Green Table of the Vanished Civilization
The Pueblo People lived there from mid-VI to early XIV century, first in half-dugouts on a large plateau, and later in unusual settlements raised in alcoves in the Canyon cliffs. Traces indicate their continuous development and advancement. Then, around the year 1300, in one or two generations, everything vanished. The inhabitants of Mesa Verde (Green Table) moved towards New Mexico and Arizona. The first noted encounter with these uncommon dwellings in the modern times was in 1765, and in 1906, following the decision of American President Theodore Roosevelt, Mesa Verde was proclaimed national park

Text and Photo: Josip Šarić

While traveling from the Monument Valley, or to be exact, from the popular Four Corners towards Mesa Verde, a calm drive in a car occasionally gives an impression of levitating above the road. Rocked into such comfortableness and splashed with visual attractions following you all the time, a passenger easily forgets that there are almost no other vehicles passing by, no gas stations along the road, no cities, no backpacks… No cellular network coverage. When he becomes aware of those details, he suddenly realizes the indescribable difference between densely populated Europe and still desolate, spacious, and wild American southwest.
Mesa Verde is located in the state of Colorado, Montezuma County. We reach our destination in the dead of night, completely unaware of what is expecting us, while trying to get at least a glimpse of what we remember from photos we’ve seen while preparing for the journey. With dawn, fragments of rare fog move away, and a world turned into a big labyrinth made of a myriad of canyons appears before us, hiding a story about people that mysteriously vanished long ago.
Gloomy traces of a big fire which left behind burned and sadly baren ponderosa pine trees, which we have already seen upon our arrival to Mesa Verde, are explained by one of the rangers. The summer drought and occasional thunderstorms initiate fires. Most of them are not extinguished in the national park area. Everything is left to nature, its whims and ability of renewal, without interference of man. Particularly impressive is the information that the slow-growing pines will need about 200 years to bring the part of the forest back to the state it was in before the fire broke out.
What is Mesa Verde anyway? The name originates from Spanish and means green table. However, geologists would say that it is more a plateau with a gradual slope and decline in one direction, than an isolated tableland surrounded with deserts and mountains. Geologically, the present topography was formed by recent processes. Although the climate is generally dry, Mesa Verde is a dynamic place, still being formed by periodical torrential flows, creating numerous entangled canyons with vertical cliffs. Considering that the entire area is made by sediment rocks, erosion processes in those cliffs formed numerous large alcoves. Unlike the prairie lands of the Northern-American continent, where nomadic people have moved and settled, alcoves became shelter for people who led a sedentary way of life, developing their culture in Mesa Verde in the course of a few centuries, between 550 and 1300.


The first encounter Spanish and Mexican investigators had with material remains of that large community was in 1765, when an expedition led by Juan Maria de Rivera noticed ruins, however they did not leave any details about them in their documents. The entire area attracted their attention as a very impressive natural landmark, but, considering its inaccessibility and great distance from European settlers’ settlements, it was mostly bypassed during the conquests of the south-west. The first published text about Mesa Verde was written by geologist J. S. Newberry, member of the group who looked for an easy route through New Mexico and Colorado in 1859 for a planned railway.
William H. Jackson, leader of the photo team, part of the geological-geographic expedition, was the first visitor in Mesa Verde, who visually documented the existence of objects built in alcoves. In 1874, he researched and recorded mountains of south-western Colorado and made pictures of a small, two-story object, a relatively insignificant building, today inaccessible to visitors of the national park. Pictures made by Jackson in Mesa Verde in September that year attracted the attention of the public to that region.
However, except for the curious public, Mesa Verde became target of ill-intentions, so in December 1886, the editor of Denver Tribune Republican magazine expressed his concern in an editorial because of ”vandals of contemporary civilization” destroying archeological sites and emphasized that the area requests state protection.
Exactly two years after that text, on a stormy December day in 1888, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, searching for wandered cattle, entered the mysterious world of Mesa Verde. For the first time, they saw an alcove and an object, which Richard named Cliff Palace, a name still in use today. During his wanderings in Mesa Verde, Richard constantly discovered traces of earlier life and, pushed by investigative fever, entered some smaller objects looking for old artefacts. He continued his activities, and by 1890 he and his associates researched 182 settlements in Mesa Verde, 106 of them only in the Navajo Canyon. He gave names to the most remarkable objects, which carry the same names today. During the explorations, Richard and his associates also performed excavations, not well controlled or professional, and collected various artefacts, which were later presented in fairs and sold to private collectors and scientific institutes. Richard even tried, although in vain at the time, to attract the interest of Smithsonian Institute and Peabody Museum, to accept sponsorship for further investigations. His father Benjamin Wetherill wrote to Smithsonian Institute twice, expressing his opinion that if the area is not proclaimed national park, tourists will destroy the ruins, neglecting the fact that his son was already doing so for a while. There were also those who asked Wetherill for help in their own explorations of Mesa Verde. One of them was baron Gustaf Nordenskiöld, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who performed studious excavations in 1891 with Richard’s help, in objects known as the Long House, Step House and Kodak House. During those excavations, he made a valuable collection including 600 artefacts, which he transferred to The National Museum of Finland, Helsinki, where they are still kept today. Human remains and artefacts from tombs were returned only in 2019 to present heirs of Puebloans from Mesa Verde. Based on his discoveries, Nordenskiöld wrote the first scientific discussion about the material remains of the Puebloans entitled The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde.


