Cliff Palace

On our first evening in Mesa Verde National Park, we took the twilight photography tour of the Cliff Palace, one of the largest cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. “Recent studies reveal that the Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people.”

Shown above, a tour group is gathering on the upper left while another group prepares to exit to the right.

As we entered, the Cliff Palace was in shade, a more uniform light than the daytime sun and shadow.  The alcove housing the Cliff Palace is quite large. We learned that the cliff dwellings are in alcoves, which are shallower than caves.

entering the Cliff Palace

Cliff dwellings can extend several levels up the alcove. From the park service, “Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials for the cliff dwellings. The Ancestral Pueblo people shaped each sandstone block using harder stones collected from nearby river beds. The mortar between the blocks is a mixture of local soil, water and ash. Fitted in the mortar are tiny pieces of stone called ‘chinking.’ Chinking stones filled the gaps within the mortar and added structural stability to the walls.”

several levels of buildings

This view shows the dressed stone and a round tower.

round tower

The Cliff Palace has been renovated. When doing renovation, the workers need to match the existing mortar color. There are several pallets of mortar samples at the rear of this kiva.

mortar color samples

Just before leaving Cliff Palace, there are two large kivas.

kivas at Cliff Palace

Unfortunately, without oral or written history of the Ancestral Pueblo people, we don’t know why they built these stone dwellings and why they abandoned them a century later.

The twilight photography tour was the only tour that could be purchased before arriving at Mesa Verde. This 1.5-hour tour has only fifteen people, so we had lots of time to listen to the ranger and questions and we could take pictures without lots of people.

Our park ranger guide explained how Mesa Verde and the Cliff Palace played an important role in the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Richard Wetherill, working with family and friends, collected and sold pottery and artifacts while guiding tourists from his ranch to the awe-inspiring sites. In July 1891, he hosted Gustav Nordenskiold, a young, Swedish-Finnish nobleman who was eager to learn about Mesa Verde. Nordenskiold excavated sites on the mesa with some professionalism, and retrieved a trove of artifacts which he sent to Durango to be shipped back to his home in Sweden.

The railroad, responding to local and statewide outrage, refused to handle them. A confrontation broke out, centering directly on the impropriety of removing archeological artifacts from public lands and shipping them out of the country.

After a brief legal skirmish, it became clear that there was no state or federal statute prohibiting the removal of archeological properties from public land. Legally, these artifacts could be shipped anywhere, and they were eventually placed in the Finnish National Museum in Helsinki.

Two decades of looting, desecration, and destruction of Native American sites in the Southwest such as Chaco Canyon and Cliff Palace ensued.

Hearing the ranger’s account, I felt upset, but later I recalled the story of the American Hiram Bingham we heard at Machu Picchu before Yale University agreed to return objects taken from there.

Peru has long sought the return of the estimated 40,000 artifacts, including mummies, ceramics and bones, that Bingham had excavated and exported from the Machu Picchu site. On September 14, 2007, an agreement was made between Yale University and the Peruvian government for the return of the objects.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

2 thoughts on “Cliff Palace”

  1. My family has visited here several times. We always went during the day and the lighting was much more severe. I can see that this time in the day was much more beneficial to your photography. I hadn’t remembered the history of original artifacts being taken out of the country (or was too young when I did to appreciate it), so your description here was very interesting to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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