Ancestral Puebloans-Part 4: Hovenweep

This is part 4 of an evolving series. 

Click here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 3.

     Hovenweep National Monument was established in 1923. A lesser-known assembly of Ancestral Puebloan relics, it straddles the border of southwest Colorado and southeast Utah and is one of those hidden, out-of-the-way gems with enduring gravity, pulling us back repeatedly. Our fourth journey happened in early May of this year.

     Hovenweep is composed of six different sites, thought to harbor approximately 2500 inhabitants between 1200 and 1300 AD. Five outlying communities are chiefly accessible by four-wheel drive dirt roads or hiking trails. The main attraction is known as Little Ruin Canyon and lies near the handsome Visitor Center built in an emblematic southwestern style that resembles the former pueblos.

Hovenweep Visitor Center

A two mile hike allows relatively easy access to the round, square, and D-shaped towers characteristic of this locale. The route parallels the rim of the canyon, but also dips down into it. Legendary western pioneering photographer, William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), is credited for naming it Hovenweep, translatable as “deserted valley”, in the Ute/Paiute language. In 1874, he explored the region as a member of the famous Hayden Expedition which also enabled him to take the first photographs of Mesa Verde.

Sunrise and moonset

The early morning light bathes the ruins in warm tones

Close-up of one of the most intriguing ruins of Little Ruin Canyon, the “Eroded Bolder House” (I call it the shell)

     During our last two expeditions, we camped at the comparatively compact campground composed of 31 sites. A footpath connecting it to the nearby Little Ruin Trail encouraged repeat excursions. Ever since our first acquaintance, we have been enchanted by the local plants. Dark-green juniper and piñon pine, fragrant sagebrush, sword-like yucca, and colorful cacti were omnipresent and punctuated by smaller, more delicate wildflowers attractive to hummingbirds and other pollinators. A profusion of cliffrose dotted the rocky scenery and perfumed the air with their sweet scent. Despite the severity of the environment, the fauna was no less diverse than the flora: insects, lizards, birds, and mammals were amply represented.

Datil Yucca (many subspecies of this versatile plant exist)

Cliffrose lining Little Ruin Canyon

Penstemon after the rain

Collared Lizard

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher also liked to hang out in Little Ruin Canyon

     During the Ancestral Puebloans’ era, every material usable for food, fire, and clothes was harvested. Yucca alone delivered food (flowers), fiber (leaves), needles (leaf tips), and soap (root). Cactus pads were eaten. Stringy juniper bark provided fiber, padding, diapers, and toilet paper. Pine seeds represented high-energy morsels. Whether or not the pueblo dwellers lived in harmony with the land is interesting to ponder. There is evidence that, even after building stone houses, they temporarily moved from one settlement to the next, perhaps to allow the soil periods of recovery by letting it lie fallow. It is likely that they rotated crops. I can’t help thinking that a civilization who read the heavens for celestial signs would have failed to heed the lessons of the earth. Was it a prolonged dry spell that finally overrode all foresight and planning, and resulted in their departure 700 years ago? The walls of Hovenweep alone know.

     Lest we are left with overly romantic notions — life was harsh, life expectancy short. Hunger and thirst? Daily concerns. Armed conflict? Likely. Cannibalism? Possible. The Ancestral Puebloans were human beings with human foibles. But they also inspire and invite us to return time and again, and to immerse ourselves in this intriguing world still open to interpretation. Their exodus, their remarkable relics, their picturesque petroglyphs and pictographs raise more questions than answers, and their secrets survive.

     Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:…teil-4-hovenweep/

Ancestral Puebloans-Part 3: Mesa Verde

    This is part 3 of an evolving series. 

Click here for part 1, here for part 2, here for part 4.

     Once Chaco Canyon lost its prominent role, due to natural or man-made causes, Mesa Verde saw its star shine brightly, before it, too, flickered, then faded. American Indians had lived on this part of the Colorado Plateau, which now lies in southwest Colorado, since the mid-500s, first on mesa tops in pit houses, then in aboveground stone constructions. From 1150 on, they built extensive pueblos in alcoves of reddish sandstone, the picturesque backdrop of the iconic images many of us envision when we think of Ancestral Puebloans. In fewer than one hundred years they departed. Here as elsewhere, the reasons are still debated. Historians often point to the defensive position of these pueblos in support of the theory that drought and famine led to warfare and, finally, to the dispersal of the clans.

