Site History: Mug House, Wetherill Mesa
by Kathleen Fiero, NPS

Mug House is one of the typical mid-size cliff dwellings on the west side of Mesa Verde National Park. This cliff dwelling contains approximately 100 defined spaces--ceremonial rooms, towers, storage rooms, courtyards, dwelling rooms, mealing areas, and terraces. The alcove is 67 m long by 13 m deep. The site is on three levels with two ledges within the alcove 5m above the main portion of the site. Rooms of various functions are located on both the floor of the alcove and the larger ledge. All four rooms on the small ledge were for storage. There is no spring in this west-facing alcove. The closest springs are to the north 2.4 km or to the south, below Jug House, 0.8 km. But down canyon from the site 200m is a constructed reservoir that was undoubtedly built and used by the occupants of Mug House. It is 7 m long by 3 m high by 1m deep and Rohn (1971:65) estimates that it could hold 23,000-27,000 liters of water. This reservoir collects water which runs off the slick rock on the mesa top.

Mug House first became known when it was mentioned briefly by Gustaf Nordenskiold as Ruin 19 in his The Cliff Dwellers of the Mesa Verde (1893). He states (1893:35) that his excavations in the site were not extensive. Perforated shells and two decorated pots are mentioned in the text as well as a hearth in one room [of which there is a drawing based on a photograph by Nordenskiold (Fig. 18, page 35)]. Objects from Mug House are illustrated at the end of the text: a ladle, a bowl fragment with interior and exterior decoration, a bowl fragment with a bird design on the exterior, a pitcher, six stone axes, a hafted ax from a kiva, a tchamahia (called by Nordenskiold a skinning knife, two knives (one called a spear head), hammer (with hafting grooves), three bone awls, a bone of unknown function labeled an awl, a bone scraper, a wood handle (from an ax), a decorated piece of cotton cloth and a number of perforated shells. Prior to Nordenskiold's work in the site, it had been named "Mug House" by the local Wetherill brothers because of a cluster of mugs found and collected from the site. This was probably done in the winter of 1889-90. There is an inscription in the rear of Mug House, "Wetherill 1890."

Mug House was part of the West Side Expedition lead by Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Jesse Nusbaum in 1928 (Rohn 1971:6). This work was sponsored by John D. Rockefeller with the goal of salvaging objects from disturbed deposits to place in the park's new museum (Smith 1987:11). There is no published account of exactly where they worked or what they removed from the site. In the 1930s depression-era, project funds (Works Progress Administration) were used to repair/stabilize a number of large cliff dwellings, cliff dwellings open to the public and others like Mug House that were not. These are the first repairs made to the site. Twenty days were spent in the site in 1935. Then in the late 1950s Mug House was selected as one of three cliff dwellings on Wetherill Mesa to be excavated during the Wetherill Mesa Project. The impetus for this project was to relieve some of the congestion in the cliff dwellings open to the public on Chapin Mesa. The other two cliff dwellings excavated during this project were Long House and Step House. Long House and Step House are now open for visitation in the summer. Mug House was excavated and stabilized but has never been opened to the general public. Visitation levels on Wetherill Mesa have not necessitated the opening of a third cliff dwelling.

Excavation and Stabilization

Excavation and stabilization of Mug House began in 1960 and took eleven months: six months in 1960 and five months in 1961. Walls and features were stabilized soon after their exposure. Arthur H. Rohn (1971) was in charge of the excavation of Mug House and his report on that excavation is a classic for that genre: well written, thoughtful, complete. Rohn isolated three periods of occupation of the Mug House alcove with the last occupation the one visible today. The first occupation, his Component A, dates to the mid 11th century, and probably consisted of one small house unit, a living room, storage room and kiva. Component B consisted of three rooms on the upper ledge, the early version of Kiva D and somewhat later Kiva B with its associated rooms. This component dates to the late 11th century. The final appearance of the site is Component C and dates from A.D. 1204 through the 1270s with the majority of construction between A.D. 1250 and 1266 (Dean 2001:6). The last date from the site is A.D. 1276. This is the site that one sees today and the one that will be discussed below.

