In July my family enjoyed several days exploring Mesa Verde National Park in Southwest Colorado. Sometime during the late 1190s, ancestral Puebloans began living in dwellings they built beneath overhanging cliffs. They farmed the mesa tops above them. These cliff dwellings ranged in size from one-room storage units to villages of over 150 rooms.
The people used sandstone, mortar and wooden beams to construct their dwellings. Sandstone blocks were shaped with harder stones and then stacked upon one another. Mortar made from soil, water and ash was used to fill the spaces between the blocks. And among these primitive dwellings I saw evidence of coatings. The people decorated the surfaces of many walls with earthen plasters made from sand or clay. The plasters were a variety of colors, including pink, brown, red, yellow or white – depending on the sand or clay that was used. And just like walls in modern-day homes that have accumulated layers of different paint colors throughout the life of the home, archaeologists have found many layers of different-colored plaster that the ancestral Puebloans applied over the years as they refreshed or made repairs to their homes. The plasters were most likely applied by hand, as you can still see handprints and fingerprints in some places.
Paintings can also be found among the ruins. Painted figures can be seen on plastered walls, as well as on the rocks that encase the cave dwellings. These painted figures can also be found on the pottery that was left behind. The people used pigments from local plants to create their elaborately decorated vessels.
And what did they use to paint with? The yucca plant grows in abundance in the area’s hot and dry climate. The Puebloan tribes found many uses for this plant, including collecting the fine fibers that grow on it to create paint brushes.
I have included a few of my photos, including a close up showing the fibers on a yucca plant, and the interior walls of one dwelling that show a bit of pink plaster. It was truly amazing to see how these ancient people lived – and exciting to discover that they too enjoyed beautifying their homes and everyday objects with coatings!