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Vandals Damage Ancient Artifacts in Mesa Verde Park in Colorado to Create Graffiti

Vandals Damage Ancient Artifacts in Mesa Verde Park in Colorado to Create Graffiti

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Park officials from the Mesa Verde National Park in Montezuma County, Colorado, announced that vandals severely damaged archaeological artifacts in order to write graffiti on the side of a sandstone cliff.

Vandals Don’t Show Any Sign of Respect

Created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Mesa Verde National Park occupies 52,485 acres near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. With more than 4,300 sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the U.S. Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") is best known for structures such as Cliff Palace, thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. However, the flagrant vandals didn’t seem to care at all about the park’s historical and cultural background and significance.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Cliff Palace, as seen from the trail leading to it. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

In a long message posted on their Facebook page, Mesa Verde National Park officials mentioned that they are seeing more and more evidence of graffiti, vandalization and intentional littering. In one such incident, some hoodlum rubbed names onto the sandstone using prehistoric charcoal which officials say the vandal dug up in an archeological site along the Petroglyph Point Trail. The long post on Facebook (also including 7 photos of the vandalized objects) reads as follows,

“As the summer progresses and visitation increases, we are seeing more and more evidence of graffiti, vandalization, and intentional littering throughout Mesa Verde National Park. This comes in many forms and across many surfaces. In one of the pictures below, you’ll see names rubbed onto the sandstone using prehistoric charcoal which a visitor dug up in an archaeological site along the Petroglyph Point Trail. Not only did this/these individuals vandalize the cliff side, they destroyed archaeological artifacts to do so.

Graffiti created using prehistoric charcoal dug up at the site (Credit: Mesa Verde National Park)

The purpose of the National Park Service is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. Please help us in this effort and refrain from creating graffiti, intentionally littering, causing damage to or otherwise disturbing the landscape in all National Parks. If you see others engaging in any of these acts, please report this activity to the nearest Park Ranger or to staff in the Chief Ranger’s Office located next to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.

Despite the fact that this is the mission and purpose of the National Park Service, we are seeing a growing number of instances of intentional damage throughout NPS sites every year. Why do you think people do this? What do you think the intent is and what can we do as a culture to cut down on these occurrences?

Thank you to all of the visitors who do visit with respect. Let us all leave no trace, educate others about proper stewardship of public lands, and enjoy these wonderful landscapes as they are.”

A more recent problem that is happening in the national parks is that painted rocks that are being used in scavenger hunts connected to social media are being left, littering the public areas, with potentially harm to the environment being caused by the paint used, and also disturbing the natural beauty of the area.

Example of rocks left in the National Park as part of a scavenger hunt ((Credit: Mesa Verde National Park)

A Common Phenomenon These Days

Unfortunately, these acts of vandalism are not a rare phenomenon these days. It appears to be a unique achievement for vandals to leave their mark with awfully ugly graffiti on monuments and churches in the past several years. As Ekathimerini reported in 2008 , graffiti artists in Athens, Greece, have been vandalizing this ancient city’s monuments for years now. Churches and archaeological sites in Greece used to enjoy a certain immunity from graffiti and the stylized signatures known as tagging, but are now increasingly part of the action as the phenomenon takes off in Athens.

Additionally, the Washington Free Beacon reported in 2016 that the North Dakota monument of Washington, D.C.'s World War II memorial was vandalized with graffiti to protest the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline Project. Interestingly, back in 2015, a case was dismissed against a Chinese woman who was suspected of tossing green paint on several D.C. landmarks, including the Lincoln Memorial, after a judge determined she was incompetent to stand trial. Jiamei Tian had been charged in 2013 with one count of defacing property after paint was found spattered in Washington National Cathedral. However, as it happens in the vast majority of these cases, the law proves to be really gracious with the vandals, a fact that does nothing to deter more of them from keeping destroying and vandalizing monuments of immense cultural, historical and archaeological value.

Vandalism hurts

Defacing any part of the national park or other public land you visit hurts, and it degrades the experience of other visitors. Disturbing wildlife or damaging their habitats can directly lead to their demise. These acts are also illegal.

NPS photo of a defaced rock art panel in Mesa Verde National Park.

The more than 400 sites across the National Park System preserve and protect our nation's unique natural and cultural heritage. When you visit, enjoy them and do no harm.

Graffiti is vandalism, and is extremely difficult to remove. Repair of vandalized sites, if possible, is costly and time consuming, and often cannot restore the site to its former condition.

Defacing any part of the national park or other public land you visit hurts, and it degrades the experience of other visitors. It is described as an act of cultural violence when perpetrated against such sites as pictograph panels, historic structures, and other places that existed before their designation as park sites. Disturbing wildlife or damaging their habitats can directly lead to their demise. These acts are also illegal.

You can help protect our treasured public lands. If you see something suspicious in any NPS location, stay safe and tell us about it. Talk to any NPS employee for help in reporting suspicious activity, or give the Special Agents of the NPS Investigative Services Branch a call. We understand that it may take time to reach park personnel and/or areas with cell or internet service.

You don't have to tell us who you are, but please tell us what you know:

☎️ CALL or TEXT the ISB Tip Line 888-653-0009

Damage to a prehistoric rock art panel in Capitol Reef National Park.

