“Stop at the sign that says ‘Wait for Ranger here’, but I’m Ranger Clayton, not Ranger Here,” joked the Mesa Verde Park Ranger with a lopsided grin as he explained the rules to us before we embarked on our exploration of the Balcony House cliff dwellings, occupied by Puebloans from 600–800 AD. These year-round use villages were built in a complex set of connected alcoves in the sheer rock cliffs called cavates.
With a quirky and enthusiastic gesture, Ranger Clayton called for us to follow him down the winding and dusty path leading towards the ancient village. As we eagerly hustled down the stairs avoiding lizards that scampered nearby, we came upon an alcove carved into the sunset-colored cliff wall. This, he explained, was an outcrop of the Dakota Sandstone, which acted as a natural spring for the Puebloans by slowly filtering rain water. Although they didn’t get all of their water from these springs, it was still a major source of fresh water for these Native Americans.
After examining the sandstone, we were ushered up a sturdy ladder and into a claustrophobic tunnel. We then had to waddle like a duck to even squeeze through the narrow crevice. Although we may have looked incredibly goofy, the reward for making it through the tunnel was great; just on the other side of the wall we emerged from our trek treated by the awe-inspiring sight of a large plaza area with storage rooms lining the periphery and two kivas in the center. Off to one side, there were a few sets of rocks called mono and matates that were the Pueblo version of the mortar and pestle; the rocks were used to grind corn into cornmeal. The natives could actually get some extra nutrients from the small pieces of sandstone that would break off into the cornmeal as they ground it. Towards the front of the plaza, Ranger Clayton stood a mere two inches away from the edge, where a sheer cliff dropped into the alluring yet treacherous canyon below. On the back wall, where we stood as everybody filed in, a faded handprint was a snapshot back into time, like an ancient selfie, as Ranger Clayton remarked. Another pictograph depicted the three peaks of the La Plata Mountains in the distance.
Ranger Clayton explain the theoretical purpose and history of the kivas. Many anthropologists agree that they were places of ceremonial worship, where the kiva represents the earth and the roof, woven like a basket, represents the sky. Blackened marks across the sides of the kiva indicate that fire was used in the kivas frequently, possibly for these religious ceremonies. However, it is also possible that the kivas were just used for warmth during the winter months.
Later in the day, our adventure continued at another kiva in the Spruce Tree House, which contradictory to its name, was actually another cavate village. This kiva, unlike the two high in the cliffs of the Balcony House, was completely underground. We climbed down a ladder into history; in the dark chamber below, we were greeted by the stale, musty air of an ancient time. I marveled at the thought that in the exact place where I was standing, Puebloans had held religious ceremonies or perhaps used the room for another purpose many, many years before I even existed. I could hear the echoes of their ancient voices and imagine their lives, so different from my own, yet so connected in common humanity.
As we interpret what life may have been like at these anthropological sites, it is important to remember that we cannot know an absolute truth; there are many possibilities and many of our ideas may be biased by our experience in our own, modern American culture. Even anthropologists, who try to avoid the human tendency to be ethnocentric, will still be influenced by their own culture when interpreting ancient cultures and anthropological sites. Still, even if we can never be 100% sure what kivas were really used for, Ranger Clayton would probably still agree that “you can really kind of feel the story here” at Mesa Verde National Park.