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 Kiet Siel), which is located at Navajo National Monument in Arizona. Keet Seel, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States, is truly an archaeological smorgasbord. 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. When I was asked to help monitor impact of water and wind erosion at Keel Seel, I jumped at the opportunity. The hike to Keet Seel winds through steep canyons and has visitors sloshing through muddy streams most of the way, but the site is worth every uncomfortable moment.
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. Construction at Keet Seel began around 1250 AD, when considerable numbers of people were amassing at larger sites throughout the southwest. 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 during the early 1300s.
This site is incredibly 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!