Vandals Damage Ancient Artifacts in Mesa Verde Park in Colorado to Create Graffiti - History

Excavation at Site 16 (James A. Lancaster and Jean M. Pinkley)

Excavation of Sun Point Pueblo (James A. Lancaster and Philip F. Van Cleave)

Index (omitted from the online edition)

Douglas McKay, Secretary

Conrad L. Wirth, Director

1. Map of Chapin Mesa
2. The two pithouses of the Twin Trees Site
3. Architectural features
4. Slab wall of second pithouse
5. Postulated method of roof construction of first pithouse
6. Reconstruction of second pithouse
7. Manos
8. Metate and mano
9. Pot covers
10. Hammerstones and maul
11. Rubbing, pounding, and polishing stones
12. Miscellaneous stone objects
13. Miscellaneous artifacts
14. Lino Gray jar
15. Jar handles
16. Miniature vessels
17. Sherds of La Plata Black-on-white
18. Excavation at Site 16
19. Ground plan of Site 16
20. Post and adobe village ground plan and kiva profile
21. Post and adobe village after excavation
22. Post and adobe village after stabilization
23. Kiva 2, associated with the post and adobe village
24. Artist's reconstruction of post and adobe village
25. Unit Pueblo No. I ground plan and profile
26. Upper photograph—Unit Pueblo No. I
Lower photograph—Kiva 3, associated with Unit Pueblo No. I
27. Artist's reconstruction of Unit Pueblo No. I
28. Unit Pueblo No. II ground plan and profile
29. Unit Pueblo No. II
30. Kiva 1, associated with Unit Pueblo No. II ground plan and profile
31. Kiva 1, associated with Unit Pueblo No. II
32. Kiva 1, associated with Unit Pueblo No. II
33. Artist's reconstruction of Unit Pueblo No. II
34. Steps in the development of the Mesa Verde kiva
35. Manos
36. Rubbing stones or small manos
37. Small hammerstones and pecking stones
38. Axes, hammers, and maul
39. Miscellaneous stone artifacts
40. Concretions
41. Bone artifacts
42. Ornaments
43. Necklace of shell beads
44. Necklace of shale and shell beads and a bone gaming piece
45. Miscellaneous clay objects
46. Basketmaker II—Pueblo I decorated bowl sherds
47. Mancos Black-on-white bowl and ladle sherds
48. Mancos Black-on-white bowl and ladle sherds
49. Mancos Black-on-white bowl and ladle sherds
50. Mancos Black-on-white pitcher and jar sherds
51. Mancos Black-on-white pitcher and jar sherds
52. Mancos Black-on-white vessel handles
53. Mancos Black-on-white vessels
54. Pueblo II corrugated jar sherds
55. Pueblo II corrugated jars
56. Site 16 after excavation and stabilization
57. Excavation at Sun Point Pueblo
58. Ground plan of Sun Point Pueblo
59. Profiles of Sun Point Pueblo
60. Kiva interior
61. Upper photograph—Kiva interior showing tunnel entrance
Lower photograph—Kiva-tower unit, looking west
62. Schematic panorama of kiva interior
63. Kiva-tower unit
64. Sun Point Pueblo
65. Miscellaneous objects
66. Objects of stone
67. Slab metate
68. Manos from Sun Point Pueblo
69. Mesa Verde Black-on-white half-bowl
70. Black-on-white sherds from the excavation of Sun Point Pueblo
71. Corrugated sherds from the excavation of Sun Point Pueblo
72. Artist's reconstruction of Sun Point Pueblo

1. Southwest classificatory systems
2. Stone artifacts—Pithouses
3. Sherd types and percentages—Pithouses
4. Sherd analysis—Site 16
5. Sherd percentages by excavated unit—Site 16
6. Sherd percentages by periods—Site 16
7. Tabulation of body and rim sherds—Site 16
8. Sherd counts from the excavation—Site 16
9. Tabulation of artifacts recovered—Sun Point Pueblo

Galloping Goose Historical Society

The Galloping Goose Historical Society was founded in 1987 and preserves, restores and operates the Historical Rio Grande Southern Railroad near Mesa Verde National Park. The site houses a replica of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad's Dolores Depot, and the museum features artifacts and models of trains that once traveled through the Dolores River Valley. As of March 2010, admission to this attraction is free. The Galloping Goose Historical Society is approximately a 20-minute drive from Mesa Verde National Park. Galloping Goose Historical Society 420 Central Ave. Dolores, CO 81323 970-882-7082 gallopinggoose5.com

Vandals Damage Ancient Artifacts in Mesa Verde Park in Colorado to Create Graffiti - History


MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK comprises one-half of a great tableland, or mesa, in the southwestern corner of Colorado, only a few miles from the "Four Corners," where the States of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet at a common point. The mesa, measuring 15 by 20 miles, rises from 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the surrounding country. Its flat top, which slopes gradually to the south, is cut by a score of rugged canyons, dividing the large mesa into many smaller mesas. Because of its heavy forests of piñon and juniper, the mesa is perpetually green, and at some early date, probably during the 1765-1848 period, when there was much Spanish activity in the area, it was given the name Mesa Verde, or "green table."

First knowledge of the archeological treasures of the Mesa Verde came in 1874, when W. H. Jackson, the famous "Pioneer Photographer," discovered small cliff dwellings in the Mancos River Canyon which borders the Mesa Verde on the east and south (Jackson, 1876, pp. 367-381). In 1888, the major cliff dwellings were discovered, and this date marks the beginning of the tragic period in the history of the Mesa Verde. Shortly after the discovery of the large cliff dwellings, it was learned that there was a ready market for the artifacts which they contained. The cliff dwellings were so thoroughly ransacked in the following 18 years that, so far as is known today, little material of scientific value remains in them. Only one archeologist worked in the Mesa Verde during this period. Baron Gustav Nordenskiöld excavated in a number of cliff dwellings in 1891 and, considering the time, published a most excellent report on his work (Nordenskiöld, 1893).

