Colorado: Mesa Verde

The first area in the United States to be declared a national treasure for the preservation of the works of humanity: the ruins of an ancient people referred to as Anasazi (from the Navajo, meaning “ancient ones”). Evidence of a civilization growing in complexity in its tool making, agriculture, and architecture is to be found at numerous sites in Mesa Verde–however, for a complete picture of the Anasazi, a survey of the entire Four Corners region is necessary.

Site Office

Mesa Verde National Park

P.O. Box 8

Mesa Verde, CO 81330

ph.: (970) 529-4465

Web site:

The story of Mesa Verde is the story of the Anasazi, an ancient people who began to populate the area of southwestern United States at about 42 c.e. and left the area by 1300, leaving no written record of their civilization. What is left are the artifacts of an agrarian culture, which built unique settlement facilities, including ceremonial buildings; their greatest legacy is the mystery of how they came there, what caused them to move to dwellings under cliffs in the 1200’s, and where they went after abandoning their settlements in the late thirteenth century.

The story of the Anasazi, as pieced together by amateur and professional archaeologists, is not only the story of the Mesa Verde. One view holds that the Anasazi cannot be understood without the context of the entire northern San Juan River region; another stresses the coevolution of Anasazi with the neighboring civilizations of Mongollon and Hohokam. Each of these tribes had descended from the nomadic people of the Desert Culture Archaic. Because of the stature of the Mesa Verde excavation sites among the archaeological community, much of the research has been directed to the Mesa Verde as a locus of these historic peoples’ activity.

Early Exploration

When, in 1765, Juan Maria Antonio Rivera explored what is now Colorado in his search for silver, he wrote in his diary that ruins from an ancient culture could be seen along several of the rivers. In 1776 Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Antanasio Dominguez led an expedition through southwestern Colorado and noted several ancient sites, one of which, along the Dolores River, was eventually named for Escalante. Despite these citations, the ruins remained unexamined for another century. Then in the 1870’s, the United States federal government, having purchased land from the Ute Indians, sent an expedition under the supervision of F. V. Hayden to explore the Four Corners area. In 1874 William Jackson, a photographer with the Hayden Survey, photographed and named Two Story House in Mancos Canyon, at the south end of Moccasin Mesa.

The Wetherills, a family of cattle ranchers who lived near Mancos, began to explore the ruins of the cliff-dwelling Anasazi, along and under the walls of the mesas. In 1888 Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charles Mason discovered huge cliff dwellings on Chapin Mesa, naming the spectacular ruins there Cliff Palace. Baron Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a twenty-two-year-old scholar visiting from Sweden, came to the Wetherills’ Alamo Ranch, seeking guides to the ruins, in 1891. During that summer he recorded twenty-two cliff dwellings and made several excavations, the artifacts of which he took back with him to Europe. His collection is now part of the Finland National Museum. In 1906, the area was proclaimed a National Park in conjunction with the passage of the Antiquities Act. This led to the end of excavation by the Wetherills and the beginning of serious archaeological explorations.

Archaeological Studies

In 1927, Alfred Vincent Kidder, an archaeologist specializing in pueblo culture, invited colleagues to Pecos Pueblo near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in order to form a synthesis of the various data being collected in the region and to formulate a chronologically based development scheme for the prehistoric cultures. Known as the Pecos scheme, it is still used today, with several alterations. The scheme can represent a time continuum or generalized stages of development.

The period of prehistory of the Anasazi falls within the continent-wide Formative Age. The lifestyle of the Anasazi was communal, sedentary, and agrarian, similar to that of groups living in the Mississippi Valley at about the same time. Kidder’s Pecos classification distinguishes eight periods, Basketmaker I-III and Pueblo I-V, with Pueblo III being the stage just before the Anasazi abandoned their dwellings and emigrated from the area.


When he drew up the Pecos classification, Kidder assumed that a stage of development earlier than those known would be discovered. It became apparent later that the first group to settle Mesa Verde came there during the Basketmaker II period, and the Basketmaker I category is now called either Archaic or Pre-Basketmaker.

