Spruce House is Mesa Verde's best preserved and third largest cliff dwelling. It was constructed between AD 1211 and AD 1278 and contains 130 rooms and 8 kivas built into a natural alcove.
The geology of Mesa Verde determined the sort of shelter the Anasazi had as well as the type of available water supply. The tan cliffs are sandstone, a porous rock which allows rain and snow to seep down into it. Beneath the sandstone is shale. The water cannot penetrate shale. When the water reaches the shale layer, it flows between the two layers until it emerges in the form of a seep spring. When the water freezes in winter, it cracks and breaks away pieces of sandstone. This cracking and collapsing process is what produces the overhangs in the cliff dwellings. This area has changed very little in the last 700-800 years. To the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, these canyons provided food, shelter, and other materials for daily survival. As at Cliff Palace, the people climbed up and down dirt slopes, going over or around large boulders. At the steeper areas of the cliff face, they carved small notches into the sandstone which were just deep enough to hold accommodate some toes and fingers. Using these "hand and toe hold" trails, they climbed up and down from the alcoves to the mesa tops.
The dwelling contains over a hundred rooms and eight kivas (ceremonial chambers), all built into a natural cave measuring 216 feet, width, and 89 feet, depth. It is thought to be home for about 100 people.
The first courtyard with its low wall, above, sets the area apart from a refuse dump which is under where I'm standing. The three-story wall of rooms in front - about 20 -each 6 x 8 x 5 - were inhabited by 1-2 people. They were primarily used as bedrooms or as work areas in inclement weather. During favorable weather, the families lived and worked in the courtyards, on the rooftops, and on their balconies. In winter, animal hides would cover the entrances or sandstone slabs, such as the one leaning against the wall, would be used. In the courtyard, the women would ground corn into flour, weave baskets, make pottery, and prepare food. They used grinding bins - a large flat stone called a matate. They would use a hand stone, or mano, to grind berries, roots, nuts, and corn. As the women ground the food, the sandstone grit would be mixed with the food. It is believed that this abrasive mixture would have ground down the teeth of the Anasazi, causing them great pain. The men would make stone tools, blankets out of turkey feathers or cotton, and plant and cultivate.
Spruce Tree cliff dwelling was first reported by two ranchers, searching for stray cows, in 1888. A large Douglas Spruce was growing from the front of the dwelling to the mesa top. It is said the men first entered the cliff dwellings by climbing down this tree.
After living on the mesa top for so long, one wonders why the people moved to these cliff dwellings. It was once thought that they moved here for security and defensive purposes, but there has been no evidence of hostile neighbors or warfare occurring. Perhaps they moved here to better protect themselves from the elements. Their reason for leaving is more certain. The Anasazi had lived on the Mesa Verde for over seven hundred years before they began constructing the cliff dwellings. During this time, the population was increasing rapidly. The land had been depleted from years of farming. Timber was becoming scarce. Their environmental resources were decreasing. The forage for game had diminished, thus forcing hunters farther away. Social stresses were in play. In addition to these problems, tree ring studies determine that the area suffered through a prolonged drought from about AD 1276 to AD 1299. The Anasazi eventually decided to leave. They started migrating south during the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Their current descendants are the Hopi and other Pueblo dwellers, living in northern New Mexico and Arizona. Apaches, Navajos, and Utes now occupy much of their domain.Archaeologists believe these kivas were ceremonial rooms where the Anasazi would gather to attend to the spiritual needs of the village. This is inferred from the kivas of modern day Pueblo peoples, who are believed to be descendants of the Anasazi. Certain men and women form a special society to care for the concerns of the village: ensuring rain and suitable growing weather for the crops, curing illnesses, guaranteeing successful harvests and hunts, bringing harmony to the village, ensuring perpetuation of the people. The kivas are religious structures and are sacred to the Pueblo people today. The kivas had a large pit in the center of the floor which was a fireplace. They also had a clever ventilation system. Fresh air was drawn from above through the ventilator shaft and would hit the deflector wall between the firepit and the shaft. Smoke rose vertically and out the roof. Next to the firepit is a small hole - the sipapu. The sipapu represents the opening through which man emerged onto the earth. It is important in certain ceremonies. Other small holes are also found - small niches in the walls. These niches held special ceremonial objects such as beads, prayer sticks, turquoise. There are six pillars, known as pilasters, built upon a bench, or banquette. The bench was used for storage of ceremonial objects, and the pilaster supported the beams of the roof.