Early research, 1908-22. In 1906, a portion of the great mesa was set aside as Mesa Verde National Park. The first research was done 2 years later when Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes, of Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, excavated Spruce Tree House, one of the larger cliff dwellings (Fewkes, 1909). During the years between 1908 and 1922, Fewkes excavated a number of cliff dwellings and mesa-top ruins but modern scientific methods were not used and the results leave much to be desired.

More recent research, 1923-38. Following the Fewkes period, research was, of necessity, neglected. The park was created to preserve the ruins and make them accessible to the public. From the time the first roads were built, travel to the area increased year after year. The number of visitors increased more rapidly than the size of the local staff, and consequently research was delayed.

During the summer of 1923, the First National Geographic Beam Expedition, under A. E. Douglass, collected tree-ring specimens in the park (Douglass, 1929, p. 750), and in 1932-33, H. T. Getty, of the Tree-Ring Laboratory, continued this work (Getty, 1935, pp. 21-23). In 1926, Superintendent Jesse L. Nusbaum excavated three early seventh century pithouses in Step House Cave and, during the winters of 1926-29, did a small amount of salvage excavation in the previously disturbed refuse of several cliff dwellings. In 1929, H. S. Gladwin, of Gila Pueblo, surveyed 103 mesa-top and canyon-head sites. Sporadic testing and probing during stabilization of cliff and mesa-top ruins and removal of burials encountered, comprise the only other research for this period.

Research outside the park. Although research lagged in the Mesa Verde itself, the general archeology was comparatively well understood because of extensive work which was done in the surrounding area. Over the past 50 years the reports of many investigators have given us a general overall picture of the archeology of the Mesa Verde region. Outstanding in this regard is the work of the following: E. H. Morris in the Durango, La Plata, Red Rock, and Canyon de Chelly areas to the east, south, and southwest (Morris, 1919b, 1939, 1941) J. A. Jeancon and F. H. H. Roberts, Jr., in the Piedra district to the east (Jeancon, 1922 Jeancon and Roberts, 1923-24 Roberts, 1922, 1925, 1930) E. K. Reed in the Mancos Canyon to the south (Reed, 1943, 1944) S. G. Morley and A. V. Kidder in the McElmo drainage to the west (Morley, 1908 Morley and Kidder, 1917) T. M. Prudden, P. S. Martin, and J. B. Rinaldo in the Montezuma Valley to the northwest (Prudden, 1905, 1914, 1918 Martin, 1929, 1930, 1936, 1938 Martin and Rinaldo, 1939 Rinaldo, 1950) B. Cummings and his students, A. V. Kidder, N. M. Judd, and J. L. Nusbaum in southeastern Utah to the west (Kidder, 1910) and later, J. O. Brew's excavations in the same area (Brew, 1946).

Recent research in the park, 1939-53. While the general archeological story of the region was relatively well known, it was to be expected that the Mesa Verde would present certain variations. Since 1939, a program of organized research has been carried out in the park in an effort to determine these local manifestations.

(a) Excavation by park staff, 1939-41. In 1939, T. L. Smiley excavated an A. D. 700 pithouse (Smiley, 1949 pp. 167-171), and, in 1941, J. A. Lancaster excavated two pithouses dating about A. D. 600 (Lancaster and Watson, 1943, pp. 190-198) and tested other pithouses and early pueblo structures.

(b) Gila Pueblo Tree-Ring Expedition, 1941. In the fall of 1941, Gila Pueblo collected tree-ring specimens in the park. Dates obtained are included in O'Bryan's recent publication on the Mesa Verde (O'Bryan, 1950, Appendix A, pp. 112-115).

(c) Excavations by Gila Pueblo, 1947-48. During these years, D. O'Bryan excavated an extensive series of ruins in the park (O'Bryan, 1950):

(d) Recent excavations by park staff, 1950. In the summer of 1950, members of the local staff excavated six ruins:

Reports on these excavations are included in this volume.

(e) Archeological survey by local staff, 1951. An intensive archeological survey of the Mesa Verde was started in the fall of 1951 and will continue for many years. When completed, this survey should provide an overall picture of the prehistoric occupation of the Mesa Verde. All archeological features are included: cliff dwellings, mesa-top ruins, canyon-head ruins, dams, reservoirs, shrines, pictographs, etc. Sherd collections are made, all pertinent data recorded, ruins marked, and, whenever possible, individual ruins are mapped. To date, this survey has been confined to Chapin Mesa south of park headquarters (pl. 1), and in an area of approximately 4 square miles, 472 sites have been surveyed. The only cliff dwellings so far surveyed are those in the head of Cliff Canyon, north of Cliff Palace. In one-half mile of this small canyon, 15 cliff dwellings have been located.

PLATE 1—Map of Chapin Mesa.
(click on image for a PDF version)


As a result of the excavations and survey within the park and the extensive work which has been done in surrounding areas, the archeology of the Mesa Verde itself is becoming somewhat clearer, although there are still gaps in the story which must be filled through continuing research. It should be mentioned also that, except for some of the early work, all excavation to date has been in the Chapin Mesa area and the remainder of the Mesa Verde is practically untouched. Chapin Mesa is in the center of the Mesa Verde, in an east-west line, and extends from the north rim to the Mancos River Canyon, on the south. It is the largest mesa and, while it appears to have the greatest number of ruins of all known local types, there is reason to believe that archeological variations may occur in other parts of the Mesa Verde.

Occupation of the Mesa Verde seems to have extended from the early part of the Christian Era to almost A. D. 1300. In summarizing this long occupation, the Pecos Classification will be followed as it is the best known and most widely used classification of culture periods (Kidder, 1927, pp. 554-561). The Roberts' Classification is employed in dealing with park visitors as its use of descriptive names, and the fact that it has one less period makes it easier for the uninitiated visitor to whom such classifications are, to say the least, baffling (Roberts, 1935, p. 32 and this volume, table 1).