Basketmaker II remains are scarce. Only four sites have been excavated in Colorado, all outside Mesa Verde. Basketmaker II builders constructed shallow, round houses, with central heating pits, and slab-lined storage chambers. There is evidence that residents made periodic excursions for hunting, gathering, and perhaps trade. Burials took place in abandoned storage chambers, in cave crevices, beneath house floors, or in middens. The burial custom of folding arms and legs against the body, clothing and adorning the corpse, and interning utensils in the grave continued nearly unaltered throughout the life of the culture. Evidence shows that crude attempts at pottery were made, but the people of the period primarily utilized baskets for containers. Many of the artifacts associated with Basketmaker II persist though all five stages of Anasazi prehistory. They include atlatls (throwing spears), bone awls, bone hide scrapers, drills, and gaming pieces.

Very few sites exist to represent the period of transition from Basketmaker II to Basketmaker III. Basketmaker III began about 450. Current thought holds that most Basketmaker III people resided in small villages of between three and eight pithouses. Early pithouses were shallow structures supported by four main vertical posts. Later pithouses were deeper, with benches and crawl spaces. Shapes of the pithouses varied from circular to square with round corners; some had ventilation tunnels with vertical shafts; some had ladders giving access to a smokehole in the roof.

The Basketmakers were so called because of the skill of their weaving and because they did not use pottery until much later in their development. Decorated baskets of many shapes and sizes were used for carrying water, storing grain, and for cooking–baskets lined with pitch held water into which heated stones were placed. The craft declined after the introduction of pottery. Quality ceramics first appeared during Basketmaker III. These were generally gray and undecorated; however, the Basketmakers decorated some pottery by using a black mineral or vegetable dye on a white surface.

Pueblo Periods

In the transition between Basketmaker III and the Pueblo ages, a distinctive structure appeared. These were unusually large pithouses, which were perhaps the forerunner of kivas, ceremonial structures that became widespread throughout the Pueblo II and Pueblo III stages. Pueblo I began around 750.

Pueblo I residential structures were larger than those of the earlier sites and were laid out in a distinctive pattern. Villages consisted of arcing rows of apartment-like dwellings with smaller storage rooms behind. These dwellings flanked the north and west sides of rows of deep pit structures. The above-ground apartments had jacal–post and adobe–walls, many with upright stone slabs lining the interiors. In late Pueblo I, some crude stone masonry appeared. While most Pueblo I people lived in this type of settlement, with a dozen or more dwelling units, isolated ruins of between one and three units suggest there were a few rural hamlets. Limited activity sites and temporary camps indicate excursions away from home bases, as in Basketmaker periods. Pottery decoration, in the use of neck bands and greater decorative symmetry of painted surfaces, shows a great deal of expermentation and contact with southern peoples.

Masonry house construction marked the age of Pueblo II, especially in Mesa Verde, although jacal construction continued into early Pueblo II elsewhere. Pueblo II began about 900. The persistence of jacal construction is noted well into the eleventh century. Stone walls became more frequently used in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

Kivas, ceremonial and social centers of Pueblo culture, came into full use in Pueblo II, though the archaeological record is obscured by Pueblo III renovations. Kivas were constructed of earthen walls in a circular form with roof support posts. Generally, each kiva had a ventilation shaft, a southern recess used for an altar, a firepit with an associated deflector, benches, wall niches, and pilasters. Each had a sipapu, which was a hole in the floor symbolizing the entranceway into the spirit world. Kivas were located south of rectangular or curved room block arrangements in the “plaza” area of residential settlements.

Some students of the Anasazi have characterized each settlement as a self-contained community. Others, however, have detected clusters of such settlements and have suggested that there was extensive interaction between the clusters.

The typical Anasazi day took place in the open courtyards in front of the room blocks. Women worked on pottery; men made tools out of stone and bone. Fires built in the summers were used for cooking. In the cold, damp winters, fires were used for heat as well; smoke-blackened walls bear evidence. In the summer adults wore loin cloths and sandals; in the winter, they covered themselves with hides and with blankets woven of turkey feathers and robes made of rabbit fur. The Anasazi domesticated dogs and turkeys.

