Departmental Papers (Historic Preservation)

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version

March 2003


Reproduced with the permission of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, 1156 15th St., NW, Suite 2320, Washington, DC, 20005;; Published in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Volume 42, Issue 1, Architecture Issue. (Spring, 2003), pages 39-58.


The approximately 600 cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado represent the apex of architectural sophistication of the Northern San Juan Ancestral Puebloan culture. The cliff dwellings, the final product of 600 years of cultural development on the Mesa Verde, were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300, and were abandoned shortly thereafter. The spectacular setting and the well-preserved state of these masonry structures and their surface finishes resulted in Mesa Verde's being the first nomination by the U.S. government to the World Cultural Heritage Sites List. Moreover, descendants of these ancient peoples, the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, continue to venerate these sites, representing a cultural continuity unique for North America. Excavation and preservation have been continuous since Mesa Verde became one of the first national parks in 1906. The structures interpreted to the public have been preserved over the years with a minimum of repair and replacement, resulting in a cultural resource of great integrity and authenticity.

A phased conservation program to develop coordinated methods for the survey, analysis, stabilization, and interpretation of the masonry and prehistoric surface finishes in the alcovate (cliff-dwelling) sites of Mesa Verde National Park has been in progress since 1994 by the Architectural Conservation Laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania. The program has included a comprehensive method of study, including archival research, technical analysis, and characterization of the architectural materials; detailed field and digital recording of existing conditions, including environmental monitoring; and the design, testing, and execution of a treatment and protection program specifically focused on the in situ stabilization of plain and painted architectural surface finishes. Though case-study oriented, this article addresses in detail the theoretical and technical aspects of condition survey and recording as an important vehicle for material and site diagnostics, which must precede remedial and preventive interventions. Detailed information is provided on the use of current digital technology for condition survey.



Date Posted: 26 November 2007

This document has been peer reviewed.