The following brief summary is an effort to present the archeology of the Mesa Verde as it is known today and to point out some of the problems yet to be solved. Few comparisons will be made with findings in nearby areas, for this has been done in past publications and in the three reports included in this volume. Dates vary somewhat from those which have been given for other areas. It must be borne in mind that there was constant progress throughout the entire occupation, and it is impossible to draw sharp lines and set exact dates for the various periods. Many different dates have been used by archeologists, but those used below seem best for the Mesa Verde as the archeology is known at present.

The presentation of each of the following periods is divided into two parts. First, a general summary is given of the period, as known throughout the Mesa Verde region. Following this is a summarization of the known aspects of the period in the Mesa Verde itself.

This is a postulated, preagricultural stage set up at the first Pecos Conference, since it was obvious that a hunting-gathering culture must have preceded the later farming cultures.

Dates: From about the beginning of the Christian Era to A. D. 450. Dates obtained indicate that by the first century A. D., agricultural people were well established in the Four Corners region. Corn and squash were cultivated and there was also great use of wild plant foods and game. Pottery was absent and excellent baskets and bags were made in profusion. Slab-lined storage cists were characteristic, but houses have been found only in the Durango area, where there is evidence of crude, early structures. The atlatl and dart, and curved sticks served as weapons for the bow and arrow were not known. Other traits were woven bands square-toed sandals string aprons fur-string blankets soft, padded cradles troughed metates jewelry of stone, bone, seeds and shells and wide use of animal skins. Dogs were present. This widespread culture served as the base out of which the later, more highly developed cultures grew.

No remains dating from this period have been found in the Mesa Verde, but there is reason to believe they will be found when the necessary, difficult excavation can be performed. Material dating from this period has, except in one area, been found in caves. Since Mesa Verde caves contain cliff dwellings it will be necessary to excavate under these structures in order to establish this early occupation. Basketmaker II remains have been found to the east of the park in the Durango area, to the west in southeastern Utah and to the southwest in Arizona, and it would be surprising if the Mesa Verde were not occupied during this period. Investigation of lower cave levels, deep under cliff dwellings, is high on the priority list of future research projects.

Dates: A. D. 450 to 750. This period saw marked development and is characterized by the advent of pottery, widespread use of pithouses of a standardized nature, appearance of the bow and arrow and the first use of hafted axes and mauls. Beans were first grown, turkeys apparently were domesticated, and turquoise came into use. Except for these new items, other material traits remained much the same as listed for Basketmaker II. However, fur-string blankets declined in favor of feather-string blankets, and sandals with notched or scalloped toes replaced the square-toed variety.

The Mesa Verde contains abundant remains dating from the latter part of this period. Twelve pithouses dating from A. D. 572 to 700 have been excavated in the park but no work has been done, as yet, in the A. D. 450-572 period. Because of the lack of work in the earlier part of this period the dates and types of the earliest houses and pottery are unknown. Seven houses dating at about A. D. 600 have been excavated. The common structure at this time appears to have been a large, shallow pithouse with a comparatively large, connected antechamber (Lancaster and Watson, 1943, pp. 190-198: O'Bryan, 1950, pp. 55-58). The three pithouses excavated in Step House Cave were somewhat different. Instead of having antechambers they had ventilators which were much too small to have served as entrances. This variation may have resulted from the cave location.

Five pithouses dating from the late seventh century show definite changes. These pithouses were deeper, averaging 4 to 5 feet in depth. The antechambers were smaller than at an earlier date, and certain features of the later ceremonial rooms, or kivas, such as bench, sipapu, deflector, and ventilator, were well established (Lancaster and Watson, "Excavation of Two Late Basketmaker III Pithouses" in this volume Smiley, 1949, pp. 167-171 O'Bryan, 1950, pp. 58-61).

Present evidence indicates that during this period, at least after A. D. 600, the bulk of the population lived on the mesa-tops. The three structures found in Step House Cave show there was some cave occupation, but surface evidence of innumerable pithouses points to a preference for the open mesas. These mesa-top pithouses were grouped into villages but, to date, only individual pithouses have been excavated and the plan of the village is unknown. Testing has located as many as 9 pithouses in an area less than 300 feet in diameter.

The earliest Mesa Verde pottery, to date, came from a pithouse which gave a bark date of A. D. 572 (O'Bryan, 1950, pp. 55-58). The dominant pottery was Lino Gray, with a small amount of Lino Black-on-gray. At this site, and in an A. D. 664 pithouse, O'Bryan reported considerable Lino-like pottery which shows some degree of polishing. To this he gave the name Twin Trees Plain, and for a similar but decorated type, the name Twin Trees Black-on-white (O'Bryan, 1950, p. 91). In two late seventh century pithouses which are reported in this volume, Lino Gray was still the dominant type, while the decorated ware was La Plata Black-on-white. This pottery is basically like Lino Black-on-gray except that the paint is inorganic, rather than organic. There is strong support for the belief that La Plata Black-on-white was far more common in the Mesa Verde at this time than Lino Black-on-gray, but some earlier reports have lumped the two together under the more widely used latter name. The difficulty of drawing a line of demarcation between polished and unpolished pottery and the presence of crushed rock temper in the five above mentioned types, rather than sand temper as specified in published descriptions, indicate the need for an intensive study of the pottery of this period.

The minor traits of the period appear to be the same in the Mesa Verde as in the surrounding area.

Dates: A. D. 750 to 900. It is difficult to draw a definite line between this and the preceding period as the differences, for the most part, are a matter of continuing development rather than abrupt change. One radical change did occur, however, for at about the beginning of this period the soft, padded cradle was discarded and a rigid, wooden cradle was adopted. This was responsible, in part, for the cranial deformation which was prevalent after this time.

