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Historical and Architectural Analysis of Mesa Verde

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Historical and Architectural Analysis of Mesa Verde

The Anasazis are an ancient civilization and their descendants are the Hopi and Pueblo people.  Their historical habitation was the Mesa Verde, which is now a national park and world heritage protected site as well as the subject of this paper.  The Mesa Verde is located in Colorado near the Four Corners of the United States.  It holds special significance for its historical and meticulous architecture, and the artifacts that the dwellings house.  There are questions as to why the Anasazi decided to settle in this location, how they carried out the building process, and what influenced their particular architectural designs?  All these questions may be answered in relation to the environment.

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  The environment played a critical role in their decision-making and way of life, and we are learning today that their architectural brilliance could help prevent environmental degradation.

A Brief History of the Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde is Spanish for “green table,” and it rises high above the surrounding country.

  The Mesa Verde is made up of at least 600 cliff dwellings – the exact number is unknown and the number vary greatly from 600 to 1000 – and mesa top sites that are ruins of former stone and mud huts or pithouses.  (Gelernter, 24; Kantner, 100; Nordenskoild, 1).  The cliff dwellings are the most recent of the architectural structures and were built in the 1200s while the pithouses were built much earlier during the 500s.  (Nordenskoild, 1; Oppelt, 187).  The former is indeed the most aesthetically and architecturally impressive, but it is the latter that is most significant to understand the architectural development of the Mesa Verde and the development of the ingenuity and skill of the people.  The Anasazi are descendants of a nomadic people that traversed the country 10,000 years ago, but the people known as the Anasazi began to settle down during the period (1-400 A.D.), which is a period know as the Basketmaker.  (U.S Department of Interior; Brody).  The Basketmaker is named after the Anasazi’s famous baskets that were crafted out of yucca fiber and woven so tight that one of these baskets could hold water in them.  (U.S. Department of the Interior; Brody; Gumerman, 225).  At this same time, the Anasazi built circular pithouses, symbolic of their community, one that shares and works together.  Sometime between 400 and 450 A.D., the Anasazi came into contact with their Mesoamerican neighbors to the south, and this exposure accelerated their cultural development.  (U.S. Department of the Interior; Gumerman, 227-228).  The Anasazi began to make pottery, use the bow and arrow, and construct more elaborate masonry structures.  The people from the period from 400-750 A.D. are called the Modified Basket-makers by Archeologists.  Numerous pithouses making pithouse “villages” were built at this time.  They were built in alcoves and on the mesa tops.

At around 750 A.D. the Anasazi started to create compact villages as opposed to bundles of pithouses here and there.  These compact villages were joined wall to wall, and the Spanish term “pueblo,” meaning village, was given to these structures.  The period is known as the Developmental Pueblo period, which lasted until 1000 A.D.  (Gumerman, 227; see also Noble).  It is so-called because the Anasazi were experimental during this time with the structures and materials they used for their housing.  The structures were made of adobe and poles or stone slabs that were topped with adobe.  As the population grew, people began to leave the mesa tops and move towards the protection of the alcoves that were in abundance in the many canyon walls.  This period is the last and final period, and is known as the Classic Pueblo Period commencing in 1100 A.D.  During this period there was a climax in Pueblo culture and the construction of cliff dwellings.  (Kanter; Noble; Craig).

Unfortunately, in early 1200 A.D., drought came to the region and endured for a quarter of a century.  (Gelenter, 24-25).  The springs and water dried up, and the Anasazis were forced to seek other grounds where water was in full supply or else risk the end of a people as opposed to an end to the Mesa Verde development.  Before the drought ended, the people of the Mesa Verde had abandoned their magnificent dwellings and homes.

