On my recent trip to New Mexico I was honored to visit an incredible archaeological site at the Puye Cliffs, which was opened to the public just about one week ago. At 7040 feet above sea level, a tribe of 1500 Pueblo Indians inhabited a plateau and cliff area here from the 1100’s to roughly 1580. They then moved to the Rio Grand River valley due to drought conditions.
The Puye Cliff Dwellings are located on a plateau in the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation, near a town called Espanola. Espanola is about a 45 minute drive northwest of Santa Fe. The plateau sits above much of the surrounding area with an incredible view in all directions. The vegetation in the area turns to pine in this higher area as opposed to the more sparse New Mexico desert plants, bushes and cacti.
There were two separate areas the Pueblos lived in. The first would be their summer homes, located atop the plateau (pictured right). The homes were several stories high and organized into families. The women owned and maintained the homes, while the men hunted and gathered to provide for the homes.
The homes were constructed mostly of rock bricks. The outsides of the homes were plastered every year, giving them that trademark New Mexico look. You can’t see any of the plaster in my images as years of erosion have worn it all away.
The complex of buildings is knows as the Community House or Great House.
Living atop a plateau at 7040 feet could get cold and windy in the winter. This is when they occupied their winter homes, in the cliff area below. The cliff area provided better shelter from the wind as well as more warmth from the sun as its rays hit the cliff side.
There are two rows of dwellings on the cliff. One spans over a mile long and the 2nd 2100 feet.
The cliff dwellings also had several floors. The dwellings where inside the cliff, as well as in an area built onto the cliff side. You can see rows of holes in some of my images. This is where logs were inserted, providing the framing for each floor.
Each family had its own mark or logo which would be carved into the rock as a petroglyph in the wall above their home. A spiral circle near their mark would show where they came from. I show some of these petroglyphs below and I’ve enhanced the contrast to better show the detail. Left is an animal which is a family mark with the spiral I mentioned next to it. On the right is a humanoid (that’s what the tour guide called it!).
Above each home you could see small holes with black stains rising up from them. Those holes? Chimneys! The black stain is from years of smoke from their fires. How incredible would it be to travel back in time and see?
Peep show, circa 1224
There were, and still are, many traditions in the Pueblo culture. Unmarried women used to grind the corn in an area, using their family smoothing stones. Those stones were passed down from generation to generation and still are around today. The unmarried men would peek in at the unmarried women to check them out and evaluate them as mates. An ancient peep show, if you will.
Hiking and exploring the Puye Cliff Dwellings is a humbling experience. How they lived and functioned as a community is incredible.
You can find hundreds of pieces of pottery everywhere (image right). To pick up a piece of pottery which had been there since the 1300’s is amazing. It was even more amazing to think that some of the pottery was glazed. The ingenuity.
You must have a guide with you to tour Puye Cliffs, and it will be well worth it. My tour guide was Porter (pictured below left with me on the right) and he was incredibly knowledgeable and able to answer every possible question.
Though the park had only been open a week it was amazing how well versed Porter was. That was because for years he’s been listening to his grandparents and great grandparents tell the stories which had been passed on for generations.
The Pueblos were/are a peaceful people whom modern civilizations could learn a great deal from. Their community was very well organized, each member having specific roles which contributed to the greater good. The tourist center which the Santa Clara Pueblo put together, along with the great tour guides make the Puye Cliff Dwellings and incredible and humbling place to visit.