Rohn (1971: Chapter 2) discusses three levels of spatial organization within the site of Mug House. He calls these levels of complexity and feels that they result from the sharing, cooperation, and interaction of the individuals that built and lived in Mug House. At the lowest level are the 3-9 rooms that are connected by doorways. This unit contains a living room with a hearth and several storage rooms. He terms this a suite. The composition of a suite often changed through time with the addition and abandonment of rooms. This reflects the changing needs of the socio-economic unit through time. Rohn delineated a minimum of thirteen suites in Mug House and feels there were approximately twenty at any one time (1971:37). Several of these suites plus a kiva and courtyard make up a courtyard unit. Mug House contains four courtyard units. The physical layout of each of these courtyards, and the suites of which they are made, changed through time. Finally the site is divided by a wall with three courtyard units to the north of the wall and one to the south. This is a common attribute in Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and suggests a dual division of the social unit living in the site. Mug House has a tower and mealing area associated with each of the divisions. Rohn's fourth level of complexity is the community which would include individuals living in structures close enough to Mug House for them to interact on a daily basis.

Mug House today is stabilized. The trash and dirt that had accumulated over the years has been removed and the walls repaired by replacing deteriorated stones and missing mortar. During its occupation, Mug House undoubtedly looked like any modern village with rooms being built as others were abandoned and collapsing, dirt and trash accumulating in little-used corners. Excavation made clear that room function changed through time. A storage room in one period would be converted to a dwelling space at another time. Rohn identified four courtyard complexes in Mug House. The earliest centered around Kiva B and probably dates to the early or mid eleventh century. During the later occupation of Mug House, Kiva B was abandoned and Kiva A was built (A.D. 1262) and served the needs of the occupants of this courtyard. Kiva C and Room 28 were built in 1205 and are the earliest new construction in the alcove during the 13th century occupation of the site. Rohn feels that there was only one courtyard at the south end of the site--Courtyard E-F, and dates to the A.D. 1260s. Unfortunately the date of the wall dividing the village is unknown. On the basis of other cliff dwellings (Balcony House, Spruce Tree House), this probably occurred late in the occupation of the site. Kivas B and G and Rooms 8, 29 and 56 were vacated prior to the final movement of all occupants out of the site.

Artifacts uncovered during excavation of Mug House reflect the occupant's main reliance on corn--metates (105) and manos (494) were uncovered in the hundreds. Corn cobs were found in the trash, in room fill, as components of walls (pressed into the mortar). The most common man-made objects were the thousands of fragments of pottery--plain, corrugated and painted. Mugs, jars, ollas, bowls, ladles--whole and fragmentary--make it clear that water consumption and food storage and preparation were as important in the 13th century as they are today. Digging sticks were used for planting; stone axes for cutting wood. Hammerstones and mauls were used for pounding. Arrow points, arrow shafts, fragments of bows and deer bones are the remains associated with hunting. Cotton cloth, yucca sandals, turkey feather blankets and sewn animal skins suggest the type of apparel used at Mug House. Ornaments were fairly rare and were made of bone, stone and shell.

Thirty-five burials were uncovered during the excavation of Mug House and eleven more were uncovered during the excavation of deposits in alcoves and refuse just north of Mug House. Also human bone representing a minimum of seven individuals was found in the excavated deposits. It is not known how many burials were removed from the site prior to controlled excavation in 1960 and 1961. The earliest burials are from the south end of the site--before this area was filled with rooms and kivas. Later burials were placed in deposits in front of the site--the area where trash was also deposited. Fourteen of the burials were male, six female, 26 unknown; 24 were between 0-4 years old at time of death, four were 5-15 years old, three were 20 to 25 years old, thirteen 27+ years old, two of unknown age.

Objects uncovered during excavation reveal a population totally dependent on local resources. There is almost no evidence of trade. These people relied on wild resources such as pigweed, goosefoot, and cottontail. But it was produce from their cultivated fields that was the basis for their economy. Corn, beans and squash sustained them. The domestic turkey supplied meat, feathers and bone for tools. The occupants of the site, based on the percentage of bones from the excavated deposits, seem to have become less reliant on deer and more on the turkey through time. The meat of both animals was undoubtedly eaten.

There is no evidence of specialization other than that necessitated by age and sex. The activities that were demanded of the occupants of this village would have been mastered by almost everyone--at least everyone of a particular age and sex: hunting, cooking, making and decorating pottery, building walls, shaping stone. The skill level of individuals differed. Within a range of acceptable behavior, some individuals did a superb job of constructing a wall or painting the decoration on a pot, while others created fairly mediocre objects. There were standardized ways to build rooms, organize space, decorate objects but within the acceptable range, there was room for individualism.

After examining the rooms, kivas, and tools associated with Mug House, one is left with the feeling that the occupants were a conservative people, the type of small-scale village farmers found world-wide even in the 21st century. What makes these villagers unique is where they placed their homes--an alcove; the architectural manifestation of the religion they practiced--kivas, towers, tunnels; and what they and their neighbors did toward the end of the 13th century--completely leave their homeland to join relatives to the south and southeast.

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