Sunday, June 1, 2014

Puye Cliff Dwellings

On Saturday we headed out to the Puye Cliff Dwellings in Santa Clara Canyon on Santa Clara Pueblo land near Espanola. We headed toward Santa Fe, then toward Bandelier and then trusted the "smart phone" to get us the rest of the way. Where could they be? We were driving for about an hour and a half without seeing any cliffs or places cliff dwellings could be located. Then, as we rounded a corner, up popped several mesas. We found the gas station where you purchase tour tickets, filled up the tank, got our combined Cliff Side and Mesa tour tickets and then meandered the 15 minutes up to the National Historic Landmark that is the Puye Cliff Dwellings. The site was inhabited from around 900 - 1580 AD by 1500 or so Pueblo Indians that were ancestors of today's Santa Clara People. The site was excavated in 1907. It sits on the Pajarito Plateau which is volcanic tuff and basalt and was formed when the Jemez Valles Caldera Supervolcano erupted. There are only six known supervolcanoes on dry land with only another 6 or so underwater - The Jemez Valles Caldera is one of them. Now to the interesting stuff.

This tour is fantastic! Our guide was Elija Smith of the Santa Clara Pueblo. He is intelligent, courteous, knowledgeable and his historical, direct relationship with this place and its history clearly makes him an educator and not just a tour guide. Much of what he explained about the site came from information he learned from his relatives. We started the tour with some basic information about the 1907 excavation by Edgar Hewitt and his relationship with the Santa Clara Pueblo. There are two levels of cave and cliff dwellings and a village on top of the mesa built around a plaza. The caves were excavated by hand or with wooden tools. The holes that line up were where poles projected out from the cliff to create the outer room roofs and framework. Caves provided the rest of the dwellings and usually went one or two rooms into the cliff. The walls were plastered and often valuables were placed in cubbies that were plastered over. Petroglyphs adorned the outside on each level and included original Pueblo-made carvings with additional things added by Spaniards. The site was abandoned during drought and the Pueblo moved to its current location closer to water.

Up we went on a paved trail to the base of the cliff. Elija would stop to explain pottery shards we encountered or depressions in the rock or other features. There are pottery shards all over the site and he explained the pottery making process that his Pueblo still uses to make beautiful pottery from things of the earth. He explained the many types of pottery that were made and/or were traded. After learning about the cliff dwellings we headed up what appeared as a sort of slough going to the mesa top. His ancestors carved a path for rainwater to move from the mesa top, down the cliff face and down to the waffle-style gardens. I would love to be there when it rains to see and hear water travel down this chute! Carvings are everywhere on the rock face and he was careful to explain the meaning of many of them.

Up on top of the mesa the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. From up top you could see forever! He explained that the cliffs were used in the winter and people moved up top during the warmer months. We saw ruins of hundreds of rooms that would have been the first floor of multi-story pueblos with a plaza in the center. A partially reconstructed building sits among the ruins and a ceremonial kiva that is original except for the roof rounded out the tour. It is the stories and personal knowledge that made this a wonderful experience. Seeing how people lived and seeing/hearing how a culture is passed on and preserved is simply a great thing. Our guide spoke his Pueblo's language and explained how it is being passed on. He explained the relationship his Pueblo has/had with other Pueblos. "Puye" means a place where rabbits gather - we saw lots of evidence of that up on the mesa! Like many parks/monuments etc there is a visitor's center with artifacts displayed and a video of Elija talking about learning pottery making with his mother and daughter. It is the personal experience and desire to educate that made this place come alive!

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