May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

The past slips from our grasp.  It leaves us only scattered things.  The bond that united them eludes us.  Our imagination usually fills in the void by making use of preconceived theories…Archaeology, then, does not supply us with certitudes, but rather with vague hypotheses.  And in the shade of these hypotheses some artists are content to dream, considering them less as scientific facts than as sources of inspiration.” – Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form – Six Lessons

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Colorado Plateau colossal cuestas

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A great concentration of ancestral Pueblo Indian dwellings, built from the 6th to the 12th century, can be found on the Mesa Verde plateau in south-west Colorado at an altitude of more than 2,600 m. Some 4,400 sites have been recorded, including villages built on the Mesa top. There are also imposing cliff dwellings, built of stone and comprising more than 100 rooms.

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Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

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Mesa Verde National Park was established in 1906 to preserve and protect the archaeological sites, including the famous cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans, who lived in the area from about 550 A.D. to 1300 A.D. The geology of the park played a key role in the lives of these ancient people. For example, the numerous (approximately 600) cliff dwellings are usually associated with the Cliff House Sandstone. In addition, the ancient people farmed the thick, reddish loess deposits on the mesa tops, which because of their clay content, have good moisture retention properties. The soil on this loess cover and the seasonal rains associated with the “Arizona Monsoon” enabled these people to grow their crops (corn, beans, squash) on the broad mesa tops.

Today, geology is still an important concern within Mesa Verde National Park because the park is plagued by various forms of mass movement (landslides, debris flows, rock falls), swelling soils, and flash floods that affect the park’s archeological sites as well as its infrastructure (roads, septic systems, utilities, and building sites).

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Mesa Verde Luminarias

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“The trend of all knowledge at the present is to specialize, but archaeology has in it all the qualities that call for the wide view of the human race, of its growth from the savage to the civilized, which is seen in all stages of social and religious development.” – Margaret Murray

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Mesa Verde is essentially a broad, flat, upland surface sloping gently to the south and dissected by deep canyons containing ephemeral streams. At its northern edge, elevations of the upland surface range from about 8,000 to 8,570 ft and drop off steeply into Montezuma Valley  At elevations of 6,000 to 6,200 ft, which contains the towns of Cortez and Mancos. At the southern edge of the upland surface, approximately 9-10 miles distance from its northern edge, elevations range from about 6,700 to 6,900 ft and the canyons that have been entrenched into it are as much as 1,000 ft deep. The ephemeral streams draining Mesa Verde National Park are tributary to the Mancos River to the east and south of the park…

The vegetation in the park reflects the semiarid climate of the region. Pinyon-juniper woodland covers much of the mesa tops and canyon slopes within the park. With increasing elevation these trees become larger and are spaced closer together. In the higher reaches of the park, as well as in the well-shaded canyons, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and Gambel oak are also present.

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Mesa Verde Sun Temple

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“The oldness of things can become infectious. Some take to the sciences and become archaeologists, while others delve into the precarious underworld of dealing and collecting, and a small number spend their lifetimes scouring the earth in search of untouched relics. I am mostly among the later. I grew up with a gut reaction to archaeology where an arrowhead in my hand felt warm with possibility. Though I could scarcely say why, I taught myself to leave anything I found. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The conviction echoed through my life as I carefully guarded my knowledge of sites that I came upon, never even marking locations on maps.” – Craig Childs

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