Long House is the second-largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park. Built by Ancestral Puebloans in the 1200s, the 150-room dwelling was rediscovered by the Wetherill brothers and Charles Mason in early 1890. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was excavated and eventually opened to visitors as part of the Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project. Along with the rest of Mesa Verde, Long House was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 1978.
Construction and Use
Long House is in a large south-facing alcove about 100 feet below the rim of the west side of Wetherill Mesa. It was built on top of an earlier Basketmaker III pithouse dating to 648 CE—the only Basketmaker III ruin at Wetherill Mesa that is not on top of the mesa. Like the other cliff dwellings in the area, Long House was built during the Pueblo III period (1150–1300 CE) of the Ancestral Puebloan tradition, when Mesa Verde residents began to move from mesa tops to cliff alcoves, perhaps for greater protection. It probably housed about 150 people at any given time and functioned as an administrative center for various smaller cliff dwellings nearby.
Long House was built in pieces between about 1200 and 1280, with each family constructing its own kiva and room suite, and grew to include 150 rooms and twenty-one kivas. Kivas—circular areas excavated into the ground—were the central residential structures at sites such as Long House. They could be used for residences and ritual gatherings and could 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.
In addition to standard kivas and room suites, Long House also had a large rectangular plaza that probably served as a great kiva, with nearby rooms functioning as part of a ceremonial complex. Other rooms not associated with a kiva may have been used for storage. On its top level, Long House had a long enclosed space with peepholes, which may have served a defensive purpose.
Like in the rest of the Mesa Verde region, Long House was evacuated in the final decades of the 1200s, when the Ancestral Puebloans 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.
Credit for rediscovering the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings on December 18, 1888, is traditionally assigned to rancher Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason. The men were searching for cattle with their Ute guide, Acowitz, when they first saw Cliff Palace. They explored it and soon discovered other cliff dwellings and pueblos nearby. Sometime in the winter of 1889–90, Mason and the four Wetherill brothers (Richard, John, Al, and Clayton) found another cliff dwelling that rivaled the size of Cliff Palace a few miles and several canyons to the west. They named it Long House—a fitting name, since the dwelling stretches the full extent of the largest occupied cave in Mesa Verde.
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 Long House. His book The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde (1893) played a crucial role in stimulating interest in the area’s archaeology. The artifacts he removed 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.
The decay of the cliff dwellings accelerated rapidly after their rediscovery, as they started to receive 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.
Wetherill Mesa Project
In 1906 the Mesa Verde area, including Long House, became a national park. During the park’s early decades, most preservation work and tourist activity was concentrated on Chapin Mesa, and the relatively inaccessible Wetherill Mesa sites remained largely undisturbed.
After World War II, a surge in visitation to Mesa Verde led to overcrowding at popular cliff dwellings such as Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace. To open more of the park to the public while also gathering new information about the area’s history, the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society launched the Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project in 1958. The largest and most significant archaeological undertaking at Mesa Verde in more than thirty years, the project recorded more than 800 sites and resulted in the excavation of six major cliff dwellings and mesa-top sites. The main attraction on Wetherill Mesa was Long House, which was excavated and stabilized beginning in October 1958 by George S. Cattanach Jr. and James “Al” Lancaster. Because little previous work had been done at Long House, they were able to recover thousands of stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts as well as perishable items such as sandals, yucca fibers, and arrow shafts. The excavation and stabilization were completed by the end of 1961.
The park service’s initial goal was for Wetherill Mesa to be developed to the same extent as Chapin Mesa to help spread crowds throughout the park. Early plans called for an elevator to take visitors from the mesa rim down to the Long House alcove, but that idea was delayed and ultimately scrapped after a Pueblo III kiva was found at the proposed base of the elevator. The Park Service later contemplated building an electric trolley system to ferry visitors throughout the area. After a decade of debates about funding and access, Wetherill Mesa finally opened to the public in 1973, with the first public tours of Long House taking place that summer. Only 10 percent of visitors made the trip to Wetherill Mesa, however, so the project failed to relieve congestion at Chapin Mesa.
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. Part of the money went toward a comprehensive map of Cliff Palace. The map showed that Cliff Palace has only 150 rooms, making it and Long House comparable in size. The two large dwellings would have served as contemporary centers that were less than four miles apart.
Today Long House can be toured from mid-May to late October each year. Despite its impressive size and beauty, Long House receives relatively few visitors because it requires a long drive and a two-mile ranger-guided hike. The lack of foot traffic may have saved it from the structural problems that in recent decades have plagued popular sites such as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House.