This period is characterized by important developments in architecture and ceramics. Surface living rooms of stone-slab, post and adobe construction developed and were joined together in long, curving rows. In front of the rows of living rooms were pitrooms which grew very deep and began to lose their domiciliary functions as they became more kiva-like. Villages were sometimes very large. By the end of the period experiments with stone masonry had started. Ceramic improvement came with the introduction of the slip and decorated types were polished. Banded-neck vessels are diagnostic of the period. Red wares were made in some areas. Minor arts and crafts continued much as in the preceding period but sandals changed from a scalloped to a rounded toe. Cotton was in use by the end of the period.

In the Mesa Verde this period as well as the end of the preceding period is not well understood for there has been no excavation of ruins dating between A. D. 700 and 825. O'Bryan excavated 2 slabhouse ruins, 1 with deep pitrooms, which produced bark dates ranging from A. D. 829 to 845. (O'Bryan, 1950, pp. 37-43 and 51-53). Neither was completely excavated but they were, in general, typical of the slabhouse villages with associated pitrooms, mentioned above. The date for the advent of the first surface living rooms in the Mesa Verde is unknown. Slabhouses are believed to have developed from slab-lined storage cists which, in some areas, have been found associated with Basketmaker III pithouses. No slab-lined storage cists were found associated with any of the five late Basketmaker III pithouses which have been excavated in the Mesa Verde, however, so the date and manner of development of surface structures awaits further research.

Pottery of the preceding period continued in use in the Mesa Verde with Lino Gray common. Kana-a Gray, essentially the same as Lino Gray but with banded necks, appeared and is a period diagnostic. The dominant Pueblo I decorated pottery of the Mesa Verde is undetermined. Lino Black-on-gray practically disappeared but La Plata Black-on-white continued in use and may, eventually, prove to be the common decorated type. La Plata Black-on-red accounted for 2.0 percent of the sherds in the two Pueblo I sites excavated by O'Bryan (O'Bryan, 1950, p. 92). There has been some question as to whether this pottery was actually made in the Mesa Verde, but its prevalence on the surface in some parts of the park indicates local manufacture.

Dates: A. D. 900 to 1100. This period is characterized by wide experimentation and rapid improvement in architecture, and marked changes in pottery. At the beginning of the period post and abode villages were still being built, and crude stone masonry had also come into use in some areas. Once stone masonry was accepted it quickly supplanted all other types of construction and this period saw it develop from its crude beginning of rough stones laid in excessive amounts of mud mortar to good, double-coursed, horizontal masonry. The villages usually were small, consisting of a few rooms, in front of which was an isolated kiva. The kiva saw its real development in this period, advancing from a deep pitroom almost to its final Classic stage (Lancaster and Pinkley, Steps in the Development of the Mesa Verde Kiva, in "Excavation at Site 16", in this volume). The dominant decorated pottery of the area was a black-on-white, iron paint type. Corrugated ware, which grew out of the earlier banded-neck variety, came into use and was widely accepted. Red ware declined rapidly in popularity and disappeared. Flat metates came into use as well as large stone blades, or tchamabias, and the so-called sandal-lasts. Other minor traits changed little.

Three Pueblo II ruins have been excavated in the Mesa Verde by members of the park staff and are reported in this volume. Two more were excavated by O'Bryan and portions of a third ruin which he excavated, Site 34, may also date from this period (O'Bryan, 1950, pp. 32-36 44-51 79-80). The findings indicate that Pueblo II in the Mesa Verde followed closely the pattern for Pueblo II in the general region, as described above.

The three ruins excavated at Site 16 illustrate clearly the architectural changes (Lancaster and Pinkley, "Excavation at Site 16," in this volume). The first consists of post and adobe living rooms and a crude, four-post kiva with earthen walls. Sitting directly on this ruin is a small pueblo of single-coursed masonry, accompanied by a six-pilastered kiva with masonry below the bench. On top of this ruin is a pueblo built of double-coursed masonry with an eight pilastered kiva which has masonry lining to the top of the pilasters. This kiva has a southern recess which marks the advent of this feature in the Mesa Verde. In this one site are illustrated the important stages in Pueblo II architecture. One new feature, the circular tower, appeared during the last occupation of Site 16, which gave bark dates of A. D. 1074.

Although small quantities of Lino Gray pottery were still made, Mesa Verde pottery of the Pueblo II period consisted almost entirely of two types: Mancos Black-on-white and corrugated. The former was the only decorated pottery associated with the three ruins at Site 16, which covered the entire span of A. D. 900 to 1100. Minor traits show little change except that the flat-slab metate appeared during this period.

Dates: A. D. 1100 to 1300. The beginning date assigned to this period in the Mesa Verde is somewhat later than that usually given for the region in general. Some archeologists have placed it at 1050, others at 1000, and even A. D. 950 has been suggested as a beginning date. The matter of dividing the period is merely a matter of definition, and it is possible to use any of these dates and develop a perfectly logical classification. As far as the Mesa Verde itself is concerned, the late date seems best from present knowledge. This climax stage is often called the "Great" or "Classic" Pueblo Period. In interpretive work with park visitors, these terms are used and for that reason there is a tendency to lean rather heavily on the term "classic." If the "classic" stages of architecture, ceramics, village layout, and many of the minor crafts serve as the criteria, A. D. 1100 is not too late for the beginning of this period in the Mesa Verde.

