Hovenweep National Monument



In southeast Utah, Montezuma and San Juan counties. Nearest city: Cortez, Colorado, and Blanding, Utah. Area: 785 acres. High desert west of Cortez; a series of river valleys feeding into lower McElmo Creek and the San Juan River from Cajon Mesa on the Utah-Colorado border.

Hovenweep is one of the more unusual ruins in the Southwest. Its remote layout is also one of the last communities of the Ancestral Puebloans. Here is found a remarkable construction of singular designs of dwellings, almost a Medieval castle impression complete with an engaging watchtower. What was the intended function of the square and round-tower shapes? This austere and outback setting is a possible astronomical site similar to Chaco, though diminutive by comparison.

Paleo-Indian culture was here as early as 13,001 years ago and possibly a lot longer. Later, hunter-gatherers continued to inhabit the area. This was long after agriculture and farming were introduced around 501. Favorable climate typifies the attraction to this sector and for a variety of primal cultures, especially the Ancestral Puebloans. Sometime between 1151 and 1201 they decided to live here, and for reasons we don’t fully understand. (By some accounts, the reason may have centered on defense, and thus a purposeful isolation from possible enemies). The Ancestral Puebloans later constructed larger pueblos around fortress-like towers at the heads of box canyons. They also laid out cultivated fields in areas where water could be better managed. Since the only large body of water remotely close to Hovenweep is the San Juan River, the people relied more on springs and seeps for fresh water for their needs as well as for agriculture. Hovenweep’s setting is also noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character. For a time, this barren and ranging landscape, due west of the famed Sleeping Ute Mountain (overlooking Cortez and the desert country to the west), might have seemed a desert oasis. Of course, the paleo climate was much different than in recent times. Heavier rainfall with more moderate temperatures were typical, and it's believed the soil base throughout the region was also deeper. Given its fairly remote location, Hovenweep was proclaimed a national monument in 1923. Its setting is indeed a rarity of archeological sites, mainly due to the unique building design of the many engaging dwellings.

Guided Tour Essentials
There are seven towers fifteen to twenty feet (4.5 to 6 m) tall. The site represents what might be construed as the final stand of the Ancestors before most of these people vacated the Colorado Plateau, never to return. Round and square architecture found here is truly unique, even awe-inspiring. These monuments are like stone pillars built with a main purpose on this, the Colorado-Utah border west of Cortez.

These were also the last form of architecture erected in the Four Corners region. Most overlooked the fertile fields cultivated by Hovenweep’s inhabitants. None of the structures are thought to be signal stations per se. They are, instead, more like defensive watchtowers erected to protect the fields and their invaluable crops. Tapped water resources (i.e., check dams) under the caprock and a defensive community in case of warfare added to the advantages of this somewhat remote settlement. Hovenweep’s Puebloan-era village is spread over a 20-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons. The monument hosts a variety of dwellings: Cutthroat Castle, the largest of all the ruins, the Square Tower unit, and the cluster of dwellings belonging to the Holly, Cajon and Horseshoe groups. There is fine masonry detail in all these dwellings. Square Tower, Hovenweep Castle and Hovenweep House were all baronial, each multi-storied perched on the canyon rim and balanced on boulders. Large stone towers, living quarters, among other similar shelters and granaries were also constructed. Maize, beans and squash were typical crops farmed here (i.e., the so-called "three sister" crops).

Along with large and small game, the people collected berries and somehow sustained their culture on a landscape that had turned more arid over the centuries. Although the climate has dramatically changed over the centuries, in their time the community who turned this frontier desert setting into a sustainable habitat cultivated terraced fields and constructed reservoirs and a network of check dams to divert water to where it was most needed. They also managed to live and thrive for centuries in an increasingly hostile environment. Then came the Great Drought sometime around 1279. Before long, the people abandoned the valley and migrated elsewhere (as did most other Ancestral Puebloan communities). No other contemporary Native American tribes have since inhabited this dry, dusty and usually hot, deserted valley in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, the name "Hovenweep" is a Southern Paiute word meaning deserted valley. A deserted valley in view of the most iconic mountainous landmark throughout today's so-named Four Corners region, the Sleeping Ute mountain:

Despite the seeming advantages of Hovenweep’s watchtowers a massacre occurred here, as well as those committed at the base of the Sleeping Ute and Sand Canyon. Here in this isolated setting it was a surgical strike, a devastating attack that mostly killed the young and older inhabitants of the community. Likely, the raid occurred long after the residents of this sector were asleep. The invaders would go to no limits getting what these warmongers intended. It was also a reminder to other Ancestral Puebloans that what happened here would continue to happen to those who were caught and did not flee. These alleged atrocities were part of the late 13th Century’s sobering changes that affected parts of the Colorado Plateau, including drought, social unrest, and the stress placed on the environment due to diminishing resources. Hovenweep might very well be the last cultural stronghold that could not continue into the new century.

