Navajo National Monument and It’s Ancestral Puebloan Cliff Dwellings


Navajo National Monument and It’s Ancestral Puebloan Cliff Dwellings

Navajo National Monument is a national monument in Arizona, USA that is “famous” for its remarkable history and heritage. The monument is located with

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Navajo National Monument is a national monument in Arizona, USA that is “famous” for its remarkable history and heritage. The monument is located within the territory of the Navajo Nation, hence its name. It is situated not far from the town of Tonalea, in northeastern Arizona. The Navajo National Monument is known primarily for its three well-preserved and elaborate cliff dwellings of an ancient Native American culture called the Ancestral Puebloans. These three sites are Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House.

At least one of these three cliff dwelling sites was known to the Navajo prior to the arrival of the first white American settlers to the area in the 19th century.

Navajo National Monument was established by the federal government in the 20th century, which was also when the excavations of these three remarkable sites was undertaken.

In the USA, a national monument is a protected area, like a national park, but with some differences. One of these is the amount of diversity protected. “National monuments aim to preserve at least one unique resource but do not have the diversity of a national park.”

Native American cliff dwellings at the Betatakin Ruin site in the precinct of the Navajo National Monument Arizona, USA. ( Phil Gates / Adobe Stock)

Navajo National Monument: Stunning Preserved Cliff Dwellings

In the case of the Navajo National Monument, the unique resource under protection are three separate cliff dwelling sites built by the Ancestral Puebloans (known also as the Anasazi), an ancient Native America culture that once occupied the Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet).

Between 1250 and 1300 AD, the Ancestral Puebloans began to build cliff dwellings, of which the three in the Navajo National Monument are reputed to be amongst the best-preserved and most elaborate. It is thought that during this time, there was a need amongst the Ancestral Puebloans for easily defended dwellings.  

Towards the end of the 13th century, however, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned their cliff dwellings. It is believed that some cataclysmic event forced this hasty abandonment, though archaeologists are uncertain as to what this event might have been.

The most common theory is that heavy soil erosion resulting from climate change forced the Ancestral Puebloans to abandon their cliff dwellings. In any case, since the cliff dwellings were built in an area with a dry climate, and under stone overhangs, they were preserved, and awaited their rediscovery by future archaeologists.

The north end of the interior of the Navajo National Monument's Keet Seel ruins. (PatrickRapps / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The north end of the interior of the Navajo National Monument’s Keet Seel ruins. (PatrickRapps / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The three cliff dwellings in the Navajo National Monument have been given the names Betatakin ( Navajo for “Ledge House”), Keet Seel (Navajo for “Broken Pottery”), and Inscription House. These three cliff dwelling locations were built in large, natural alcoves, which were formed by local geological conditions.

The area’s geology contains the porous Navajo Sandstone Formation, and the less porous Kayenta Formation, consisting of limestone and shale. When flowing water encounters the latter, its direction changes, causing the rock to crack, sheet, and spall. Over time, the alcoves are formed.

Keet Seel, the largest of the three sites, was investigated by Byron Cummings, an archaeologist, and John Wetherill, a local rancher, in 1907. The site was known to the local Navajos prior to these investigations. This cliff dwelling contained a total of 160 rooms and 6 kivas (ceremonial houses).

The two other sites, Betatakin, and Inscription House, were investigated two years later. These two cliff dwellings are smaller than Keet Seel. Betatakin contains 135 rooms, while Inscription House has 74 rooms and a kiva. Incidentally, Inscription House, unlike the other two sites, does not have a Navajo name. This name was given to this cliff dwelling site by Cummings and Wetherill based on a graffiti they found on a wall that dated to 1661. This also indicates that someone else had visited the site long before the two men.

A closeup of the Keet Seel cliff dwellings in the Navajo National Monument. (Public domain)

A closeup of the Keet Seel cliff dwellings in the Navajo National Monument. ( Public domain )

Navajo National Monument: Open to Tourists Since 1909!

In 1906, the Antiquities Act was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, which allowed national monuments to be created. Three years later, in 1909, the Navajo National Monument was established.

Navajo National Monument has been a tourist attraction since 1909, though Inscription House was closed to the public in 1968 and remains closed off from the public.

As for the two other cave dwellings, they can be visited via the Betatakin Cliff Dwelling Guided Tour, and the Keet Seel Cliff Dwelling Tour. Additionally, three other three self-guided trails are offered within the national monument: the Sandal, Aspen, and Canyon View trails. Only the Sandal Trail offers a view of the cliff dwellings apart from the two guided tours.

Other amenities at the Navajo National Monument include a visitor center, which comprises a museum, an auditorium, a park store, and a front desk, as well as two free campgrounds. The national park is open throughout the year, which the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, it is currently closed till further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic .

Top image: Hunts Mesa in the Navajo National Monument, which has three well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan people’s cliff dwellings.     Source: Bill45 / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren