In the past, the widest territory inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo culture was the vast area that today encompasses the southern parts of Utah and Colorado, and the northern and central parts of Arizona and New Mexico in the North American Southwest. The Mesa Verde region (also called as the Northern San Juan region) was one of the areas where Ancient Puebloans developed their culture to a great extent. Archaeologically, the Mesa Verde region includes adjacent parts of what are presently southeastern Utah, southwestern Colorado, and northwestern New Mexico. These three states together with Arizona state meet at one point what is known as the Four Corners region, the place located today in the Navajo Indian Reservation, which features a viewing point for tourists and a memorial set up where the borders of these four states meet.

Figure 1. Map of the Ancestral Pueblo world with areas marked where various groups of this culture developed, including the Mesa Verde region (compiled by Radosław Palonka, drawing by Michał Znamirowski)..

The origin of the Pueblo culture dates back about 1000/500 B.C. Although local chronologies vary to some extent across the region of the US Soouthwest, they are all based on the traditional chronology–the Pecos Classification–established in 1927. There are two main periods in the development of the Pueblo culture: the Basketmaker II-III period (from around 1000/500 B.C. to 700 A.D.), still without stone architecture and pottery, but predominantly agricultural, and the subsequent Pueblo period (from 700 A.D. until today).

            During the Basketmaker period, the ancient Pueblo people lived in hamlets or villages of a few or as many as several dozen pithouses (entry was by way of a sloping ramp through an antechamber, which was a small room off the south wall of the pithouse, or through the roof) and their economy was based from its origins on farming, dominated by growing maize as well as squash and later beans. These three crops are known to many North American Indian peoples as the Three Sisters. During later time periods, cotton was also cultivated. To supplement crop foods, ancient Pueblo Indians gathered and consumed wild plant foods and procured meat by hunting local animals such as mule deer, rabbits, and turkeys.

Figure 2. Cross-section through a typical pithouse with an additional storage room (antechamber) from the Basketmaker II/-III periods (a) and (b) a photo of the reconstructed pithouse from the Step House in the Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (drawing by Michał Znamirowski after Noble 2000 and other sources, photograph by Radosław Palonka).

In the pre-Hispanic/ pre-Columbian Pueblo period architecture underwent a series of significant changes, and buildings two or more stories tall were eventually constructed. The walls of these buildings were built of shaped sandstone rocks; the roofs were of wooden beams, brush, and topped with a clay or sandstone slabs. The first Europeans in the Southwest (Spanish missionaries and conquistadors) used the term “pueblo”  for these settlements, a Spanish term meaning “village”. Ordinary-size kivas (located underground) were the primary domiciles that were also used for household rituals, although great kivas were nonresidential structures used for ceremonies and other large gatherings (as they are being used today). In addition, there were changes in the economy, including the intensification of arable farming (also domestication of new crops like cotton and raising turkey) and extensive trade with, for example, Mesoamerica. Some sites during the Pueblo II-III periods Chaco-related great houses (sites with architecture similar to monumental Puebloan architecture in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico) were built in the Mesa Verde region; sites such as these might have served as community centers in Mesa Verde at that time. These sites are often called as outliers.

Figure 3. Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling from the 13th century A.D. located in Fewkes Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, southwestern part of Colorado (photograph by Radosław Palonka).

The developmental and population-density peaks in the Pueblo culture across the Mesa Verde region during the thirteenth century (Late Pueblo III period dated between A.D. 1225 and 1290) coincided with changes in architecture and site layout. Many small villages existed at that time but there is also evidence of aggregation within large pueblos, so-called community centers. Many villages were located at canyon heads near water sources or in sandstone alcoves in cliff faces. Despite the development of many traits of Pueblo culture in that time and the relatively dense population, occupation of the region by Pueblo peoples drew to a close near the end of that century. Because the Mesa Verde region was, during the Pueblo III period, one of the most densely populated areas of the Southwest, the depopulation of the region at the end of the thirteenth century is intriguing, and the causes are still not completely understood. The Sand Canyon-Castle Rock Community Archaeological Project examines connections between the landscape, architecture and rock art of the Castle Rock Community in the thirteenth century AD—immediately preceding the total depopulation of the Mesa Verde region.

Figure 4. Two Story House (5MT1805), cliff dwelling from Graveyard Canyon documented and recorded by the Sand Canyon-Castle Rock Community project team (photograph by Robert Słaboński).

Figure 5. Laser scanning of site 5MT129 in Sand Canyon with rock art outside the alcove (a) and (b) tracing of the panel that may be connected with the astronomical observations of Winter Solstice (photograph by Michał Znamirowski, drawing by Katarzyna Ciomek).

Today, there are 20 contemporary Pueblo settlements (pueblos) in reservations located in Arizona and New Mexico, including for example, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Jemez. Consequently, Pueblo culture exemplifies cultural continuity from ancient times to the present day. Collaboration programs between archaeologists and many Indian communities in the Southwest are implemented today in a number of projects (the first such archaeological-Indian project is thought to have taken place in 1975 and was conducted with the Pueblo of Zuni). Sand Canyon-Castle Rock project’s director collaborates with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO) from Second Mesa, Arizona; Hopi representatives provided field consultation for architecture and certain rock art panels, offering invaluable help and interpretations based on Pueblo oral tradition.

Figure 6. Consultations with Hopi representatives (Lee Wayne Lomayestewa, Ronald Wadsworth, Garry and Joel Nicholas, Delwyn Tawvaya, and Kevin James Crook) for interpretation of function and meaning of the rock art: a, at site 5MT181 (Mad Dog Tower) in Sand Canyon, June 2016; b, at 5MT1805 (Two Story House) in Graveyard Canyon in May 2017 (photographs by Radosław Kozłowski and Michał Znamirowski).

© Sand Canyon–Castle Rock Community Archaeological Project, 2021