Pueblo III, often called the highest stage of Anasazi civilization, often obstructs or overlaps with the developments of the Pueblo II people. It began about 1100. The masonry from this period reflects the highest degree of artisanship. Residence units at this time became multistoried complexes. On the Mesa Verde, Pueblo III is known for the massive structures built beneath cliff overhangs, giving rise to the name “cliff-dwellers” for the inhabitants. It is speculated that climactic conditions played a role in the move from pueblos atop the mesa to cliff dwellings.

The kiva remained an important part of the pueblo unit. Circular towers were being built by early Pueblo III architects, often associated with kivas via connecting tunnels. In some instances, towers and kivas stood apart from residential structures. Sometimes towers were located near springs or man-made reservoirs, which were the centers of Pueblo III settlements.

Large ceremonial structures or “great kivas” were a feature of many of the larger settlements. On mesa tops, they were circular, while under the cliff overhangs they were shaped more rectangularly. Concentric wall structures of a circular or D-shaped design were also a feature of many large settlements. Buildings of the Pueblo III era tended to be built of flat-faced stone blocks. Stones were pecked and ground flat; such a consideration for the appearance of wall facings is a clear marker of Pueblo III architecture.

The Anasazi farmed the land atop the mesa. Cliff-dwelling farmers had to climb the dangerous cliff walls to get to their crops. Most crops depended on rainfall; the Anasazi built small dams and large reservoirs to guarantee the survival of their crops.

Pueblo III Anasazi crafted a wide variety of ceramics. Corrugated ware was made by coiling clay into a form resembling a basket and indenting portions of the clay. Other pottery styles include black-on-white decoration of mugs, ladles, bowls, and pots.

Why the Anasazi completely abandoned the Four Corners region remains a mystery. Beginning about 1200, building activity decreased among the Mesa Verde Anasazi. Long House was the last construction to have taken place, about 1280. Possible explanations include the persistence of a great drought, a growing scarcity of resources, various socioeconomic and political developments, and overpopulation. Depopulation nevertheless occurred at a slow rate, but by 1300 the Anasazi were gone. Emigrés most likely settled in New Mexico, where they would have assimilated into the tribes already living there. The Pueblo Indians are believed to be Anasazi descendants.

Visiting the Site

Mesa Verde National Park occupies 50,036 acres of southwest Colorado. Mesa Verde runs fifteen miles long and two thousand feet above the valley to the north. The plateau is bounded by mountains to the east and desert to the west. Canyons are a feature of its southern end. Vegetation includes ponderosa pine forests and pinion and juniper forestations, whose appearance depends largely on elevation (and thus precipitation).

The ruins, however, are the most compelling feature of Mesa Verde. Some recent excavations may reflect Basketmaker II activity. Basketmaker III sites are located at Twin Trees, Chapin Mesa, and Wetherill Mesa. Pueblo I sites may be found at Chapin Mesa, Wetherill Mesa, and Morefield Canyon. The Mummylake settlement on Chapin Mesa is a Pueblo II site. Pueblo III sites, such as Cliff Palace and Balcony House, are by far the best known ruins of Anasazi culture.

For Further Information

  • Berry, Michael. Time, Space, and Transition in Anasazi Prehistory. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1982. A doctoral work that disputes the received wisdom and insists that discontinuity (sudden, en masse shifts of behavior relating to climactic conditions) describes Anasazi history better than does the concept of developmental stages.
  • Cassells, E. Steve. The Archaeology of Colorado. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 1997. A carefully researched yet accessible document covering not only the prehistory of Colorado, but also the history of archaeology in Colorado. Its many illustrations make clear what is too often unclear in the discourse on Anasazi culture.
  • Cordell, Linda S., and George J. Gummerman, eds. Dynamics of Southwest Prehistory. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. A collection of essays by eleven of the most established experts in specific areas of the Southwest. Arthur Rohn’s essay contains extensive information on Mesa Verde and the Anasazi.
  • Wenger, Gilbert R. The Story of Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.: Mesa Verde Museum Association, 1999. Examines the history of the park and surrounding area and pueblo culture.