The Preservation of a Palace: Mesa Verde's Cliff Dwellings

June 29, 2016Travel Ideas
– Rebecca Latson, Share the Experience

The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park boggle the mind and stoke the imagination.  Built from wooden beams, mortar, and the sandstone of the cliffs themselves, these structures were home to the Ancestral Pueblo people for more than 700 years.  They represent a marvel of engineering, but preserving these incredible structures is an ongoing challenge. 

The palace beneath the cliffs

Mesa Verde National Park protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, but by far the most famous is the vast dwelling known as Cliff Palace. It is one of the largest and most well-preserved structures of its kind in North America. Constructed between 600 and 1300 AD, Cliff Palace is nestled in a sheltered alcove beneath the overhanging top of Mesa Verde, the "green table." While the Ancestral Pueblo people who built it continued to farm the land atop the mesa, they constructed the labyrinthine Cliff Palace below. 

The walls and rooms of Cliff Palace invite visitors to imagine what life was like back when the structure was in use. Traces of everyday life are still visible in the private residences and public spaces of the once-thriving village, from food preparation and storage to religious ceremony and defense. And while the limited materials available meant that much of Cliff Palace's design came about by necessity, the structure also shows striking craftsmanship and an artistic attention to detail.

Preserving the cliff dwellings

Square hole in a brick wall looking onto more structures at Mesa Verde National Park

The population of Cliff Palace began migrating south by the late 1270s, and the village was abandoned by the year 1300. By the time it was rediscovered in 1888, centuries of weathering had already taken their toll, and increasing commercial use and visitation would only accelerate the process over the coming decades. Preserving these invaluable structures would prove to be a challenge. 

Mesa Verde National Park was established to protect the cliff dwellings in 1906. A great deal of damage had already been done by years of commercial exploitation and the frenzied search for artifacts, but a new effort was made to slow the rate of deterioration and even restore the dwellings to a superior state. This effort was largely led by Smithsonian archaeologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, who developed new methods of archaeological exploration that would be less damaging.

Realizing the importance of leaving Cliff Palace open to the public, Fewkes also helped to stabilize the site and prepare it for responsible visitation. This was one of the first instances of what is known today as conservation archaeology. Early efforts to preserve Cliff Palace no doubt led to the preservation of other archaeological sites of all kinds across the United States.

Visiting the dwellings today

Mesa Verde Balcony House

Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park

Jeffrey Heyer, Share the Experience

Guided tours of Cliff Palace – and several other cliff dwellings such as Balcony House – at Mesa Verde National Park take place from May to September. Self-guided tours are available at several smaller sites, including the dwelling known as Step House, but Cliff Palace can currently only be visited with a national park ranger as a guide. This is largely due to the fragile nature of the dwelling, as well as the ongoing challenge of preserving specific areas as they deteriorate. 

The modern preservation needs of Cliff Palace continue to evolve. Deterioration of individual features and, perhaps more crucially, larger systemic structural problems continue to threaten the dwellings. Archaeologists and engineers carry on the work of slowing the process and minimizing the losses to this amazing structure. The National Park Foundation supports the continued preservation of this historic place, having granted $75,000 toward the rehabilitation of Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace is a remarkable reminder of this land’s vibrant history, which goes back hundreds of years before European colonization. It is just one of the many incredible archaeological sites that are preserved at Mesa Verde National Park.

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