This was the climax period, marked by large communities, extensive local specialization and high development of arts and crafts. Multistoried pueblos were built, masonry was superior and kivas were numerous and standardized, although there were variations. Structures with unusual ground plans were also built. Pottery of two types, black-on-white and corrugated, characterize the period. The iron paint of earlier types lost favor and was supplanted by carbon paint. The decorated pottery was of excellent quality with high polish and with skillfully executed black designs on a white background. Excellent cotton cloth was produced and most of the minor traits exhibit superior workmanship. Sandals continued to change and the jog-toe shape appeared.

During the earlier part of the period, most of the villages were small and the population was widely dispersed. Later there were a shifting and, apparently, a decline of the population. Toward the end, the people concentrated in certain areas and large communities were built, many with an obvious defensive intent. Small villages were still present but this later period is characterized by the development of large, compact pueblos, often with defensive aspects.

As far as the Mesa Verde itself is concerned, this is the most confusing and confused period. Two different shifts of the population occurred and much work must be done in 12th century sites before they can be understood.

At the beginning of the period the villages were small and widely dispersed over the mesa tops. Single and double-coursed walls were built and pecked-faced building stones were just coming into use as well as the use of small spalls in the adobe mortar. Round towers had appeared, as evidenced by the finding of three at Site 16 (Lancaster and Pinkley, "Excavation at Site 16," in this volume). In plan the villages consisted of a few rooms in a compact group, to the south of which was an isolated kiva. The kivas themselves had practically reached their classic form and usually contained their standard features: ventilator, deflector, firepit, sipapu, wall niches, bench, southern recess, and six pilasters.

As the period progressed the plan of the villages changed. The kiva was placed inside the house block so that it was surrounded by the houses. Often a round tower was constructed beside the kiva and connected to it by a tunnel, as at Sun Point Pueblo (Lancaster and Van Cleave, "Excavation of Sun Point Pueblo," in this volume). Still farther into the period, and the date for this is unknown, many of the villages grew larger and the population appears to have concentrated in certain areas near the north rim of the mesa. An excellent example of this is the Far View House group where 1 large, three-storied pueblo was closely surrounded by at least 15 smaller ones. Several canyon heads also contain groups of large and small pueblos.

About A. D. 1200, a movement to the caves began. In the many canyons of the Mesa Verde are hundreds of caves, and during the 13th century cliff dwellings were built in almost every cave. The majority of tree-ring dates obtained from cliff dwellings fall in the 1230-60 period, indicating that this was a time of great building activity. In size the cliff dwellings range from 1 room to the largest, Cliff Palace, which has about 200 rooms and 23 kivas.

Cliff dwellings, in general, show no definite plan, for the builders were forced to fit the structures to the available cave space. Architecturally there were no radical changes. Few double-coursed walls were built and single-coursed walls average somewhat thinner than in the earlier mesa-top pueblos. This may have been an effort to save space, or possibly the thick walls were not needed since the caves provided shelter against the destructive forces of the elements. Masonry varied greatly with rough and superior types side-by-side. The finest examples of walls contain well shaped, evenly sized stones which have smoothed or pecked faces, the latter being more common. Many rooms were plastered and bore painted designs. Wide use of small chinking stones was characteristic.

At the beginning of the period Mancos Black-on-white was the common decorated pottery in the Mesa Verde. A radical change came at about this time when iron paint was supplanted by carbon paint. The earliest type of carbon paint pottery has been called McElmo Black-on-white, but Brew stated it mildly when he said, ". . . the definitions of McElmo and the illustrated specimens labelled McElmo vary so that the safest procedure at present seems to be to call it early Mesa Verde" (Brew, 1946, p. 285). The origin of this carbon paint pottery is not clear but further study probably will show wider use of carbon paint during Pueblo II than has been suspected. It seems not to appear in the Chapin Mesa area until after A. D. 1100, although O'Bryan dated it much earlier in other parts of the Mesa Verde (O'Bryan, 1950, p. 26). This early carbon paint type is simply the beginning of Classic Mesa Verde Black-on-white which, apparently, was well developed by A. D. 1200 (Lancaster and Van Cleave, "Excavation of Sun Point Pueblo," in this volume). Typical forms of this finest Mesa Verde pottery are bowls, ladles, water jars, kiva jars, and mugs. Corrugated pottery continued in wide use throughout the period.

Since artifacts have been preserved in the caves, the minor crafts of the 13th century are well represented in collections. In general they are much like those of earlier periods but exhibit superior workmanship. Baskets and sandals, however, had declined somewhat in quality since Basketmaker times. The jog-toe sandal was typical of this period.

The events of Pueblo III in the Mesa Verde are puzzling and lack of excavation of 12th century mesa-top ruins makes this a difficult period to understand fully. However, it is possible to point out certain trends and emphasize the problems yet to be solved.

The first problem is the change in the layout of the villages which has already been mentioned. At the beginning of the period the plan was similar to that of earlier periods, with the kiva separated from the houses. Early in the period the plan changed and the kiva was drawn into the village and surrounded by the houses. Very often a round tower was built beside the kiva and the two were connected by a tunnel. It is difficult not to interpret this change as resulting from a defensive need. The kiva was used chiefly by the men, and this isolated, underground room would have been a death-trap in case of a quick raid. Placing the kiva inside the house structure and connecting it with a tall watchtower certainly hints at a need for defense.

The next problem is an apparent shift of the population. Prior to the early 12th century there was a dense population in a wide belt running east and west across the mesa. On Chapin Mesa, this area of dense population ranges in altitude from about 6,700 to 7,200 feet. Hundreds of ruins ranging from Basketmaker III through Pueblo II times are in this area.

