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Palatki Cliff Dwellings

The third cliff dwelling site we visited was Palatki in the red rock country outside of Sedona. Someone told me it’s the best archeological site in Arizona, which may or may not be true, I don’t know Arizona well enough to really say, but it’s a wonderful place, amazingly scenic, with cliff dwellings and a collection of pictographs and a nice little museum. Docents lead tours right up to the dwellings and pictographs, and though I’m not always a fan of tours, the docents gave a lot of good information.

There are two sets of dwellings, tucked under the arch you can see at the base of the cliff. The dwellings were occupied from around AD 1150 to 1350 while there was a year-round water source. Nomadic people, understandably, decided the area was too beautiful to leave and built the dwellings.

It’s charming how they incorporated the boulders that were too large to move. Personally, I’d be leery of building a house anywhere that such giant boulders were accustomed to falling, but maybe if you sleep tucked against the talus it’s like sheltering beside your bed during an earthquake. The structure is still standing, so maybe that’s proof of concept.

There’s a lovely pictograph up on the cliff above the structure, an image outlined by a white circle. The docent said it may be a clan symbol, possibly based on a bear’s paw. The main collection of pictographs is in a shallow cave in another part of the site, and the docent did a great job explicating the different styles and ages, but it was too much for me to really process. This one, a negative-space image of a bear’s paw sited high on the rock face, was my favorite.

It’s a beautiful site. I’d never been to the Sedona area, but it lived up to all of the hype.

Montezuma’s Castle and the Sedona Chapel

After Bandelier, I visited Montezuma’s Castle near Sedona, another wonderful cliff dwelling site, this one perched in an alcove about a hundred feet up on a vertical cliff. The building is in good shape, though for obvious reasons you don’t get to go up into it (the park service website has some photos of the interior). I can imagine how much work it took to haul rock and mud up a hundred feet of cliff, but it was worth it. A spectacularly sited building.

On the same day, I also saw the Chapel of the Holy Cross about ten miles away as the crow flies. Another spectacular little building. They are obviously from different traditions — I’ve read a few versions of the chapel’s origin story and nothing mentions Montezuma’s Castle as an influence — but I was struck by similarities in the spectacle they both present as they perch overhead on the rock. I love how the cruciform shape is adapted to the contours of the cliff. There aren’t many buildings that do that, so it was striking to look up at two of them on the same day.

Bandelier National Monument

Before Thanksgiving I took a brief trip through the southwest, including visits to several sites with cliff dwellings. Bandelier National Monument was the first, and my first time seeing cliff dwellings. A lot of fun. I was perhaps expecting the buildings to be a little more intact than they were, but it’s a great place and I loved going up into the cavates, the little caves that had been carved into the cliffside. Climbing up the ladders and crouching to go through the openings took me back to that feeling when I first saw illustrations and read about them as a kid.

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Mitla Stone Mosaics

Along with Monte Alban, I visited Mitla, another Zapotec site but from a later period and with a much different feel. The ruins are in the middle of a town, which makes for a strange juxtaposition, the second stories of several houses peaking over one of the walls and the town’s catholic church incorporating a couple of the old walls into its construction. I wandered onto the site before I even realized it, and at first glance it didn’t seem dramatic. But then I saw the stone mosaic panels and I was completely enchanted. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

The mosaics are wonderful, made with hundreds of individual stones fit together into repeating patterns, like brick diaperwork but with hand cut stone. I’ve read that the panels are based on weaving patterns. Though I think that theory is to some extent just speculation, it certainly seems plausible, and it’s fascinating to think of these as stone textiles and the masons as weavers. I’ve done a little bit of stone fretwork like this, and I am blown away that people did this a thousand years ago using just stone-bladed tools and maybe some form of abrasion.

The stone framing around the mosaic panels is quite sophisticated as well. The walls are three or four feet thick, and the panels are inset and laid as a veneer, with corniced stone courses overhanging them. It’s a more refined form of the detailing at Monte Alban, with a skill level that is obviously much higher, but also a stone that is easier to work as well. The stone is trachyte, a volcanic rock that is soft and relatively easy to work. The blocks have admirably crisp edges, though they are not standardized; virtually every course has an odd-dimensioned ‘closer’ stone to resolve the variations in the stones. Some of the courses are battered at the bases of the wall, and many of the stones are slightly trapezoidal instead of perfectly rectangular. Individual stones vary from fifteen-foot-long lintels and massive cylindrical columns that must weigh over ten tons to pieces the size of a finger.

The recessed stones in the mosaics were covered by red stucco when the site was occupied. Traces are visible if you click the photos to see them larger.

There are about 150 different panels. I didn’t take a photo of every single one, but quite a few of them are below. (more…)

Monte Albán Stone

On my Oaxaca trip I went to Monte Albán, a Zapotec archeological site just outside of Oaxaca City. It’s one of the best ruins that I’ve visited, wonderfully sited on a ridge with views of the surrounding valley, though the air was depressingly smoggy when I visited. I’ve read a bit on the history of the site, but for the most part I just admire it as a stonemason and designer. The thousand plus years of builders did a terrific job, with a beautiful layout and detailing.

Virtually everything on the site is laid out orthogonally except this one building with a strange pentagonal shape in the main plaza’s central cluster. It’s sometimes called the ‘Observatory’ because it’s believed to be aligned with a a star cluster. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the shape and alignment add an element of mystery. It felt like the masterstroke of the site.

The stonework is beautiful, with coursed, rectangular stone and crazy-patterned, irregular stone often combined in the same wall, sometimes with carved stelae as well. There are several kinds of corners: plumb, battered, lazy, and corniced; and three kinds of vertical surfaces: plumb and battered walls, and the angle made by the steps to the buildings. It’s great how they all combine; there’s enough repetition to give it cohesion but enough contrast to make it interesting.

That’s a beautiful corner detail no matter what century you build it in.

Some of the mortar joints have pebbles in the mud, probably for practical reasons but also creating a nice ornamental effect.

I’m note sure if these stelae are original; a lot of the stelae were moved inside to the site’s museum for protection and replaced by replicas; that’s clearly not the original mortar around these ones. The stelae are subtle but quite nice, worth clicking on to see them larger. Photos of stelae inside the museum are below the jump.

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Recycled Countertop Patio

This patio was an interesting one-off. I built it with a friend of mine as an addendum to his project. He wanted a sitting place up here on the hill above his house. There’s a good view, but more importantly there’s a feeling of separation from life down below, from the demands of work, kids, bills, etc… A place for respite. We called it the chill spot though I don’t think he meant that literally and we’re getting a little old to be using that phrase.

We made the patio from recycled countertops that someone was giving away. I don’t know how replicable that is, it was just dumb luck that I stumbled on them, but I loved working with them. They’d be a little slippery for a more conventional patio with regular traffic, but they work great up here. I cut a few of the pieces in order to align the joints and edges but they came with mostly regular dimensions and went together lickety split, the quickest, cheapest patio I’ve ever built. Carrying up the dog statue, made of solid concrete, was the hardest part of the whole project.

A couple of photos with the grass cut back are below.
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