Imagine entering a grand sandstone palace, erected high up in the alcove of a cliff in the western U.S. This dream-like place really does exist. Built way back in the 12th century, there is a vast dwelling made up of almost 200 angular and circle-shaped rooms, like something straight out of a “Game of Thrones” episode.
You can, in fact, visit this mysterious site, known as Cliff Palace, by climbing a ladder in the very same way its original inhabitants did. It’s not known for sure why those farmers—the Ancestral Puebloans, who lived in the area from 500 to 1300 A.D., made their home high up above this land. All that is known is that they put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into constructing these stone and mortar buildings—often with their bare hands. Those who travel from around the world to see this archaeological wonder with their own eyes are able to spot handprints and fingerprints preserved in the walls.
However, it’s been theorized that the fortress may have been erected to protect against certain tribal aggressors in the area.
Found in southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde, a national park famous for its flat-topped mountains, Cliff Palace forms part of a collection of 600 cliff dwellings built by these ancient peoples. Not all Ancestral Puebloans chose to live this way, though. Only an estimated 100 people inhabited Cliff Palace, the largest of several high-up structures, according to Colorado’s National Park Service.
They cleverly employed wooden beams wedged into the sandstone rock to help support the buildings, each with between one to four stories. Families lived in a collection of rooms formed around ingeniously designed, circular rooms called kivas, which extend down below ground. These central structures contained fire pits and were used for ceremonial purposes.
Fascinatingly, many fragments of mural still exist within Cliff Palace, some containing geometric shapes that researchers suggest may represent the landscape, mountains, sky, sun, and moon. Another interesting insight that can be gleaned from this spectacular historic site, according to the National Park Service, is the stature of the Ancestral Puebloans some 750 years ago.
The size of the doorways confirms, historians surmise, that the average man stood from 5 feet, 4 inches to 5 feet, 5 inches tall (roughly 163 cm), while an average woman was 5 feet to 5 feet, 1 inch tall (152 cm)—similar to Europeans of the same period.
Besides providing shelter from the elements, the motivation for creating the cliff homes could have been as a defense against marauding bands of ancestral Navajo and Apache. Builders refrained from adding doors and windows to the lower floors, instead choosing to gain access using ladders, which could be whipped away in the event of an attack.
Whatever the reason—or combination of reasons—for the settlement’s existence, by the end of the 13th century, Cliff Palace was abandoned, most likely due to the region’s Great Drought. Imagining the people’s real, day-to-day lives that once unfolded in this palace on high, one may ponder the words of TJ Atsye, a park ranger at the Mesa Verde National Park:
“Even though we physically moved away, the spirits of my ancestors are still here. If you stop for a minute and listen, you can hear the children laughing and the women talking. You can hear the dogs barking and the turkeys gobbling. You can hear and feel the beat of the drums and the singing. You can smell the cooking fires. You can feel their presence, their warmth, their sense of community.”
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