Arizona: Navajo National Monument Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Site of Betatakin, Kiet Seel, and Inscription House, three Anasazi dwellings built between 1250 and 1280 and abandoned around 1300. The sites, in what is today Navajo land, were excavated in the early twentieth century and made a National Monument in 1909. The monument’s visitors’ center is open year round and offers cultural exhibits about Anasazi life; between late May and mid-September, the staff offers guided tours on foot and horseback (guides must accompany all visitors to the ruins). Because of its extreme fragility, Inscription House is no longer open to tourists.

Site Office

Navajo National Monument

HC 71, Box 3

Tonalea, AZ 86044-9704

ph.: (520) 672-2366, 672-2367

fax: (520) 672-2345

The Navajo Reservation is a fifteen-million-acre tract on which about 100,000 Navajo people live, work, and raise livestock. Rugged terrain, rock-walled mesas, windy highlands, steep canyons, and broad valleys characterize this land. Within the borders of the reservation lie the main features of the Navajo National Monument–three seven-hundred-year-old cliff dwellings once inhabited by the Kayenta Anasazi. The Anasazi lived in the Southwest from approximately 600 to 1300 c.e., roughly the same time period that the Hopewell and Mississippian peoples were the dominant groups in the midwestern and eastern parts of the continent. Although these ruins rest on what is now Navajo land, the Navajo did not migrate to the area until a few hundred years ago. The Anasazi and the Navajo are not ancestrally related. It is more likely that the Anasazi were ancestors of the Hopi, who live on the mesa tops east of Kayenta and seem to demostrate many of the Anasazi’s cultural traits.

The three cliff dwellings in the Navajo National Monument were the last places the Kayenta Anasazi inhabited before leaving the area completely. All were built between 1250 and 1280 c.e. Scholars generally consider Kiet Seel (alternately spelled Keet Seel), a 155-room dwelling located in Tsegi Canyon, to be the biggest cliff dwelling in Arizona. About eight miles away from Kiet Seel, in a smaller canyon, lies Betatakin, an impressive 135-room pueblo built under a massive natural stone arch that resembles an amphitheater. The third dwelling, Inscription House, sits farther away, in Navajo Canyon, near the Utah border. With just 74 rooms, Inscription House is the smallest of these three ruins.

The Anasazi People

The Anasazi people who inhabited Betatakin, Kiet Seel, and Inscription House were one of three major cultural groups living in the Southwest from about 600 to 1300 c.e. The Anasazi clustered primarily around the Four Corners area (where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico all meet), while the second major group, the Hohokam, occupied the mountainous region along the Arizona-New Mexico border. The third group, the Sinagua, lived in and near the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona.

The Anasazi (a Navajo word that can mean either “ancient ones” or “enemy ancestors”) actually lived in three different geographic areas. In addition to the Kayenta district, Anasazi “cousins” congregated around Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Each of the three groups appears to have excelled in a different way, perhaps as the result of variations in the local resources and environments. The Kayenta Anasazi were the most artistic and created the most beautiful pottery. The Chaco Canyon Anasazi were the business people who excelled in trade, while the Mesa Verde group, living in the most fertile area, grew the most prolific crops.

The Anasazi in general are known for their beautiful black-on-white pottery, as well as for later oxidized red and orange ceramics. The shapes and designs of their pottery are elegant and often exquisite, and they differed in each of the Anasazi regions. This same love of beauty and design also appears in Anasazi fabric weaving and wall paintings.

The Kayenta Anasazi, like their kin at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, developed into a highly successful culture skilled in farming, building, and crafts. In its heyday, from the eleventh to the early thirteenth centuries, Kayenta Anasazi culture reached as far north as southern Utah and as far west as the Grand Canyon.

Remains of food found at Anasazi dwellings indicate the people lived mainly on corn, beans, and squash. Women, working in communal groups, ground the food into flour or meal with stones called manos, after first processing it in large, side-by-side rock troughs call metates.

Burial findings reveal that the Anasazi had dark hair and brown skin. They resembled the southwestern Indians of today but were shorter; the average Anasazi man stood just over five feet. The Anasazi also deliberately flattened their skulls by strapping their infants to hard cradleboards. No one knows definitively why they did this, but researchers suggest the custom may have developed after contact with admired outsiders who had flattened heads, or possibly in imitation of a great leader.

Anasazi men kept their hair long, but the women cut their hair to weave into snares and nets and as an element in rope, using it as a kind of natural resource. Anasazi women may also have worked as the plasterers of their culture. Gustavus Nordenskiöld, an early researcher of the Southwest, suggested this after finding small fingerprints in the mortar of Anasazi ruins near Johnson Canyon. By 1200 c.e., the Anasazi had already been using the bow and arrow for quite some time, instead of the more primitive atlatl (spear throwing device) their ancestors had used in earlier centuries.