The Architecture of the Mesa Verde

Already from the brief historical account of the people of the Mesa Verde, a sense of their architecture has been provided.  It is known that initially the Anasazi built lodges over pits, known as pithouses.  The pithouses were made with lumber and covered in layers of mud and adobe.  (Roth, 120).  These pithouses were located primarily on the mesa tops, where the Anasazi, transforming from a nomadic people and beginning the stages of settling in one location, engaged in agricultural work and hunted deer.  (Roth, 120; Gumerman, 227).  The pithouses were constructed by digging the square or rectangular pits, and then placing four main ponderosa pine timbers down, one at each corner.  (Gumerman, 227).  These ponderosa timbers would anchor the walls and act as support for the roof.  Once the exterior was completed, the interior would be divided into a living room with a fire pit and air deflector, and an antechamber that housed the storage bins.  (Gumerman, 227-228; see also Brody, Oppelt, 187-190).  The pithouses were entered by way of a hole on the top of the roof, and a ladder that descended to the floor below.  (U.S. Department of Interior).

Later as the community grew, the Anasazi began to build lodges and community structures that were built using the same ponderosa timber as wood “poles” but they stood upright, jacal-style, and were plastered with mud and adobe.  (Noble; Lekson, 75).  These structures were built in clusters, but separate.  The walls were crafted of fine masonry, demonstrating the increasingly adept working ability of the Anasazis.  (Gelernter, 25; Gumerman, 228).

The communities grew into cities that were well-planned.  (Gumerman, 227-228).  As the Anasazi began to grow in numbers even more due in part to settling in one location and forming one culture, their experimentation with architectural design also grew and conformed to their culture.  Soon they left their pithouses for above-ground communities of lodges that housed several continuous rooms as opposed to one room for one family.  Also, they were making structures that were large and circular or rounded in appearance so as to blend into the mesas in the surrounding area, and seemingly to induce a feeling that embraced the larger community.  The latter structures were partly subterranean, which helped in part to keep the people cool during hot summers, and keep the heat in during the cold winter months, and acted in part as community rooms for social gatherings.  (U.S. Department of Interior; Kanter, 102).

The continued growth of the mesa verde preceded again a growth in architectural design during the Pueblo period.  At this time, and as mentioned, the “lodges” were built so that they were joined not only laterally but one on top of the other, forming three-story pueblo structures of contiguous rooms. (Kanter, 102).  They were the first apartment buildings to be built on the land known today as the United States.  These two or three-story lodges had 50 or more rooms and were constructed with the same jacal-style walls and benefited from the Anasazis fine masonry skills.  (U.S. Department of Interior, Kanter, 102).

Then at some point and for reasons that remain in part a mystery today, the Anasazis began to abandon their pueblos on the mesa tops to construct new homes in the alcoves of the canyons.  (Gumerman, 228).  Using their masonry skills and community planning, they built compact, strong stone cities in the hollow of the cliffs, known as cliff dwellings.  (Gumerman, 228).  These dwellings were up to four stories in height and were compartmentalized into small rooms for living, cooking, storing, and working.  The Anasazis also utilized their skills of pit digging to build large underground kivas as part of these cliff dwellings.  (Lekson, 75-76).  These dwellings were made of the same ponderosa timber, stone and adobe.  Also built in were shelving units for storage.  (Kanter, 102).

Though it is said that the reason for the Anasazis move from their pueblos on the mesa tops to the cliff dwellings remains unknown, there are speculative reasons, some more convincing than others.  There are those who believe the Anasazis moved as means to defend themselves.  During this period, however, there is no recording of violent activity in the region.  More promising reasons are for environmental benefits of the location.  The cliff dwellings faced the south, which gave them the advantage of the winter sun and summer shade.  Further, by sealing off a cave or alcove with rock walls in effect makes that space a room inside the cliff.  This protects the inhabitants from the elements, and provides warmth and coolness at the times it’s most needed.  (Nordenskoild; Roth, 122).  In the summer such a habitat would provide protection from rain and shelter from the sun.  In the winter, it provides protection from the wind and snow and allows the sun to trickle in and warm the stones so that they would give off heat, particularly at night.  (Roth, 122).  Essentially, the thermal mass acted as a buffer for extreme temperatures.

