CO/UT – Hovenweep National Monument

It’s nearly impossible to visit Hovenweep National Monument without at least driving through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. They are intertwined in a good way. I think the concept of National Park managed units within BLM managed land makes for a flexible and positive solution. The yellow represents BLM-managed land, which includes Canyons of the Ancient sites. 

According to Park literature, “Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Hovenweep National Monument was established in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding.” Four of the units are in Colorado and two are in Utah.

Cutthroat Castle Group 

I was extremely impressed with how the masonry was shaped to fit the surface of the base rock and become nearly a single structure. 

It was cool to see some remaining pottery shards around, even if they’d been relocated to this display. 

The earliest historic record of Cutthroat Castle dates from 1929, when it was documented by archeologist Paul Martin. The site was added to Hovenweep National Monument in 1956. Unlike the other Hovenweep pueblos, the structures at Cutthroat Castle are not located immediately at the head of a canyon, but further downstream. The Cutthroat Group also appears to have a large number of kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures) relative to other building types. Puebloan kivas are usually built into the earth, and are typically round. An exception is the kiva incorporated into Cutthroat Castle, which rests on top of a boulder.

In Puebloan religion, the kiva is a structure that connects with different worlds. The floor is related to the world below, and is usually built below ground level. The entrance to a typical kiva is through the roof, which relates to the world above. Cutthroat Castle Kiva is surrounded by another structure or room. Access into this surrounding structure appears to have been from below the boulder on which the kiva is built, through a split in the boulder.

Though it may appear isolated, the ancestral Puebloan population at Cutthroat Castle was quite large. Natural resources in the area, particularly the forest of piñon and juniper trees, provided the Puebloans with a variety of useful materials. Piñon seeds were a food source rich in calories and protein. Piñon sap or pitch was used as a waterproof sealant for baskets. Shredded juniper bark was used for clothing and sandals. Trees were burned in fires and used as building materials. In fact, by counting the tree rings present in structural timbers, archeologists can determine exactly when these sites were built.

Researchers studying prehistoric diets have found sagebrush flowers, seeds, and leaves in the Puebloans’ waste. As a minor part of their diet, sagebrush would have been a good source of iron and Vitamin C. In larger amounts, it kills intestinal parasites. Quartz pebbles from stream beds provided material for stone tools. When these rocks are broken using another rock or a piece of antler, they have edges as sharp as glass. Puebloans shaped these hard rocks into tools such as knives, scrapers, and projectile points.

The geology of the surrounding landscape produces springs and seeps. In these canyons, permeable Dakota sandstone rests on top of impermeable Burro Canyon shale. Water from rain and snow soaks through the sandstone, but is forced to flow outward when it meets the shale. When this water reaches the wall of a canyon it forms a spring. For the Puebloans, these canyons with seeps and springs were the ideal place to locate a village. Source: NPS website

Horseshoe Group 

The walking trail to Hackberry Canyon is a one-mile round-trip walk that includes the structures at both Horseshoe and Hackberry. Structures at these sites were built approximately 800 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Puebloan people. Today their descendents are among the Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona.

Horseshoe Tower is built on a point that marks the start of the Horseshoe Site. From this tower, inhabitants could see clearly into Horseshoe Canyon. At one time, the tower was walled off from the mesa top, raising questions about the use of such structures for defense.

Further along the Canyon Rim Trail is Horseshoe House, which is composed of four masonry structures that together form a horseshoe shape. From the trail it is easy to see the precisely cut stone-masonry that forms the outside wall of Horseshoe House. Each stone was shaped for a precise fit before being set into place. Clay, sand, and ash, mixed with water from seeps in the canyon below, made the mortar that still holds these walls together. One unresolved question is whether specialized masons built these structures, or if the entire community contributed to their construction. Source: NPS website

Hackberry Group 

There’s not much left in this unit; however, I met a team of preservation rangers who were working on this site.

About 500 yards east of the Horseshoe structures is the Hackberry Site. Archeologists speculate that Hackberry canyon may have had one of the largest populations of all the Hovenweep units because of the constant seepage of water in the canyon. As many as 250 to 350 people may have lived here. It is unclear if the residents were related or represented different clans and lineages.

The concentrations of structures at both Horseshoe and Hackberry demonstrate the importance of water to the people who lived here. Large multi-story pueblos and towers, located at canyon heads with seeps and springs, are the defining characteristics of the late Pueblo III time period. In this climate, precipitation comes in the form of winter snows, spring rains, and isolated summer thunderstorms. The intermittent rains of summer were crucial to the survival of crops, and Puebloans responded by constructing water-control features. In washes on the mesa tops, small stone dams were built so that sediment could accumulate and water could soak into the ground, flowing slowly into nearby garden plots.

