On my second day in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, I went on the Balcony House Tour with a large group of other tourists. The only way you can visit Balcony House is on a ranger-guided tour, as it is strenuous, demanding, and quite a bit scary. The tour requires you to climb up three ladders on the side of a cliff, walk along a steep trail with some exposure on cliff faces, and crawl through a narrow 12-foot-long tunnel to a classic 13th-century cliff dwelling. The cliff dwellings have drop-offs at the edges and deep kivas cut into the floor. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing and you need a sense of adventure as well.
We walked down a staircase into the canyon at the north end of the site to a platform where we were faced with a sturdy 32-foot-long double ladder made of logs. I was very nervous as we were standing at the edge of a sheer drop-off, but I gathered my courage and climbed side-by-side with another person, tensely gripping the rungs.
In the first small alcove, water played an important role. A spring at the back of the alcove was probably the main water source for the residents. They likely spent a lot of time in this cool, damp area judging by the amount of black fire soot on the alcove walls. The tunnel at Balcony House may have been built to protect this domestic water supply.
We had to get on our hands and knees and crawl through two more tunnels, one of which was probably the only original access to Balcony House.
Park ranger Jeannette told us that Balcony House is a typical Mesa Verde cliff dwelling; it’s a medium two-story masonry structure built about the same time as other cliff dwellings at the park. Archeologists count 38 rooms and two kivas, and they divide the site into three plazas or courtyards: the Lower Plaza, the North Plaza and the Kiva Plaza. The overall layout was likely determined by the size and shape of the rock alcove.
The builders used whatever local materials were at hand: sandstone, sometimes shaped into rectangular blocks and pecked on the surface. The stones were set in wet mortar mixed from tan, sandy soils and smoothed by people’s hands. Smaller chinking stones were inserted into the mortar, and might have helped level walls and create tighter joints. Some parts of Balcony House show careful attention to craftsmanship, while other masonry is less meticulous and looks hastily done. Once the walls were built, some surfaces were completely plastered over, hiding the fine rock work. Original plaster, sometimes several layers thick, can still be seen in a few rooms.
The North Plaza has balconies for which the site was named. One of the finest examples of balconies in an Ancestral Puebloan site, they remain intact between the first and second stories of the central rooms. The residents used the balconies to move from one second story room to another, and they may have used them as work spaces. A retaining wall runs along the entire front of the alcove.
Roof beams and other supports were mostly juniper wood. This wood provides construction dates for archeologists. Three construction periods were indicated: First from 1180-1220, residents built a block of rooms toward the back of the alcove and possibly a kiva. None of these still stand.
The next phase was in the 1240s, when more room blocks were added, likely replacing the earlier rooms, and the retaining wall and the pair of kivas seen today were constructed. In the 1270s, the retaining wall was extended further north, rooms were added, the passageways were defined, and the north plaza parapet was built. Four rooms were built in the central portion of the site, possibly marking off a ceremonial space.
The Kiva Plaza has two deep kivas side by side in the center of the site. Both kivas are examples of the signature Mesa Verde style kiva, identified by the ‘keyhole’ shape, six pilasters, a banquette or bench around the interior, a fireplace and ventilator shaft, and the sipapu (a Hopi word for a small hole or indentation) in the floor. Originally the kivas were roofed and a ladder led down through a hole in the roof.
From Balcony House, we had a magnificent view down Soda Canyon.
We climbed two more steep ladders as we made our way from Balcony House to the top of the mesa. The last one was nearly vertical and had only a narrow platform at the bottom and top, where only a chain fence kept us from toppling down into the canyon.
By 1300, most of the people who had lived in Balcony House and neighboring villages had moved on. Archeologists have proposed various reasons for their leaving. The tree ring record shows a long drought at the end of the 1200s, which crops would have shriveled and springs would have dried up. The numbers of sites and artifacts suggest that populations had been on the rise for generations. Ancient trash middens implied that people were eating fewer large animals and more small animals. Some archeologists have found evidence that increasing social conflict may have resulted as environmental pressures grew.
By all evidence, the descendants of the people who once occupied these canyon dwellings are the modern pueblo people of the Hopi Villages in northern Arizona, and the people of Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and the Rio Grande pueblos of New Mexico and Texas.
Information above came from various brochures created by the National Park Service.
On Sundays, I post about hikes or walks that I have taken in my travels; I may also post on other unrelated subjects. I will use these posts to participate in Jo’s Monday Walks or any other challenges that catch my fancy.
This post is in response to Jo’s Monday Walk: Party Time in Ayamonte.
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