Historical Significance

The architecture of the Mesa Verde’s historical importance may very well be its present significance.  This country and indeed the world are facing environmental degradation and related concerns.  If there is a drought, it is not so easy to pick up and leave.  Additionally, what happens in one part of the world affects the rest of the world.  The pollution created in the United States is taking its toll on the inhabitants of Mexico and Canada as well as elsewhere.  Indeed it’s taking a toll on the ozone layer that protects all of us.  Part of the problem is the amount of energy that is used.  Air conditioning releases CFC’s that are well known to cause damage to the ozone layer, which in turn, has an impact of the melting of the glacier and other significant problems.  The largeness of houses and office buildings means that the consumption of air conditioning is just as large.  The same is true for heating.  Energy efficiency in the home and the workplace is essential.  A small step, therefore, that may have a large impact on this environmental degradation issue is architecture, and in effect energy efficiency.  The “pueblo” style building has become a popular style today, but not only for its aesthetic value, but also for its potential and possibilities of contributing to sustainability in the architecture field.

The rooms of the pueblos, from the pithouses to the cliff dwellings, are very compact and the walls are shared, which means less need to transport building materials during the construction process, and when living inside, the compact rooms help keep each other warm, thus, effectively saving energy or heating costs.  Space is well conserved and managed.  Further, the cliff dwellings in particular were located in strategic locations so that they could collect solar energy.  Though no glass was used to insulate the rooms and retain heat, the rooms still remained warm or cool, depending on the time of year, by using small entrances and ventilation holes both of which could be sealed by use of slabs of rock or hides.

Housing and office space (housing more so than office space) today should be more compact and surrounded by trees and other natural vegetation.  The courthouse and other public buildings in Las Vegas, Nevada are made out of adobe and are surrounded by vegetation.  The adobe must not be used everywhere, but houses and new office space should consider the environment, its location, and how to incorporate those things to the construction process so as to nurture sustainable architecture and thereby support the many efforts to reduce environmental degradation.

Overall, the Anasazis and the Mesa Verde is an incredible aspect of the history of this land that is today the United States.  The Anasazis represent a people who used their ingenuity to create better and more efficient architecture that supported their daily lives.  The Mesa Verde is tribute to these people, and their works are a tribute to history and architecture.  It can only be hoped that though the environment, i.e. drought, was reason in part that this people abandoned their inspirational dwellings, the idea and design behind the Mesa Verde are used today to give new life the architecture in such a way that it promotes sustainability, and in the end is reason why the environment is saved.


Brody, J. J.  The Anasazi: Ancient Indian People of the American Southwest.  NewYork: Rizzoli, 1990.

Childs, Craig.  “On the trail of the ancestors: Anasazi pueblos lie in ruins across the American Southwest. What became of their inhabitants?”  Natural History, March 2007.

Gelernter, Mark.  A History of American Architecture.  New York: UPNE, 1999.

Gumerman, George J. The Anasazi in a Changing Environment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Kantner, John. Ancient Puebloan Southwest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Lekson, Stephen. The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Powers in the Ancient Southwest. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1999.

Noble, David Grant. Ancient Ruins of The Southwest. Arizona: Northland Publishing, 1995.

Nordenskoild, Gustaf. The Cliff Dwellings of The Mesa Verde. Chicago: Norstedt and Soner; 1893.

Oppelt, Norman T. Guide To Prehistoric Ruins Of The Southwest. Colorado: Pruett Publishing, 1989.

Roth, Leland M. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning. California: Westview Press, 1993.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Who Were the Anasazi.  Colorado: Bureau of Land Management.  Last updated on August 8, 2008.  Accessed on November 11, 2008. <http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/ahc/who_were_the_anasazi.html >.

Cite this Historical and Architectural Analysis of Mesa Verde

Historical and Architectural Analysis of Mesa Verde. (2016, Jul 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/historical-and-architectural-analysis-of-mesa-verde/

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