Scholars believe the Anasazi developed from an earlier southwestern culture known as the Basketmaker, a prepueblo group that occupied the area from about 200 to 500 c.e. The Basketmaker people lived in pit houses, and may themselves have descended from very early peoples who followed a simple hunting and gathering way of life in the area.

Kiet Seel

The largest of the Anasazi dwellings at Navajo National Monument is Kiet Seel, a seven-hundred-year-old, 155-room masonry pueblo. It rests under the shelter of a large natural alcove in the side of a cliff in Kiet Seel Canyon, a branch of the Tsegi Canyon system, and looks out onto groves of cottonwoods, meadows, and a stream in the valley below. Kiet Seel, which means “broken pottery” in Navajo, received its name from the hundreds of pottery shards that explorers found when they first came upon the site shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Visitors can readily see the remains of living quarters, storage rooms, and six kivas (round, subterranean rooms used for religious and ceremonial purposes).

Kiet Seel’s former inhabitants lived in rectangular rooms with ceilings supported by roof poles. Many of the rooms had recessed doorways designed to be closed with flat stones. The entire dwelling faces what was apparently the predominant kiva, the central, spiritual focus of the community.

Kivas are common features of both prehistoric and present-day southwestern pueblos. For example, kivas and the ceremonies that take place in them remain an integral aspect of pueblo life for the Hopi. Archaeologists, in fact, borrowed the word “kiva” from the Hopi, as well as the understanding that kivas served religious and ceremonial purposes. Early European American explorers of the sites thought the kivas were storage pits, until Nordenskiöld realized that these rooms were the same as the ceremonial chambers that the Hopis called kivas.

Although kivas were built almost completely underground, they were scarcely crude earthen pits. The walls, which often had special niches, were constructed of masonry, sometimes painted with murals, and lined with benches. Kivas had beamed roofs with an opening for ventilation and smoke. People (most likely initiated men and on special occasions women) entered and exited a kiva by means of a single ladder. Spirits of the dead were believed by the Anasazi to come and go via a sand-filled hole usually found in the kiva floor.

Richard Wetherill, a rancher from Mancos, Colorado, and one of three brothers who devoted themselves to finding and exploring prehistoric southwestern Indian sites around the turn of the twentieth century, came upon Kiet Seel in 1907. He also discovered other prehistoric Indian ruins, including Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, another Anasazi dwelling.

Nearly twenty years passed before Kiet Seel was excavated, stabilized, and studied in 1933 and 1934, when it became a project of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Works Administration(CWA) under the auspices of the National Park Service. Notes and artifacts from the excavation were sent to the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Using tree-ring dating methods, archaeologists have determined the building sequence of Kiet Seel room by room. Most of the site was constructed in the 1270’s, but rather than following a preconceived architectural plan, the inhabitants apparently expanded the dwelling randomly as new arrivals created the need for additional living quarters. Researchers have also found some building materials on the site that predate the 1270’s, and believe these materials were recycled from construction that took place at Kiet Seel as early as 950 c.e. The greatest number of people who ever lived there at one time was probably about one hundred fifty. Because Kiet Seel is so well preserved (even many of the wooden roof beams are still intact), visitors often find it hard to believe the site was abandoned seven hundred years ago. Despite its beautiful setting and well-preserved construction, however, scholars have observed that the quality of the masonry at Kiet Seel is less skilled than that of similar Anasazi dwellings farther east.

Betatakin

Betatakin, which means “ledge house” in Navajo, was discovered in 1907 on an expedition led by Byron Cummings and John Wetherill. Cummings, a professor at the University of Utah, was one of the first archaeologists to specialize in early cultures of the Southwest. Wetherill, a rancher, trader, and brother of Richard Wetherill, was an accomplished explorer of Indian ruins. In 1909 he also became the first custodian of the Navajo National Monument.

Betatakin is a 130-room pueblo built with six tiers and a balcony of apartments. The floors are steeply pitched. Slightly smaller than Kiet Seel, it rests under the arch of an immense natural rock shelter that is nearly five hundred feet high, four hundred feet across, and about one hundred fifty feet deep. In its heyday, the dwelling may have housed as many as 125 people.

Visitors are able to walk through the ruins. Numerous thin waterfalls still pour over the edge of the cliff above, providing a steady supply of fresh water, while keeping the pueblo completely dry in the rain.

When the Cummings-Wetherill expedition found Betatakin, it was heavily overgrown with brush and almost invisible to a casual passerby. After clearing the brush and excavating the site several months later, Cummings found hundreds of well-preserved artifacts–including pots, baskets, and items used in food preparation. These artifacts were transported to Salt Lake City for protection and preservation.

Repair and stabilization of Betatakin occurred under the direction of Neil Judd, a former assistant of Cummings, in 1917, after Congress appropriated funds for the task. Judd and his crew endured an unusually long and harsh winter with only rice to live on because no other supplies could get through. The cold was so intense that the men had to abandon their tents and move into the rooms of the pueblo to survive. Several members of the crew were then drafted into World War I, but Judd and the few who remained stayed on to complete their work. Betatakin now stands pretty much as Judd left it in 1917.