A 23 year-long drought beginning in A.D. 1276, possibly combined with warfare, overpopulation, and limited resources, forced the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people to leave Hovenweep. By the end of the 13th century, Puebloan communities across southeast Utah and southwest Colorado migrated south, joining the pueblos of the Rio Grande River Valley in New Mexico, and the the Hopi in Arizona. Source: NPS website

Holly Group 

This was my favorite site. I found out later this tilted structure was most likely caused by floods.

Look at the construction where the bricks attach to the rock. 

The petroglyphs were extremely challenging to photograph due to distance, angle and light. But I got at least one spiral to show up. 

The Holly Group is named for Jim Holley who ranched and traded in this area during the late 1800s. Holly Site includes Holly House, Tilted Tower and Holly Tower, located at the head of Keeley Canyon. Traveling the pedestrian trail from east to west, the base of a tower structure can be seen along the canyon rim. This multi-story pueblo called Tilted Tower was built atop a large sandstone boulder that shifted sometime after the canyon was abandoned (A.D. 1300). The upper stories of the tower tumbled into the canyon while the footing remained attached.

The design and construction of Tilted Tower is similar to Holly Tower, which is the large multi-story tower located inside Keeley Canyon. Built atop a large sandstone boulder on the canyon bottom, Holly Tower is detached from the canyon rim, and like many of the towers at Hovenweep National Monument, it is located adjacent to a seep. In contemporary Puebloan culture, springs are special locations associated with stories that talk about the origins of Puebloan peoples. Holly Tower was built sometime after A.D. 1200, and it appears that the tower was constructed without outside scaffolding. Each floor was built from the inside, one floor at a time, building upward. Looking at Holly Tower, you can still see the steps or hand-holds that were pecked into the boulder below the entrance.

Archeological analysis of the Hovenweep towers suggests these structures were used for multiple activities, although some activities were probably very specialized. The presence of grinding stones such as manos and metates indicates plant materials were being ground, probably for food production. Stone tools typically used for chopping, scraping, and cutting suggest a variety of activities associated with daily life were occurring within the towers. The presence of bone awls suggests activities associated with weaving might have also occurred. In addition, archeologists suggest these towers were usually paired with kivas (Puebloan religious structures), and the towers may relate to how the kiva connects with the outside world. The deliberate location of towers and kivas at the heads of canyons goes beyond architecture, and has everything to do with the hydrology of the canyon and the way Puebloan peoples envisioned their world. Some of the towers and kivas are placed virtually on top of the springs and seeps that emerge from these canyons.  Source: NPS website

Square Tower Group

This is the most popular area of the Monument, with most visitors walking part or all of the Little Ruin Trail which passes by the various structures including Stronghold House, Eroded Boulder House, Hovenweep Castle, Square Tower, Hovenweep House, Rim Rock House and Twin Towers. I like how the Sleeping Ute keeps watch over the canyon. 

The Square Tower Group contains the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan structures at Hovenweep. The remains of nearly thirty kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures) have been discovered on the slopes of Little Ruin Canyon, and a variety of other structures are perched on the canyon rims, balanced on boulders and tucked under ledges. It’s possible that as many as 500 people occupied the Square Tower area between A.D. 1200 and 1300.

Square Tower, for which the group is named, is a three-story tower built on a boulder at the head of Little Ruin Canyon. A nearby spring would have been an important resource for the inhabitants of Hovenweep. To increase water storage, a checkdam was built above the spring in order to slow storm runoff. The unique location and appearance of Square Tower fuels speculation that it was a ceremonial structure. Source: NPS website

Stronghold House: 

Stronghold House was named for its fortresslike appearance, though it is not clear whether its architects designed it or any other structures for defense. The builders may simply have been following an aesthetic sense or responding to the challenges of the terrain. What you see is actually the upper story of a large pueblo, which now lies in rubble, built on the slope below. People entered the house by way of hand and-toe holds chipped into the rock, or possibly by a wooden ladder. Stronghold House has two distinct sections, and the stone blocks are exceptionally well shaped. To your right is Stronghold Tower, built over a crevice in the cliff. At one time, a log bridged the crevice and supported part of the tower. The log rotted away, and most of the tower tumbled to the canyon bottom. Source: NPS literature

