Growing up in Pennsylvania, I never knew of the ancient ruins that could be seen in our country. When I took a job at Mesa Verde National Park, in southwest Colorado, it was the first I had ever been in cliff dwellings inhabited by ancient people. Since that job, I have visited other ruins. Most recently, I toured Wupatki National Monument, near Flagstaff, AZ.
First farmed around 500 A.D., inhabitants lived on the land surrounded by the San Franciscan mountains on one side and the Painted Desert on the other. Around 1040 to 1100 a nearby volcano, Sunset Crater, began to erupt. Imagine what the people must have thought was happening! Although the area was abandoned for the years at the height of the volcanic eruption, the people returned when the volcano quieted. A fine ash covered the land, actually improving the farmer’s ability to retain water and continue growing their crops. Some of the ruins are found next to box canyons that would have been farmed due to the moisture from the rains being retained longer there, than in the arid desert.
The area was also an important trade route. Evidence of interaction with southern indigenous people is found in a ball court mimicking older ones found in Mexico. A walled area where games were held is still standing. Items, such as pottery, with origins as far away as the Gulf and the Pacific coasts have been found in Wupatki.
Vast ruins in the Wupatki area evidence a large farming community spread over several miles. But, by 1250, the pueblos stood empty. The reason isn’t known, but could be simply due to a prolonged drought. The people are thought to have moved further south into AZ and built cliff dwellings. Montezuma’s Castle is a ruin close to Phoenix where they may have gone, and that I need to explore.
by Diane Moore
photos by Diane Moore