Puye Cliffs

Ever wonder what it might be like to live in a cave?  Last weekend, when Jim and I drove out to Puye Cliffs to participate in their Open House, I had a chance to examine that question up close and personal.

Doorways in the Rock

Doorways in the Rock

As so often on such expeditions, our friend Michael Wester was with us.  During the nearly two hour drive north from Albuquerque, our conversation ranged from the prehistoric peoples who had occupied the land over which we traveled, to the very modern issues of  computer technology, to the role of entropy in the choices we make.  The weather noticeably cooled as we moved north.  The pale green of the cottonwoods showed as a pale ribbon of green that meandered through the darker greens of the pinyon and juniper, contrasting against the golden brown of rock and sand.

When we arrived at Puye (pronounced “poo-yay”), the cliffs dominated the landscape, their color shifting from grey-brown to almost golden, depending on the light.  Since the day was partly cloudy, we had ample opportunity to enjoy the shifting hues and enjoy the crisp mid-morning air.

For the first hour or so of our visit, we observed the cliffs from below.  The small Puye Cliffs museum and gift shop occupies a former Harvey House, built in the 1930’s to cater to tourists who found the newly expanding railroad a wonderful way to explore the Wild West.  According to the brochure, “puye” means “place where the rabbits gather,” a name that provides at least one indication as to why the area was originally settled.

As part of the Open House, Jim was giving a flintknapping demonstration.  As he used hammer stones and  pieces of deer antler to break off flakes that might eventually be turned into arrowheads, I helped by explaining what he was doing to groups which included both residents of Santa Clara pueblo and tourists in for the day.

In between batches of visitors, I soaked in Chuck Hannaford’s explanations of the various primitive tools and weapons that are part of the kit used in the educational outreach program sponsored by the Office of Archaeological Studies where Chuck and Jim both work.  I already knew that the arrowhead was considered the “disposable” part of a spearhead or atlatl dart.  However, many of the creative ways the primitive weapons makers had come up with to preserve the valuable straight wooden shafts were new to me.

Several tour groups came and went, then it was our turn to ascend the cliffs.

Our guide was Sam, a big burly man from Santa Clara pueblo, the Tewa group that is descended from the original inhabitants of these cliffs.  There is still some debate as to where the inhabitants of Puye Cliffs came from originally.  Some say they came from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.  However, many archeologists now feel the inhabitants were present in the Rio Grande valley long before the migrations from further north.  Either way, Sam’s ancestors have lived in this region for thousands of years.

The cliff dwellings were in use when the Spanish came into New Mexico in 1598, although much of the population had moved into the lowlands where there was better farming and more water.    During the pueblo revolt of 1680, the cliffs became one of the strongholds of the revolt.  Today, the caves are vacant.  However, Sam’s tour was sprinkled with anecdotes related to his own childhood, of visiting the cliffs with his father (who was also a guide) and of splashing with his brother in the water held in a catch basin built by his long-ago ancestors to supply their needs.

Puye Cliffs are made from relatively soft volcanic tuff – a stone formed from dense concentrations of volcanic ash.  In this case, the ash was supplied by the explosion that created the Valles Caldera, a massive explosion that scattered debris as far as Kansas and Louisiana.  The tuff could be easily hollowed out, making small caves that held heat in the winter and remained cool in the summer.  The interior of these caves was plastered to help improve the natural insulation.  Where the rocky shelf outside the caves permitted, blocks of tuff were used as bricks to make more roomy habitations.  Although these exterior structures were gone, we could still see the holes in the cliff face where the narrow logs used to support the roofs had once rested.

Since the cliff dwellings occupied several levels connected by ladders, they reminded me of apartment buildings.  As we walked along the trail, Sam pointed out various petroglyphs etched into the stone.  In many cases, the pictures were the clan signs of the group that had occupied that particular area.  Sometimes more than one clan sign was displayed side by side  and may have indicated closely related clans.

Sam pointed out places where the interior of the caves had been sculpted to make living more comfortable.  Among the most common adaptations were hollowed areas meant to hold water jugs.  As Sam explained with a grin, water was very precious and in those relatively crowded spaces, it would be all too easy for an overactive child to spill the supplies.  One of my favorite caves was the one where a weaver had once lived.  Two holes in the wall showed where the top of the loom had been anchored.

The cliff dwellings were not the only place the inhabitants resided.  On top of the mesa was a sprawling pueblo (now little more than a mound with scattered courses of blocks indicating where the rooms once stood).   Here, too, were the kivas – the rounded buildings in which sacred dances and other rituals were held.  All of this was framed by wide reaching views over the green forests, to the surrounding mountains.

Today, it is hard to imagine the vibrant community that once must have lived here.  The quiet, windswept areas seem to belong very much to the snakes, rabbits, and birds that we glimpsed.   One of Sam’s favorite stories was about the mountain lion who rambled among the caves just last year.  Needless to say, tours were halted until the puma moved on, but Sam showed us a place where the big cat had leapt to use one of the ladders, scraping its claws against the soft stone, leaving its own mark to join the petroglyphs of the former inhabitants.

I found myself wondering what it would have been like to live at Puye.  Would I have chosen one of the cave dwellings, neat and snug, caught between earth and sky?  Would I have preferred to live on top of the mesa where the views stretch seemingly forever?

I’m not sure which would have been better..  I do know that I’ll go back someday.  Maybe then I’ll decide.

5 Responses to “Puye Cliffs”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    That sounds like a lot of fun. I hadn’t heard of Puye Cliffs before either, so I really appreciate the account.

    On a side note, I’d read about disposable arrowheads in a series of four books called The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible. I’m not an archer, but I’ve found it immensely informative, and quite fun to read, if technical. The issue with arrows that Jane brought up is that shafts are harder to make than arrowheads. With the shaft, you have to straighten it, put the flight feathers on straight, and tune the arrow by fiddling with the length, diameter, and the arrowhead weight so that it hits its target when shot with that particular bow. The thing I didn’t realize until I read those books is that a bow is effectively a complex two-spring system: the bow is a (very complex) spring, and oddly enough, the arrow is a spring too, and it bends as it leaves the bow. The archer has to make sure that bow and arrow springs bend and release in harmony, or the arrow’s going to sproing away and not hit where it’s aimed. With the arrowhead, the major trick is to get the weight right, so that the arrow is properly balanced and not too tip-heavy or tip-light. Atlatls are two-spring systems too, and have the same issues.

  2. paulgenesse Says:

    What an amazing post. Beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing all of that. It was fascinating, and reminded me of my own trips into the pueblos of Northern Arizona. I really need to read another of Craig Child’s books, as they are filled with information like you wrote, and celebrate the beauty of such places.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks, Paul. I haven’t been to many of the northern AZ pueblos, but plan to get that way. I’d also like to tour Canyon de Chelly.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I’m reading Childs’ Apocalyptic Planet right now, and I strongly recommend Secret Knowledge of Water as well.

  3. CBI Says:

    A decade or so ago, I was a parent chaperone for one of my kid’s field trip to the pueble at Bandelier NM. I wish we’d’ve had your guides! We had some fairly basic questions as to pueblo and cliff-dwelling life (e.g., what is euphemistically refered to as “sanitation”), and the guide was at a loss.

    A few years ago my son and I had a great lector/docent at Canyon de Chelly. She was Navajo, and had some interesting insights and speculation on the pre-historical Navajo separation from the Apaches, the transition of Navajos into sheepherders, and other such things.

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