in the remote area deep in the mesas. It is about 20 miles from the entrance of the Mesa Verde National Park to Mesa Top Loop where the major cliff dwellings are. We were so disappointed to find out we couldn’t visit Spruce Tree House due to rockfalls. From the overlook, we saw the ruins of a cliff dwelling tucked under a big alcove. Lush trees grew in front of the cliff dwelling. The park’s guide Spruce Tree House says that a natural seep spring situated nearby. The structure was built in the post Chaco era between A.D. 1200-1278. It has 120 rooms, 8 kivas and two towers. Ancient Pueblo people liked to paint the wall with white plaster and then painted the lower third of the wall with red plaster. Geometric patterns were added to the wall as decorations.

Per the map of Mesa Verde provided by the park, Ancestral Pueblo people started to settle in Mesa Verde in A.D. 550 and made it home for over 750 years. They lived in pit houses on mesa tops and in cliff alcoves for the first two hundreds years. By A.D. 750, they began to build pole-and-adobe houses above ground. Kivas were evolved from pit houses and became ceremonial structures. Chaco culture flourished in the Four Corners region between AD 1000 to 1150. Influence of Chaco culture on Mesa Verde could be seen from the Great Houses on mesa tops. Thousands of people lived on Mesa Verde. They grew squash, corn, and beans, and hunted game on the mesa tops. They raised turkeys, wove baskets, made black-on-white potteries. About 1225, people moved back to live in cliff alcoves. It might be for defense or other unknown reasons. 600 cliff dwellings have been identified. The only way to get to the cliff dwellings was hand-and-toe-hold trails. The cliff houses were built to fit the place without a standard ground plan. By 1300, Ancestral Pueblo people left Mesa Verde and migrated south.


Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. As a Great House for the community, it is a hidden castle with 150 rooms and 21 kivas. Tickets are required to tour Cliff Palace. Had we known that Spruce Tree House were closed, we would have bought tickets to Cliff Palace. From the little guide book we purchased at the park, we learned that its architectural features are similar to that of Chaco Canyon. One new feature is the appearance of a sipapu in each kiva. A sipapu is a small hole in the floor symbolizing the emergence of the people from Earth’s Navel. The best part of the tour might be to view the original beams and painted plaster.


Soda Canyon

Balcony House also requires a tour ticket. It is an amazing house built on the cliff with the view of Soda Canyon. The cliff house cannot be seen from the mesa top where the entrance is. We hiked to the overlook point and looked through the telescope and saw the well preserved balcony. People could walk on the balcony and go from one room to another on the same floor. Because of the limited space of the alcove, people could also work on the balcony while keeping an eye on the kids on the plaza below. A parapet wall keeps people from falling into the canyon. Water resources include a seep near the back alcove wall and springs at the nearby cliff.

Less famous than the cliff dwellings are the ruins of older Far View community built on mesa tops. It was densely populated in the mid-1100s with at least 35 villages. Far View House was the center of the town with a rectangular ground plan. The doors were a little bit taller than those in Chaco Canyon. Big sandstones were laid and more mortar were used on the veneers of the walls. The nearby Pipe Shrine House only has low walls remained. I walked to the south wall and found the stone carved with the symbol of spiral. It was beautiful!

In order to experience the great kiva, we came to Aztec Ruins. It has a reconstructed Great Kiva. Although it was hot and windy outside, it was cool and pleasant in the sub terrain structure. The cribbed roof is extraordinary with timbers resting on one another. Descendants of ancestral Puebloan people hold that the pattern of the roof represents the sky. Four pillars and horizontal poles support the gigantic roof. A beam of bright sunray came from the hatchway shone like a spotlight into the Great Kiva. Tourists stood in the sunrays to have photos taken. The unique feature is the fifteen surface rooms surrounding the chamber. The openings on the wall let in plenty natural lights. A low bench encircles the wall. The lower portion of the wall and the bench are plastered with deep red color. Recorded music of the ceremony was played to let tourists experience the atmosphere of the ceremonial scene.

According to A Trail Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument, the First Story of Pueblo Emergence says that the first people originated from the Earth’s Navel and “stepped into a spiraling Rainbow Path.” They consider the Great Kiva was a place where they reconnected to “the spiritual Center, the Earth’s Navel.” It is a place for the celebration of Life. I could only imagine the scene happened on the day of summer solstice when the Pueblo people gathered in the Great Kiva waiting for the first rays of sun shine into this Great Kiva.


Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins Built by Chaco Builders

Sitting by Animas River, the Great House at Aztec shows profound influence by Chaco culture in the south. In fact, Aztec West Ruin, the older section, was constructed by builders from Chaco Canyon by the early 1100s. Evidence can be found from the kiva on the West Ruin. Carefully shaped stones were laid with little mortar and the encircling bench reminiscent the features of kivas at Chaco Canyon.

We entered the backrooms on the north. The infinity doorways and the vents on the walls made these rooms cool. These backrooms were for storage. A small family of bats were taking a nap on the ceiling of a room. We stepped back into the heat and wind as soon as we came out of the backrooms. The north wall of the Great House aligns with the sunrise at summer solstice. Markers like this are common in constructions built by ancestral Pueblo people. These markers helped to guide farming and plan for ceremonial events.


Two Stripes of Green Stones on the Wall of Aztec-Ruins

There were at least seven tri-wall structures at Aztec Ruins. One is located at the back of the ruins. It was backfilled for preservation. The west wall is another fine example showing the exquisite skill of the Chaco builders. Two decorative bands of green stones inlaid on the wall really stood out. They might have been referred to water and provided protection for the community, the little guide book notes.

Pueblo people lived at Aztec for about 200 years and left in the late 1200s. Long drought and social upheavals might be the reason to leave. The First Story says the first people migrated from the north and stopped four times on the journey. Leaving Aztec could be just part of the journey of migration.

The ancient tour is a window for us to learn the culture and history of Pueblo people. We appreciated their contribution to architecture, arts and crafts, farming and food. Their cosmic view of living, i.e., in harmony with the directions, the sky and earth, sun and moon, is also a precious heritage that we shall carry forward. There might be a new world with a spiraling rainbow path somewhere out there…


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