5 July 2010

Bandelier National Monument

Posted by Jessica Ball

One of the neat things about Los Alamos is that Bandelier National Monument is only a few minutes away. The volcanic tuff at Bandelier erupted from the Valles caldera about 1.25 million years ago, but it’s not just a site of geologic interest; it’s also an archaeological site. Bandelier refers to Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier, a Swiss-American archaeologist who conducted research into the history of the Pueblo people in the American southwest.
On the drive to the park visitor center, there’s some fantastic columnar jointing in the tuff. (Columnar jointing occurs when hot volcanic material, either a lava flow or pyroclastic deposit, cools from the outside in and shrinks, forming cracks. These cracks often create geometric shapes that extend down into a deposit, creating columns.)
In the Frijoles Canyon, there are scads of cliff dwellings and the ruins of villages of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who moved into the region around 10,000 years ago. (They were formerly called “Anasazi” by archaeologists, but today’s Pueblo people consider the Navajo term disrespectful). The village below was most highly developed in the late 1400s, and contained multistory dwellings and storage buildings. 
The cliff dwellings at Bandelier are located mostly on the south side of the canyon, which means that they stay cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. It was a very hot day when I visited, and there was a significant temperature drop once you were sheltered by the cliffs. 
Many of the cliff dwellings used to have structures built in front of them, leaving the caves as back rooms. Holes for the ceiling poles are still visible in the tuff, which is relatively soft and quite easy to hollow out.
One of the most interesting sites in this area of the park is known as the Alcove House, a huge shallow cave in the canyon wall. It holds a reconstructed kiva and the remnants of dwellings, but it’s quite a challenge to reach  – and not at all fun for anyone who’s afraid of heights! Like many of the other cliff dwellings in the park, the Alcove House is only accessibly by ladder; unlike the dwellings in the earlier photos, the ladders are very long (140 feet altogether). The photo below shows one of three that you have to climb to get up there!
It’s a little hard to take photos of the whole alcove when you’re in it, but the view down Frijoles Canyon is excellent. It also highlights how the natural propensity of the Bandelier tuff to erode into caves – something that the first visitors to the canyon certainly noticed and took advantage of!
I only had one day to explore Bandelier, which is unfortunate (it has more than 70 miles of trails), b
ut I’m glad I had the chance to visit on this trip. This area offers a fascinating blend of volcanology and archaeology, something that I (with my sadly unused archaeology minor) really appreciate.