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Earth Notes: Ancestral architecture

One of the dwellings at Wupatki National Monument in Arizona
Melissa Sevigny
One of the dwellings at Wupatki National Monument in Arizona.

Throughout the southwest are thousands of villages that were once the homes and gathering places for ancestral Pueblo peoples. Ranging in size from small pit-houses dug into the earth, to multi-storied villages with hundreds of rooms, these structures represent the last thousand years of Indigenous skill and ingenuity.

In places such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Wupatki, you can still see the standing architecture built by the ancestors of present-day Pueblo tribes. The construction of these villages includes natural materials such as quarried rock and flagstone, soil mortars, and hundreds of thousands of wooden beams. Some of these materials were gathered at great distance, requiring detailed planning, and enormous efforts of physical labor to harvest and transport.

At Mesa Verde, sandstone blocks, shaped like bread loafs, were used to construct large villages within deep canyon alcoves, and out among the sagebrush plains. Chaco Canyon builders assembled massive Great Houses, with walls up to 4 stories high and displaying intricate patterns of stonework. At Wupatki, the reddish Moenkopi sandstone provided flat slabs of rock that were used to build towering villages amongst a vast expanse of ancient lava flows and black sand.

One can imagine living inside these places. Illuminated by flickering fire or dusty sunrays, scented of mud and wood, enveloped by insulating masonry walls. Qualities that reflected the ancestral peoples creation stories, and their enduring connections to earth and sky.

This Earth Note was written by Lyle Balenquah and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Lyle Balenquah, Hopi, is a member of the Greasewood Clan from the Village of Paaqavi ("Reed Springs Place") on Third Mesa, located in northeastern Arizona. He currently works as an archaeologist, as well as a river and hiking guide across the Four Corners region. Through his work he advocates for the protection and preservation of ancestral landscapes, combining his professional training with personal experiences and insights about Hopi culture and history.
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