Stronghold sites, like Hovenweep, were almost a last line of defense in the face of known enemies that pursued some of the settlements with the sole intention of slaughtering the inhabitants in the cruelest of methods. Increasing conflict at the time and a vast number of people joining communities for better protection and defense was common throughout this region. Burgeoning population, as well as pushing natural resources to the limits, contributed to escalating social conflict and societal unease. Were the attackers perpetrated by the Ancestral Puebloans themselves, possibly empowered or at least influenced by the people far to the south, there where the Mayans built their civilization? The answer has never been resolved by cultural scientists, other than the presumption the aggressors were akin to dead squads that practiced violence for its own esoteric purposes. What is known about the Ancestral Puebloans relative to their culture is that they were not just a group of one people; they were made up of many different groups, consolidated into a single cultural identity. Multiple ethnicities were also proven. Some groups within a community settlement even displayed (as skeletal structures) differing heights, facial and head features.

Human History
Like Mesa Verde and so many archeological ruin sites throughout the Four Corners region, Hovenweep’s secluded setting was discovered by Anglos in 1854 when artifacts found here were looted by professional and amateur souvenir hunters, along with artifacts from other regional ruins, especially Mesa Verde. It is not known how many people lived here, though it is assumed there were hundreds. Mentioned previously, cultural scientists suspect the inhabitants came here for protection from their enemies. Like other regional sites near Cortez, Sand Canyon in particular, also around the base of the regional Sleeping Ute Mountain, signs of warfare are visible, especially toward the end of the Ancestors occupied territory on the Colorado Plateau around the late 1300s. These dwellings at Hovenweep, and because of their distinctive design (see below), suggest a smaller community of Ancestors built these magnificent structures and had something else in mind other than a place to live and work. The monument consists of six clusters of exquisite ruins unlike any others. Four of these clusters are in Colorado (Holly and Hackberry Canyons, Cutthroat and Goodman Point), while two are in Utah (Square Tower and Cajon).

The Archeoastronomy Significance Of Hovenweep
Another exceptional aspect, indeed a rather strange and intriguing point about these ruins, is the renown Hovenweep Castle (in the Square Tower Group), an apparent solar calendar site. If true, Hovenweep may also have been a designated centralized religious community similar to Chaco Canyon.

This particular ruin site is also perfectly aligned so that light is channeled through openings into the building at sunset during the summer and Winter Solstice; also, during the spring and fall equinox. Sunlight therefore falls in a predictable pattern on interior door lintels. Anytime there is a consistent forecast with respect to the heavens a likely connection entails a specific design and locale for constructing a dwelling. In this case, the slots and doors of this fascinating castle design have been shown to define an apparent solar calendar. Two ports in this high, large tower admit rays from the sun into the interior room, with the assumption the building was built in this locale for this express purpose: a solar calendar design. The so-called equinox port also points to the sunrise azimuth, but not on the typical March 21/22 day, rather four days after. One explanation for this anomalous fact is the consequence of a method for establishing the equinox azimuth by counting and halving the number of days between the winter and summer solstices (respectively, December and June 21st). Apart from the probably astronomical significance of Hovenweep, it’s the construction design and technique that makes this setting remarkable compared to many others sites within the Cortez region.

Construction Techniques
The construction of Hovenweep's design shows ingenuity of architecture. These imaginative people were exceptional builders who demonstrated expert masonry skills and engineering. However, they did not level foundations for their structures. Like the Sinagua who built Wupatki overlooking the Painted Desert (near present-day Cameron, Arizona). Instead, these inhabitants of Hovenweep constructed various and innovative designs to match the uneven surfaces of planed rock slabs, making construction techniques exceptional when compared to other archeological sites. For example, the towers at Hovenweep were built in a variety of shapes: ovals, circles, squares, even D-shapes. In view of these singular shapes, Hovenweep's stone pueblos were commonly referred to as castles by early-20th Century explorers.

Tower functions are also subject to speculation. For example, these structures have limited access and few windows, while in the same space there are numerous slots, looking like peepholes, placed into the walls at various levels. No one knows for sure why these special modifications were added. The towers are also often linked to ceremonial places, like ceremonial kivas, in that they are generally accessed through a tunnel.

Parting shots:

The Visitor Center and Square Tower Group is north and west of Cortez, Colorado. The recommended routes are to start from either Hwy. 191, turning east on UT 262, or from Hwy. 160 near Cortez, and turn north on 402. Montezuma County Road G is the longest and most sinuous route through the cultivated landscape along McElmo Creek, and it goes right past the entrance to the Canyons of the Ancients NM. This route may also be the most scenic and atmospheric. However, Hwy. 191 is the most used approach, either south from Blanding, Utah, or from Pleasant View, Colorado.

Contact Information
Hovenweep National Monument, McElmo Route, Cortez CO 81321. Phone (visitor information): 970-562.4282 ext. 10; Fax 562.4283. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)

And so we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.

Happy Trails!