Earth Notes: The Cedar Mesa Building Murals Project

Jun 23, 2021

Cedar Mesa, in the southern Bears Ears region of Utah, is home to many ancestral Pueblo cliff-dwellings: for archaeologists, it’s a research Shangri La.

File image: Cedar Mesa National Monument, Moon House
Credit Bureau of Land Management

The ancient kivas and common living areas are adorned with intricate plaster murals and etchings. Some replicate the intricate patterns of yucca plants, others cotton textiles. They are an invaluable resource for learning about the ancestral Puebloan communities that occupied the area more than 700 years ago.

They are also incredibly fragile. To study the murals and help protect them from looting, increased visitation and time, Tucson-based archaeologist Benjamin Bellorado embarked on a mission called the Cedar Mesa Building Murals Project, a partnership involving federal archaeologists with the Bureau of Land Management and the University of Arizona School of Anthropology and Laboratory of Tree-Ring Dating.

Bellorado spent five years exploring the Cedar Mesa area with a cadre of volunteers, documenting intact plaster murals. Some were high up in cliffs, others were in the bottoms of lush, winding canyons. The team took samples from preserved wooden beams to date the building decorations based on the time of construction, and to correlate how changing textile patterns are reflected in mural artwork.

The data collected in Bellorado’s study suggests the murals represented diverse social identities, sometimes depicting broad political and religious systems. The findings have been developed into a comprehensive online lecture and webinar.

This Earth Note was written by Thomas Huck and produced by KNAU as part of a student collaboration with the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.