Mummy lake - Mesa Verde

New study suggests Mummy Lake was built to hold rituals, not water

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A new analysis of a sandstone-walled pit in Mesa Verde National Park, known as Mummy Lake, has suggested that the channels were used by the Ancestral Puebloans for holding rituals , not for harvesting rainwater as has been believed for nearly a century. 

Mummy Lake, which was in use between c 900 – 1100 AD, is part of a complex of buildings known as the Far View Sites, which are associated with the Ancient Pueblo peoples, a Native American culture centred in present-day southern Utah, north-eastern Arizona, northern new Mexico, and south-western Colorado. They lived in a range of structures, including pit houses, pueblos, and cliff dwellings designed so that they could lift entry ladders during enemy attacks, which provided security. Archaeologists referred to one of these cultural groups as the Anasazi, although the term is not preferred by contemporary Pueblo peoples.

The predominant theory is that the walled structure at Mummy Lake was a system of cisterns and canals used to harvest rainwater on the arid plateau as much as 1,100 years ago.  It is a view that has endured since 1917 when government ethnologist Jesse Walker Fewkes named the site a “prehistoric reservoir”, and in 2006, Mummy Lake was officially renamed Far View Reservoir.

However, a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science has revealed that Mummy Lake was more likely designed and used as a ceremonial structure by Native Americans, similar to the roofless kivas and plazas found elsewhere in the Southwest.

Colorado Puebloan Sites

According to Dr Larry Benson, lead author of the new study and curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, the trenched courses that seem to lead to and from the pit aren’t canals, but ritual pathways, much like those found faintly radiating from other ancient Puebloan sites, including Chaco Canyon.

Using global positioning and digital elevation models, Benson’s team mapped the natural water flow on the ridge. They concluded that not only could rainwater not have flowed easily into Mummy Lake’s pit — which is some 27 meters across and 6.5 meters deep — there was hardly enough water to capture to begin with.

“What we found out was, those canals weren’t canals — they were Chacoan roads,” Benson said. “If you look at how much water you could ever put into the depression, it gets no more than several inches in the wettest year in history, and that would’ve been evaporated out by July or so. During an average year, the water doesn’t even stay there as late as June.” Benson added that there wouldn’t have been enough water to irrigate crops or even for drinking water.

It takes a lot more than one study to undo a century of research claiming an opposing viewing, but the new study is certainly intriguing. One area, however, that appears to be lacking detail is evidence for the rituals and ceremonies that Benson claims to have taken place there. Hopefully further research will explore the new hypothesis in further detail.

Featured image: Mummy Lake. Photo credit: Bill Lile

By April Holloway


I have been there and you do feel a certain energy in the air. There are many stories from locals of this place that I have been told were handed down from generation to generation and it is supposedly a place of worship, ritual, and possible sacrifice.

aprilholloway's picture

Yes you're right! Thanks Jennifer for pointing out the typo. All fixed now.

That is actually supposed to say Northern New Mexico, not Mexico, which is an entirely different country.

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