Twin Towers 

Together, Twin Towers had 16 rooms. Their architecture is amazing; the two buildings rise from the native bedrock, their walls almost touching. One is oval, the other horseshoe shaped. Their builders skillfully laid up thick and thin sandstone blocks. Original wooden lintels are still in place in one tower. These towers are among the most carefully constructed buildings in the entire Southwest. Note a deposit of soft gray material, which is weathered coal. You also pass the contact between the two major rock formations in this region. The upper layer is sandstone that forms cliffs and ledges and is the rock used in Hovenweep buildings. The lower layer is a shaly conglomerate, made up of pebbles and cobbles interspersed with layers of sandstone. Water cannot permeate the lower layer, but drains out as life-giving springs and seeps. Up the canyon at the confluence of the two arms of Little Ruin Canyon, you see large cottonwood trees, another sign that water is nearby. Source: NPS literature

Eroded Boulder House

Eroded Boulder House is another delightful structure visible in the canyon. It incorporates the huge rock under which it sits as part of its roof and walls. On top of the boulder are a few shaped stones where a tower once perched. Source: NPS literature

Rim Rock House 

Despite its name, Rimrock House may not have been a place where people lived, for it lacks any apparent room divisions. The structure is rectangular in shape and stands two stories high. Many small openings were placed in the walls, at unusual angles. Peepholes for seeing who might be coming for a visit? Observation ports for tracking the sun? Or maybe something as simple as ventilation? Their function
remains unknown.

In the canyon you can see the remains of Round Tower. It is almost perfectly circular and was probably two stories tall. 

Square Tower 

The two-story-tall Square Tower stands down in the canyon. Situated on a large sandstone boulder, it was built in a slight spiral shape, perhaps for added strength or for aesthetics. The single T-shaped doorway faces west. There is evidence of an earlier doorway facing the spring at the head of the canyon. A kiva was excavated beside Square Tower. Unlike many tower-kiva associations elsewhere, Square Tower and its kiva were not connected by a tunnel. Source: NPS literature

Hovenweep House 

Hovenweep House was the center of one of the largest Pueblo villages in the Square Tower group. What still stands was built on solid sandstone bedrock. The rest has crumbled to the ground, but a closer look reveals its former size and pattern. As with other buildings in this area, the masons took great pains with their stonework. Some boulders were pecked on the surface, a technique also seen at nearby Mesa Verde. Small, flat rocks were inserted as spalls, or chinks, in the mortar joints. The walls may have been completely covered with thick layers of claybased plaster. Source: NPS literature

Hovenweep Castle 

Hovenweep Castle consists of two D-shaped towers perched on the rim of Little Ruin Canyon. The stone
walls, two and three courses thick, show detailed masonry techniques. Growth rings on a wooden
beam in one tower indicate that the log was cut in 1277 CE (Common Era), one of the latest dates on any structure in the San Juan region. A residence was associated with the “castle,” but the people who lived here were farmers, not kings and queens. Source: NPS literature

 Cajon Group 

The Cajon Group (pronounced ca-hone) consists of a small village constructed in the same configuration as Hackberry, Horseshoe and Holly. The surviving structures are situated at the head of a small canyon, and evidence indicates that 80 to 100 people may have lived here. Under a ledge in the canyon below are several small structures that may have been built to protect and store water from the spring. 

On the western slope of the canyon stand the remains of a remarkable circular tower that conforms perfectly to the shape of three large, irregular boulders. This round structure on a completely uneven surface demonstrates the skill and determination of the ancestral Puebloans that lived at Hovenweep. Source: NPS website

The earliest people we have evidence of using the area were here during the Archaic period (5500 to approximately 500 BC). At that time, people used the area on an intermittent basis as they hunted and gathered food. The structures you see today were built during the Pueblo III period (1100 to 1300 AD). Tree-ring dating of a beam in one of the rooms indicated the tree was cut in 1168 AD, presumably very close to the time that the room was built. Source: NPS literature

Signage

I was very curious about the icon that was used on all the signage at Hovenweep. After much research it seems to represent macaws and the t-shaped doorways used on many structures in the southwest. Why the macaw? They were trade items from Mexico with feathers, remains and petroglyphs indicating they were representative of the period.

Important Reminders

Respect the message. 

Adventure Dates:

  • April 3-5, 2018

Tips:

  • I was able to drive the roads with my Honda CRV 4×4 equipped with Mud and Snow tires. The roads are dirt with lumpy bumpy flowing rock which you must traverse.

Resources:

Links:

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