Located in an alcove on the east wall of Cliff Canyon in Mesa Verde National Park, Cliff Palace is a 150-room cliff dwelling built by Ancestral Pueblo people in the 1200s. Diné (Navajo), Nuche (Ute), Apache, and Pueblo people knew of the structures well before rancher Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason encountered them in 1888. The largest and best-known cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, Cliff Palace is also one of the most photographed structures on earth. Along with the rest of Mesa Verde, Cliff Palace was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1978.
Construction and Use
Cliff Palace and the other cliff dwellings were constructed during the Pueblo III period (1150–1300 CE) of the Ancestral Pueblo tradition, when Mesa Verde residents began to move from mesa tops to cliff alcoves, perhaps for greater protection. The site probably had a population of 150 or more and served as an administrative center for the sixty smaller cliff dwellings nearby, which could have housed an estimated 625 people.
Cliff Palace was built in pieces between about 1200 and 1275, with each family constructing its own kiva and room suite, and grew to include 150 rooms and twenty-three kivas. Kivas, circular areas excavated into the ground, were the central residential structures at sites such as Cliff Palace. Kivas could be used for residences and ritual gatherings; they could also be covered with a flat roof to make a small plaza. Around each kiva were suites of small rooms that made up a courtyard complex shared by an extended family or clan. These residential courtyard complexes made up more than 75 percent of Cliff Palace. The rest of the site consisted of isolated kivas, rooms without nearby kivas, circular towers, great kivas, and other special-use spaces.
Like the rest of the Mesa Verde region, Cliff Palace was evacuated in the final decades of the 1200s when the Ancestral Pueblo migrated to the south and southwest. Although the exact reasons for the migration remain unknown, there is evidence that colder and drier weather, combined with increased conflict in the region, made it harder for residents to rely on traditional strategies for survival.
"Rediscovery" in 1888
Local Indigenous groups were well aware of the Cliff Palace before local rancher Al Wetherill and several others claimed to have seen it in the 1880s. On December 18, 1888, Al’s brother Richard and their brother-in-law, Charles Mason, found the site. The men were searching for cattle with their Ute guide, Acowitz, when they first saw the structure. They explored it and soon discovered other cliff dwellings and pueblos nearby. Richard Wetherill returned to the area throughout the winter to explore and dig for artifacts, which he later sold to the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado).
In 1891 the Wetherill brothers and Mason showed Mesa Verde to the visiting Swedish scholar Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who spent the summer excavating nearly two dozen cliff dwellings in the area, including Cliff Palace. His book The Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde (1893) played a crucial role in stimulating interest in the area’s archaeology. The artifacts he plundered during his excavations were long housed at the National Museum of Finland, but in 2019 the Finnish government agreed to return many of them—including some human remains and funerary objects—to native tribes in the region.
Cliff Palace had deteriorated somewhat in the six centuries since its occupation, but the process of decay accelerated rapidly after its rediscovery, as it saw increased visitation from pothunters, amateur archaeologists, and tourists. In response, a movement developed in the 1890s and early 1900s to make Mesa Verde a national park and to pass the Antiquities Act (1906) to prevent looting and vandalism at prehistoric sites on public land.
Archaeological Work and Preservation Efforts
In 1906 the Mesa Verde area, including Cliff Palace, became a national park. Most of the structures in the park were still filled with debris and in danger of collapsing, so the Department of the Interior asked Jesse Walter Fewkes of the Bureau of American Ethnology to come to the park and perform excavation, preservation, and repair work. From 1908 to 1922 Fewkes excavated and stabilized cliff dwellings at the park, including Cliff Palace, where he worked in 1909–10. His team recovered artifacts; cleared rooms, courts, and terraces of debris; strengthened walls; and built a new trail to make the site more accessible to visitors. Fewkes counted 217 rooms and twenty-three kivas at Cliff Palace, making it what was then believed to be the largest cliff dwelling in the United States.
Since Fewkes’s time, most work at the park has focused on preservation. By the early 1930s, Cliff Palace was settling on its unstable foundations and in desperate need of repair. The Public Works Administration helped fund a program of surveying, mapping, and stabilization. Earl Morris of the Carnegie Institution led the 1934 project at Cliff Palace, which added concrete retaining walls and repaired a four-story square tower. The project marked a turning point in preservation efforts at Mesa Verde because Morris implemented a new policy of documenting all repairs so that it would be possible in the future to tell the difference between the parts of the site that were original and those that had been restored. The 1934 project was also significant for marking the start of James “Al” Lancaster’s long career at Mesa Verde, where he led the park’s stabilization crew for several decades.
Mapping Cliff Palace
In the late 1990s Mesa Verde was one of the first recipients of funding from the Save America’s Treasures program launched by the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The park’s chief archaeologist, Larry Nordby, used part of the money to make the first comprehensive map of Cliff Palace. Nordby’s map showed that Cliff Palace actually had 150 rooms, not the 217 Fewkes had counted, making it the same size as Long House on nearby Wetherill Mesa.
Nordby’s map and analysis also revealed other new details about life at Cliff Palace. Many of the rooms at the site appear to have been used primarily for storage, indicating that Cliff Palace may have served as a central warehouse and distribution center for other dwellings in the area, with perhaps as few as 125 residents of its own. In addition, Nordby discovered a wall running through the center of the site that divided it into two parts, suggesting a social organization based on two distinct groups.
2015 Conservation and Stabilization Project
The 800-year-old Cliff Palace has a variety of structural problems that are exacerbated by frequent visitation and have required regular stabilization since the middle of the twentieth century. Especially since World War II, when visitation to Mesa Verde National Park increased dramatically, vibrations from foot traffic have caused loose material at the site to settle. To limit the damage, park officials have kept the public away from certain parts of the site and have limited the size of tour groups. They have also performed regular maintenance to repair cracks, stabilize walls, and improve drainage for water seeping through the alcove roof.
Most recently, in 2011 a wall collapse in Kiva F led to a comprehensive investigation of structural conditions at Cliff Palace. Archaeologists found that although the northern half of the site was built on firm bedrock, the southern half sat on loose soil and debris that had fallen from the alcove ceiling. With no real foundation, the southern half of the site was slowly sliding downhill, causing cracks, falling walls, and other problems. Park staff developed a plan for a $450,000 preservation effort and performed extensive repairs before Memorial Day and after Labor Day in 2015. The conservation project closed Cliff Palace to the public in spring and fall 2015, but daily tours were conducted as usual during the summer.