The next time you look south toward the Mesa Verde escarpment, imagine prehistoric Pueblo villages from 1,000 years ago with reservoirs, farms, stone dwellings, kivas and perhaps signal fires to communicate town to town.
For the past three years, the Bureau of Land Management area just below Mesa Verde National Park has been surveyed by a group of archaeologists led by Kelsey Reese, a doctoral candidate for archaeology at the University of Notre Dame. The researchers had BLM permission to enter the area, which has no general public access because it is hemmed in by private land.
As part of the Four Corners Lecture series, Reese recently shared some of her findings to a packed house at the Methodist Church in Cortez.
The villages are evenly spaced along an east-west line and are labeled Hindmarsh, Line-of-Site, Knife-edge Ridge, and Viets.
“They are relatively contemporaneous, and are pretty much organized the same,” she said. It appears there is pattern of a reservoir in the middle of each habitation.
Their estimated occupation dates range from the years 920 to 1180 for the two eastern villages, and from 1020 to 1300 for the two western villages.
There has been this “assumption that not much was going on” in the rugged, dry and steep escarpment in prehistoric times, Reese said. But the 2017-2019 surveys showed there was settlement made possible by engineered reservoir systems.
It is estimated that during the occupation, 530 to 1100 people called the villages and farms on the escarpment home.
To tease out the locations of hard-to see reservoirs and other buried structures, Reese and her crew used drone technology, a type of laser-radar called lidar, and 3-D photogrammetry.
Hiking up and down talus slopes day after day was also required to map out the ancient villages. They revisited 96 previous sites and discovered 59 unrecorded sites.
The ancient reservoirs detected at each village were situated to capture rain water flowing down the arroyos from above, Reese said. There is evidence that points to ancient canals as well.
“There was a lot of water moving through this area, and each reservoir was placed strategically to capture water coming off the escarpment,” she said. “The communities were harnessing that.”
Occupation at Line of Site and Hindmarsh began first, starting in the early 10th century. The flat area of Hindmarsh reservoir site was used 700 years later by cowboys as a horse corral.
At Knife-edge, the community took advantage of pocket of land that has south-facing slope more ideal for farming corn. Nearby is another prehistoric reservoir.
The family who homesteaded the land understood it was an ancient reservoir and enhanced it, Reese said. The family regularly cleaned out a ditch that fed it. A lidar survey may reveal it was an original canal built by the ancestral Puebloans to feed the catchment.
The survey showed that the villages are situated on broad, flatter talus slopes where the soil is not good for farming. But the ridges in between have red, lush soil with no habitation, except for field houses, an indication that is where the farming took place.
The villages also have structures on high points and peaks above the reservoirs with a line of sight to the village next door. It’s possible fires were used to communicate with each other.
The study “shows significant use of the high points between 1100 and mid 1200’s,” Reese noted.
The westward moving pattern of occupation pattern on the escarpment coincides with the same western and southern movement of communities on the top of the mesa at Mesa Verde National Park. Some of the prehistoric routes and canals on the north facing hillsides were later made into roads by, pioneers, miners and ranchers.
Slopes leading up and over the rim of Mesa Verde gave the escarpment people and their mesa top neighbors social access to each other, Reese said.
“You can sense how they fit together,” she said. “The (escarpment) sites have major social significance, and had not been fully documented or interpreted.”
The early Native American villages also provide a case study on the long-term impacts of climate change on subsistence farming communities and migration.
The talk was sponsored by the local Hisatsinom Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society.