Keet Seel is an amazingly well-preserved cliff dwelling at Navajo National Monument. Emily Long provides a description and the prehistory of this beautiful Ancestral Puebloan site.
Welcome to another episode of 365 days in archaeology. I’m Emily Long and I’m going to talk a little bit about one of my favorite archaeological sites in the American Southwest, Keet Seel.
From Mesa Verde to Chaco Canyon, the American Southwest holds unique archaeological ruins of massive pueblos and cliff dwellings dotting the landscape. How ancient peoples managed to survive and thrive in such challenging conditions (i.e. minimal rainfall, etc.) is truly impressive. One of my favorite cliff dwellings is Keet Seel, or Kawestima in the Hopi language, which is located at the incredibly remote Navajo National Monument in Arizona. *Keet Seel, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States, is truly an archaeological smorgasbord built by the Ancestral Puebloans. There are thousands of artifacts scatter around the site, well preserved rooms to peek into, and beautifully painted rock art. This cliff dwelling is not the easiest place to get to and it is closed to visitors much of the year. The 8-mile hike to Keet Seel winds through steep canyons with a 1,000 foot descent to the desert floor, and has visitors sloshing through muddy streams most of the way, but the site is worth every uncomfortable moment.
While walking towards the site, which is gated to protect the site from vandals, I see could wild horses grazing nearby. Then I was able to see the cliff dwelling. I walked along a narrow path towards the dwelling. Thousands of artifacts lay on either side of the path: painted ceramics, obsidian flakes, tiny corncobs, broken manos and metates—I was in artifact heaven. And then I got to go up into the cliff dwelling. The structures are spectacular and amazingly well-preserved. There are intact roof beams and jacal style walls. You can see fingerprints and corncobs embedded into the adobe walls. There are rock-lined milling bins with huge metates, all lined up for grinding corn. Painted images of animals and people are scattered throughout.
Like other cliff dwellings in the region, Keet Seel is situated in a niche oriented toward the southeast, providing shade during the hottest months and deriving heat from the winter sun. There is evidence of Basketmaker III style pithouses within the cliff area before the construction of the later larger adobe masonry structure. Construction of the pueblo began around 1250 AD, when considerable numbers of people were amassing at larger sites throughout the southwest. A total of 146 rooms were constructed. There are several distinctive features, such as a huge 180-foot retaining wall, as well as kivas and plazas. Construction peaked between 1272 and 1275 AD, but halted around 1286 AD. Approximately 150 people lived at Keet Seel during the height of construction. The site itself was abandoned by the Ancestral Puebloans during the early 1300s due to a combination of factors. Whether driven by drought, loss of farmland, or external pressures—or all of the above—the people of Keet Seel left and resettled at the Hopi Mesas.
This site is extremely fragile and is not accessible to visitors without a permit. Although in an isolated location, Keet Seel is under threat of looting and general off-season visitation. People are constantly getting “lost” by going off trail and trying to find the trail to Keet Seel, even though the site is a long 8 mile trek from the Visitors Center; maybe they think the rangers are lying about the distance—they’re not. True, this site is incredible and worth the trek to visit. However, how can we—as cultural resource managers—balance the importance of public education with preservation? Through a whole lot of educational outreach and preservation work!
When visiting fragile archaeological sites like Keet Seel, it is important to remember to be aware of your surroundings: don’t walk off the designated paths to get a closer look at artifacts, don’t sit or climb on the adobe walls, don’t touch the rock, and most of all, do not take any artifacts, stones, bits and pieces of adobe—not only is it unethical, it is illegal to take anything from archaeological sites or vandalize archaeological sites in any way on public lands, like the National Park Service. As ever, remember to visit with respect. Thanks for listening.