In the meantime, the public was shocked by apparent vandalism which was destroying the remains of Mesa Verde for years, so a strong movement appeared, with the initiative to protect the entire area by law. The efforts resulted in proclaiming Mesa Verde national park on June 29, 1906, upon the order of President Theodore Roosevelt, known as a great nature lover and supporter of its conservation. After that, systematic explorations began in 1908 and continue today. About 5.000 archeological sites were registered and 600 settlements raised in the alcoves on the canyon cliffs. Conservation and restoration of many objects enabled the official opening of the park for visitors in 1972, so that they could have better insight in the way of life of that population and enjoy their architectural achievements. In 1978, Mesa Verde National Park became part of the UNESCO list of world heritage.
Who were the architects and inhabitants of those alcove settlements? Members of the Pueblo People settled in Mesa Verde around the year 550. During the following two hundred years, they lived in the same plateau in Mesa Verde in half-dugouts, grouped into small villages. The people were engaged in hunting and collecting wild edible fruit. They developed a perfect way of cultivating three agricultural cultures, which they called ”three sisters”, that made the basis of their nutrition. They cultivated corn, beans and pumpkins together. Stalks of corn created a structure for climbing of the bean vine, thereby eliminating the need for using stalks. Beans provided nitrogen for the soil, used by the other two cultures in their growth. Pumpkins prevented the growth of weeds, their leaves made a microclimate by creating shadows and maintained the humidity of the soil, while their thorny vines kept away pests from destroying corn and beans. Before they began creating ceramics dishes, they made wicker dishes and sometimes used rabbit or skunk hair for weaving them. They made weapons and tools from wood, bone or stone, used bows and arrows, knives, awls, millstones for grinding corn…
Between 550 and 750, the first settlers in the area lived in a kind of half-dugouts, with inclined walls above the ground, and a flat roof with a small opening in its center, considered to have had a symbolic meaning. Around the year 750, the community, which had been successfully advancing for two centuries, began constructing above-ground objects with vertical walls, made of wooden ties and adobe bricks. Around 1000, they advanced their architectural skills, and began using stone as the basic building material. The construction of objects in alcoves began around 1200, walls became massive, enabling raising two- or three-story buildings, while the entire object could have had more than fifty rooms. The advancement is also noticed in the quality of ceramic dishes, which they began decorating with black color on a white background.


In the so-called classic Puebloan period, encompassing the time between 1150 and 1300, thousands of Puebloans lived in compact alcove settlements. Life in those sheltered objects enabled better protection from bad weather conditions as well as potential enemies. However, around 1300, in a time span of one or two generations, the complex of settlements of Mesa Verde became completely desolate. The real reasons are not clearly defined. Scientists have several theories – from microclimatic changes provoking draughts which destroyed crops and caused several years of hunger, social and political problems, to the theory that several centuries of cultivating the soil and hunting led to a depletion of natural resources. Whatever the reasons were, it is an undeniable fact that the entire population migrated towards the area of present New Mexico and Arizona. Many of the present members of the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Laguna Pueblo peoples are direct descendants of past architects of alcove settlements of Mesa Verde.
Present visitors of this fascinating complex are able to see numerous, easily accessible buildings, as well as a few difficultly accessible. Rangers regularly warn visitors to reconsider visiting such objects in case they have heart problems, claustrophobia, acrophobia or similar. While touring the alcove settlements, visitors see the skills of ancient architects and perceive the consequences of immoderate using of limited natural resources. Kind rangers, the museum exhibition in the visitor center, films and publications, shed additional light on the story about the brilliant and mysterious architects of Mesa Verde.
Visiting Mesa Verde is not just facing wondrous architectural endeavors of the Pueblo People. Although artefacts they had left behind became part of museum and private collections a long time ago, we can still see in situ millstones for grinding corn in some objects and rare fragments of ceramic dishes on the slopes under the alcoves. Exactly those objects, which have been hiding a story about their owners for about 700 years, led us to experience the visit to Mesa Verde as a journey through time, which gave us many answers, provoked even more questions, changed our understanding of the past, and made us realize the often unnoticeable fragility of society, which can collapse in just a moment, leaving behind only traces of its existence.


The World is Small, but not Enough
In the Mesa Verde plateau, we met a married couple, member of the Navajo people. They were selling fried bread from a trailer, and we wanted to try the traditional Navajo dish. Taking the food into our hands, we faced ordinary ”uštipci” (fritters) prepared in the entire Balkans. While we were commenting the ”Navajo uštipci”, the man enthusiastically spoke about Jelena Janković and Ana Ivanović, whom he adored, while Serbia was a much more abstract concept, and he couldn’t place it into a familiar geographical frame.


Simple, yet Ingenious
Inhabitants of settlements on the cliffs of Mesa Verde carved canals in rocks on the plateau above the alcoves, for rainwater which flowed through them and entered the alcoves and small pools, created as freshwater tanks. On steep slopes, where torrents of water appeared in monsoon periods, they made dams for retaining the soil carried by rainwater. Thus, they formed miniature platforms, where they cultivated vegetables in the dry season.


On Our Knees

Some of the entrances into alcove settlements are made in cracks in rocks, and they are so narrow that a larger visitor must hold his breath and his stomach in order to pass it. In other places, such passages are walled, with a small rectangular opening in the wall as entrance to the complex, throwing all present visitors on their knees. Formerly perfectly designed defense against undesirable visitors today symbolically forces contemporary visitors to show their respect to ancient builders.

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