Sometime during the 12th century the population seems to have shifted to the north and there are few Pueblo III mesa-top ruins at the 6,700-7,200 foot elevation. Sun Point Pueblo is one of the few examples on Chapin Mesa (Lancaster and Van Cleave, "Excavation of Sun Point Pueblo" in this volume). The movement evidently was up the mesa for the bulk of the late surface ruins is in the northern part of the Mesa Verde. On Chapin Mesa this is above the 7,500 foot level. Large groups of late pueblos are found on the mesa top and in the broad canyon heads near the north rim. This shift of population is difficult to explain and only one suggestion will be made. The higher portions of the mesa receive more rain and much more snow than the lower elevations. Many summer rains miss the lower sections entirely. Tree-ring records show that from A. D. 1090 through 1101 there were 12 consecutive years during which precipitation was below normal (Schulman, 1947, p. 6). This drought was more severe than in any period of the same length during the great drought of A. D. 1276-99. One can only wonder whether this period of drought may have caused a significant portion of the population to shift to the higher elevations where there was more rainfall.

The second population shift, a movement to the caves, is even more puzzling. Lack of tree-ring dates for mesa-top pueblos makes the beginning date for this shift uncertain but it appears to have been under way by A. D. 1200. As has been mentioned, cliff dwellings were built in practically all Mesa Verde caves during the 13th century. Some people may have remained in surface pueblos, but certainly it was a small percent of the total population.

This move to the caves must have resulted from a need for security. If one accepts it as an effort to provide for easier defense of the villages, it is possible to see the beginning of this defensive trend late in Pueblo II times. Circular towers appeared before A. D. 1100. If these were watchtowers, it means there was some threat to the security of the people. A little later, the kiva was placed within the village walls and was connected to the tower by a tunnel. Still later the population concentrated in certain areas and many large, multistoried pueblos were built. The final step was to move to the caves and certainly this must have resulted from a need for defense. Many of the cliff dwellings were located high on the cliff faces and often they were additionally fortified with defensive walls.

To explode this entire theory one might suggest that the towers were not watchtowers and that the kiva-tower combination was merely a "psychological unit." If the latter is true, it is surprising that the feature was not continued in the cliff dwellings. Connected kivas and towers have not been found in any cliff dwelling in the Meas Verde.

If the "defense" theory is accepted, another question rises immediately. Against whom were the people defending their homes? It has been suggested that in Pueblo III times there was strife within the pueblo group and that the people were warring among themselves. A more widely held theory, however, is that at this time nomadic Indians entered the area and the people were forced to defend themselves against an outside enemy. Only further research will solve the problem.

It must again be pointed out that the 12th century is a confused period in the Mesa Verde. There has been almost no excavation of ruins dating from this century and solutions for the problems will come only through intensive excavation.

Occupation of the Mesa Verde ended just before A. D. 1300. This was the period of the great drought of 1276-99. Since abandonment seems to have occurred at the time of the drought, it is considered the chief cause for the desertion of the Mesa Verde by the agricultural Indians. Internal strife, enemy trouble and other unknown factors may have been contributing causes for the abandonment of the area. As the people left the Mesa Verde they seem to have moved southeast to the Rio Grande. There they merged with other Pueblo groups and soon lost their Mesa Verde identity.

Table 1.—Southwest Classificatory Systems as They Relate to the Mesa Verde Region

Painted Hand Pueblo

Painted Hand Pueblo, perhaps the best of the visible backcountry sites, is quite centrally located in the monument along paved road 10, which in the west links with the main section of Hovenweep National Monument, in Utah, and in the east connects with roads 8B and CC from US 491. From this direction, the road leaves the flat farmland after several miles, entering more overgrown, less developed surroundings, running along a mesa between Ruin Canyon to the north and Hovenweep Canyon to the south. The land remains privately owned for a few more miles, until the road crosses into the monument and reaches a junction with a side road (number 4531) to the pueblo, this 17.4 miles from US 491 (via road 8B), and 5 miles from the Utah stateline. The trailhead for the short hike to the pueblo is 1.1 miles south, and the track is generally fine for regular vehicles though a wash crossing quite soon may be wet and muddy. The track crosses a patch of private land for a short distance then re-enters the monument. The parking area is on the east side, on the rim of Hovenweep Canyon beyond, the road, now somewhat rougher, continues another 1.4 miles to the Cutthroat Castle unit of Hovenweep National Monument. The path runs along the rim for 1,000 feet then splits, one branch dropping down through a narrow gap between two rocks to the base of a circular tower - the most eye-catching ruin at the site - while the other branch continues a little further then descends more gently. The tower is built on a projecting rock, wider on top and narrower below at the lower level, under the rim, are some wall remnants, some faint handprint pictographs, and soot on the ceiling. Near the tower is another small ruin, more faded pictographs, and at least one petroglyph. The trail passes several other small masonry remains before returning to the rim. Many large grey boulders are scattered around, some of which may have other rock art. To the south, the land slopes gradually down by 200 feet, into the wide, shallow canyon, beyond which, 15 miles away, is the distinctive outline of Sleeping Ute Mountain.

10 Ways to Discover Mesa Verde Country

Take a few days to explore Mesa Verde National Park and the towns of Cortez, Dolores and Mancos, where history, outdoor adventure and family attractions rule the landscape.

1. Become a Junior Ranger at Mesa Verde National Park

The park is one of Colorado ’ s must-visit attractions — and one of the nation ’ s most important archaeological sites — for visitors of any age. Kids get a particular thrill from the park ’ s Junior Ranger program.

2. Dig Deeper at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

Once you’ve been inspired by all the amazing finds at Mesa Verde, sleuth for your own treasures at this research center in Cortez under the tutelage of archaeologists and American Indian scholars — for just one day or for a whole week!

3. Let Native Guides Show You Around Ute Mountain Tribal Park

For a truly authentic cultural experience, native guides interpret this 125,000-acre park’s cliff dwellings, pictographs, surface ruins and artifacts. The Ute Mountain Ute guides are the only way to access the land that holds these precious pieces of history.