Tourists have eagerly sought out Betatakin since it was first discovered. For many years John Wetherill brought visitors on horseback to Betatakin from Kayenta, and he built a campsite below the ruin where the visitors could spend the night. Wetherill’s nephew Milton lived at the camp during the summers and conducted guided tours of the dwelling. Milton Wetherill also became the first official park ranger at Betatakin.

Betatakin is somewhat unusual because, unlike Kiet Seel and most other southwestern pueblos, it has no kivas. The site does possess several rectangular structures that may have served the same religious purposes, but no one knows for sure. It is possible that these differences reflect a religious split between the residents of Kiet Seel and Betatakin, but most other tangible aspects of the sites indicate that the people of both dwellings shared essentially the same culture. Researchers believe Betatakin was occupied by a single group of people, possibly an extended family.

Inscription House

Byron Cummings and John Wetherill found Inscription House, a 74-room Anasazi dwelling, on the same exploratory expedition on which they discovered Betatakin. The Cummings-Wetherill party was exploring the highlands and canyons south of Navajo Mountain, hoping to find a large natural bridge they had heard about from local Native American residents, when they unexpectedly came upon this beautiful cliff residence. They named the site Inscription House because someone, possibly a member of a Mormon party traveling through the area, had scratched the year 1861 or possibly 1881 (originally and mistakenly deciphered as 1661) into the plaster of one of its walls. The graffitti suggests that the site may have been one of the first large Anasazi ruins visited by European Americans. Tree-ring dating shows that the dwelling was built in 1274–contemporarily with Betatakin and Kiet Seel.

Inscription House has some unique architectural features–for example, t-shaped doorways and partial adobe construction–that distinguish it from the other two sites. It also lacks the natural shelter of the rock overhangs at Betatakin and Kiet Seel. As a result, it is more fragile and has been closed to visitors since 1968.

The Anasazi Abandon the Site

The Kayenta Anasazi dwellings were built between 1250 and 1280, but abandoned around 1300, just two decades later. Archaeologists speculate that significant changes in the climate gradually made it impossible for the approximately seven hundred residents of the Tsegi Canyon area to grow enough food to sustain them. The changes began when the patterns of precipitation changed from gentle winter snows and rains to fierce summer thunderstorms. The new pattern caused sheet erosion that affected previously fertile farming areas, led to extensive arroyo (gully or channel) cutting, and lowered water tables. A period of drought then followed these drastic changes.

The Kayenta Anasazi had thrived for several hundred years before this, living in small scattered communities throughout the Kayenta area. The move to building and inhabiting larger, more concentrated dwellings such as Betatakin and Kiet Seel marked a distinct change in traditional Anasazi lifestyle, and probably indicated that the people were already finding it difficult to sustain themselves in smaller groups. Concentrating the population in large, canyon-based pueblos would have enabled the Kayenta Anasazi to make the best use of limited resources, such as reliable sources of water.

More dense populations may also have hastened the general degradation of the environment. Feeding more people meant having to cut down many of the local trees to use for fuel, pottery firing, and building materials. Residents also had to clear land from the naturally forested mesa tops so they could grow additional crops. All these activities led to further soil erosion.

When life became too hard to sustain, the Kayenta Anasazi moved south. Some carried with them everything they could. Others left many possessions behind and simply sealed the doors of their homes as if they planned someday to return. They never did.

For Further Information
  • Gaede, Marni, ed. Camera, Spade, and Pen: An Inside View of Southwestern Archaeology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1980. Offers a unique view of prehistoric southwestern Indian cultures such as the Anasazi and Hohokam through personal interviews with people who investigated and studied the archaeological sites where these early peoples lived. Though not a comprehensive study, the book provides special insights into the process–both exciting and tedious–of excavating the ruins of the Southwest. The photographs by Marc Gaede that accompany the interviews are spectacular.
  • McGregor, John C. Southwestern Archeology. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. An in-depth, chronological study of the major early cultures of the Southwest with extensive information about the pottery and other artifacts the cultures left behind. Photographs, numerous illustrations, and maps add to this thorough history and reconstruction of prehistoric life in the Southwest.
  • Noble, David Grant. Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: An Archaeological Guide. 2d rev. ed. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Press, 2000. Offers a thorough yet concise look at the prehistoric cultures of the southwest. Noble provides a brief history of each of the cultures, as well as a short explanation of the significance of each historical site included in the book. Excellent photographs and numerous simple maps add to the usefulness of this book.
  • Wilson, Josleen. The Passionate Amateur’s Guide to Archaeology in the United States. New York: Collier Books, 1980. Offers brief descriptions of archaeological sites throughout the country. A helpful introduction takes a look at the early peoples who inhabited this continent.
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