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The Cliff Cities of the Ancient Ancestors

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, is preserved beneath a vaulting cave like a fly in amber. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

I first visited Mesa Verde National Park, the archeological wonder of the United States, when I was a wee lad in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, my family made annual summer pilgrimages to Mesa Verde to marvel at the stone cities of the Ancient Ones, aeries tucked in vaulting sandstone caves that were preserved for almost a thousand years like a fly in amber.

Those trips to the magical and mysterious ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan people at Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Chaco Canyon, Frijoles Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Wupatki, and Tsegi Canyon began my obsession with archeology (I later received a degree in anthropology/archeology) and the past lives seen through the prism of material artifacts.

To see a perfectly preserved black-on-white olla and realize that a long-dead craftsman carefully dug the clay from a creek bed, molded and shaped it into a beautiful utilitarian vessel, fired it in a smoldering campfire, and then used it for hauling water or storing precious seed corn. To see that object is to look into the past and know something about vanished people who lived, loved, worked, and finally died, their desiccated remains buried in a midden before their cliffside home.

Mesa Verde’s moldering cities also gave me a zest for the pleasure of ruins, an attraction to ruination and the decay of civilization and culture, to the past glories of the vanished and vanquished. Cities decline and are emptied of people, their houses, buildings, and streets begin to return to the earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Some slowly melt into the shadowy jungle, covered in vines and trees. Others dissolve beneath rivers and seas, inundated by water like Grecian ruins beneath the Aegean Sea or the mythical cities of Atlantis. In the deserts, these once so-human places become the crumbling haunt of lizards, snakes, and owls. Cisterns fill with sand, and domes and towers become eyeless phantoms.

The pleasure of ruins is to look backward at the stupendous past, at the places of legend and myth, at the altar of unknown prehistory before the written word described and remembered those who came before. I don’t think of it as melancholia or a romantic vision of life before we inhabited the earth, instead, it’s an intoxication with the present, with us, those who live now. Instead of mere stones laid in a wall or a vacant doorway, the ruin is about dreams and myths, about who we are now as frail humans on this warming planet, about our evolution as well as our disgraces, about the lessons we can learn about decay and pride and ignorance.

The ghosts of those who went before us at Mesa Verde, Babylon, Thebes, Troy, Rome, Pompeii, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, and Delphi are part of an alien world with people who spoke alien tongues and saw the cosmos as a paradox, as an angry, benevolent, and mysterious place. They pecked glyphs on sandstone walls and carved bas-reliefs of gods and goddesses, eagle-headed men, winged bulls, hump-backed flute players, hunters, priests, pharaohs, and queens. They made great cities that are now shattered ruins, just as our great cities will one day be void of humans and filled with feral cats, songbirds, and those other lives that will inherit the earth.

So, the long-abandoned and deserted cliff cities at Mesa Verde and the multi-storied pueblos at Chaco Canyon in a dusty valley have fallen into ruinous decay over a millennium. Walls overgrown with sagebrush clumps. Sites plundered and quarried by selfish hands. Once, like the world’s other fallen cities, these were hives of activity, filled with artists and artisans, lorded over by time-traveling shamans, buzzing with gossip and news from afar. Here was a plaza where traders spread their feathered talismans and turquoise necklaces, and there a rooftop where children played and laughed.

Take me back to those years and show me something real in the desolation, something that reaches across the centuries and touches me, like the smoothness of that perfect olla made by a master potter. That’s something real, something tangible, an object that remembers the daily pleasure of life. Touching that olla takes me back. I can smell the burning fires, hear the bark of a dog, and across the canyon, I hear the steady thump of a drum and voices singing. Here in this place, I feel the presence of the old ones. They’ve been gone a long time, but they’re happy I came and sat quietly in the morning sunshine.

I shot this photograph of Cliff Palace, the largest and grandest cliff dwelling, from the rimrock of Cliff Canyon last summer. This sacred space contained over 150 rooms and 23 kivas or ceremonial chambers. Over 100 people lived in the city. Life was short and brutal for its inhabitants, with an average lifespan of 34 years and a high rate of infant mortality with almost half of all children dying before age 5.

To learn more about the ancient ones, their cliffed cities, and the galleries of creative rock art they left behind on cliff faces and shelter caves, pick up a copy of my book ROCK ART: THE MEANINGS AND MYTHS BEHIND ANCIENT RUINS IN THE SOUTHWEST AND BEYOND from FalconGuides.


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