4. Saddle Up for a Western Adventure

Live the cowboy dream on a horseback ride or pack trip into the quintessentially Western landscapes and backcountry of the area. Rides are available from one hour to multiple days for riders of all experience levels.

5. Shop Authentic Handcrafted Art & Pottery

The work of local and Native American artisans can be found in Mesa Verde Country’s galleries, trading posts and other locales, many of which have been in the same families for generations.

6. Eat Like a Local

The area ’ s had about 2,000 years to develop distinct flavors harvested nearby. The best way to sample the local bounty is at restaurants serving farm-to-table fare. Find other options, from Southwest specialties to cowboy chow, as well.

7. Tour More Ancient Sites

Start at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center & Museum to learn about the cliff dwellings, kivas and rock art you ’ ll see at these two national monuments: Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep . Bring or rent a bike or hike Canyons of the Ancients. If you still hunger to see more of the region, visit Four Corners Monument, about 30 miles away. Either way, top off the day with a sunset and a glass of wine at local wineries.

8. See a Show

The Sunflower Theatre in Cortez hosts cowboy music, jazz quartets, lectures and much more!

9. Get Your Life on Singletrack

Mesa Verde Country has more than 600 miles of singletrack mountain biking. The Phil ’ s World Trail System outside Cortez has 60 of those miles alone, including the famous, rollercoaster-like Rib Cage trail.

10. Hike, Bike, Fish & Camp in Dolores

This corner of the massive San Juan National Forest, which covers 1.8 million acres in southwest Colorado, is perfect for those seeking solitude in nature. Boat and fish along the Dolores River or McPhee Reservoir — the second-largest body of water in Colorado.

8. See Ancient Farming Terraces

Farming terrace with check dams NPS

The Ancestral Puebloans farmed the mesa top for crops such as corn. See evidence of their farming terraces on the .5-mile Farming Terrace Trail. You’ll see prehistoric check dams which created the terraces. Can you imagine farming on the arid mesa?

View the Park from a Fire Lookout

Park Point is the highest elevation point in the park at 8,572 ft.Photo Credit: Depositphotos Mesa Verde Fire Overlook. Photo Credit: Dsdugan/Wikimedia Commons

Evidence of fire is obvious as you drive through the park. Stop by the Park Point Fire Lookout to get a feel for what watching this special park for fires must’ve been like. Originally built in 1939 and remodeled in 2009, the fire tower also is the highest point in the park.

Step House

The Trail to Step House

Step House is a free, self-guided cliff dwelling. Open between spring and fall please check Hours of Operation.

The Step House trailhead is located next to the Wetherill Mesa kiosk. The one-mile trail is steep (a 100 foot descent and ascent on a winding path). Your time in the site is self-paced so you can enter and exit at your leisure. There is a ranger on duty in the dwelling to answer questions. Allow approximately 45 minutes to visit Step House.

The sites on Wetherill Mesa provide for much quieter and slower paced visit. It is worthwhile to spend at least half a day on Wetherill Mesa. It usually takes 3 to 4 hours to visit the Wetherill sites, but can easily take longer if someone wants to take advantage of all the walking and bicycle trails in the area. If you plan to also take a hiking tour of Long House, make sure to purchase a tour ticket before driving to Wetherill Mesa.

Partially reconstructed pithouse at Step House

The Step House alcove is unique at Mesa Verde because it provides clear archeological evidence of two separate occupations—a Basketmaker III (BM III) pithouse community dating to early 600s CE, and a Pueblo III (P III) masonry pueblo dating to the 1200s. Basketmaker III sites are difficult to locate within alcoves because of later cliff dwelling activity. But because the Step House pueblo was built on the south end of the 300-foot (91 m) long alcove, it left at least part of the BM III site undisturbed. The six pithouses located here clearly indicate that at least some individuals chose to build their homes in alcoves a good six centuries before the construction of the now famous cliff dwellings.

Basketmaker III baskets

Because of the stunningly crafted baskets found with pit structures dating from about 550 to 750 CE, early archeologists named the people and the time period in which they lived, "Basketmaker." Today, although archeologists refer to the “Basketmaker” and “Pueblo” time periods, they recognize that the people are simply different generations of the same cultural group now known as the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Compare Step House in the late 1800s and today

The Step House alcove contains six known Basketmaker III pit structures and a Pueblo III masonry pueblo with 27 rooms and 3 kivas. The first known excavation of Step House was by Gustaf Nordenskiõld, who was guided by local ranchers, the Wetherills in 1891. Although we now realize that some of the artifacts they discovered were from the earlier BM III period, they did not locate the pithouses and probably did not know about the earlier occupation.

Later in 1926, Park Superintendent Jesse L. Nusbaum and his crew excavated the first three pithouses. They were located beneath a midden that included a two- to six-foot-deep (0.6 to 1.8 m) layer of refuse such as animal bones and broken pottery that had been deposited by the later Pueblo III occupants some 500 years later.

In 1962, Robert Nichols and Al Lancaster worked at Step House as part of the Wetherill Mesa Project. They stabilized existing masonry structures and cleared trash and debris down to the alcove floor. A series of retaining walls running along the front of the masonry pueblo were discovered and restored or reconstructed. They also uncovered three additional pithouses, two of which were buried underneath the Pueblo III masonry pueblo.

All archeological sites, especially those with standing architecture like Step House, require continued assessment and maintenance. Natural factors such as rainfall and alcove spalling, as well as animals and insects, all impact the integrity of the site's fabric. As a public site, conditions at Step House are routinely monitored on an annual basis. To learn how the park continues to preserve archeological sites for future generations, visit Archeological Site Conservation Program.