     Mesa Verde became a National Park in 1906 and a World Heritage Site in 1979. My husband and I explored it twice, in 2009 and 2011. When we drove past its entrance during a trip to the area in May of this year, we regretted not having time for a third foray. But we reminisced about former sojourns, following the road into the park in our mind’s eye. Soon after the turn-off from Colorado Highway 160, a spur reaches the main Visitor Center. Even if travelers are unable to explore the park in depth, a stopover here will give an overview of one of Colorado’s best-loved National Parks. At the four mile marker, the road passes the campground (open from mid-May until mid-October), before it slowly winds up to the top of the mesa with its superb views of the surrounding scenery. After 15 miles, the road branches into two. One leads to Chapin, the other to Wetherill Mesa.

     Chapin Mesa is home to the Cliff Palace (featured image on top) and Balcony House, perhaps the best-known and most-photographed dwellings. Because of many years of pillaging, wanton destruction, and safety concerns, they are only accessible by ranger-led tours. Reservations are typically available for the same day. Self-guided tours are possible at Spruce Tree House. The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum offers detailed information about the history of the Ancestral Puebloans. Nearby, remnants of earlier pit houses have been excavated. The impressive Sun Temple is thought to represent a ceremonial center, unfinished at the time the Mesa Verdeans left their habitations. Former check dams and reservoirs illustrate various ways to collect water. While this was indispensable for everyday purposes, farmers supposedly used dryland techniques, without artificial irrigation.

Balcony House

Kiva without a roof. A ceremonial chamber thought to represent the place of emergence of the people.

Kivas at Spruce Tree House with roofs and central openings, accessed with a ladder.

Original interior decoration

Sun Temple

Cactus thrive on rocky surfaces

     Wetherill Mesa is open only from May through September, weather permitting. Its major residences are Long House (ranger-led only), and Step House (self-guiding). This portion of the park is named after Richard Wetherill (1858-1910), a well-known if controversial figure in the annals of several ancient pueblos in the Four Corners region. Hailing from a Colorado ranching family, he is credited with the discovery of Cliff Palace. He seemed genuinely moved and inspired by those uncharted stone structures filled with daily implements, food, even human skeletons, but might have been at least partially responsible for their subsequent theft or sale to collectors and museums. Thus he may be considered the first in a line of pothunters who continue their misdeeds to this day. In 1901, he moved to Chaco Canyon and tried to establish a homestead on land surrounding the local ruins. When Chaco became a National Monument, he relinquished his claim, but continued to run a trading post there. He was shot in 1910 and is buried not far from Pueblo Bonito.

Square Tower House, one of several smaller pueblos within Mesa Verde

     Mesa Verde was our first acquaintance with the design of the Ancestral Puebloans, and the elegant masonry nestled between two strata of sandstone left indelible impressions. Here, too, many pieces of the puzzle of this fascinating culture remain missing.

     Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:…eil-3-mesa-verde/

Ancestral Puebloans-Part 2: Chaco Canyon

This is part 2 of a an evolving series.

Click here for part 1, here for part 3,  here for part 4.

      Among the best-known architecture of the Ancestral Puebloans is Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. It was, however, preceded and superseded in significance by New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. In its heyday, between the 8th and 11th centuries, this was already composed of complex buildings three and four stories high. Hundreds of miles of Chacoan Roads connected this hub to distant dwellings, and with trading networks as far away as the Pacific Coast and Mexico, as the presence of marine shells and tropical feathers found during early excavations attests.

     From the new discoverers in the late 1800s, to present-day visitors, the park with its fabulous finds of adobe abodes, pottery, basketry, and jewelry has stimulated the imagination and, in consideration of its pivotal role it was designated a National Historical Park in 1907, and a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Fajada Butte, elevation 6623 feet, an important landmark near Chaco Canyon, seen from one of the ruins

Chacoan Road leading into the distance

     My husband and I journeyed to Chaco Canyon in 2009 and again in 2015. We reached its location in the northwest corner of New Mexico near Farmington from the north, on a 21 mile county road, the last 13 unpaved and partly of washboard consistency. The approach from the south reportedly is no better. A campground provides the only overnight accommodation. The place sizzles in summer and freezes in winter, and during our last trip we awoke to snow one May morning.

May morning

     A seven mile paved road leads from the newly remodeled Visitor Center around the core of the park and allows admittance to pueblos with names like Chetro Ketl and Hungo Pavi. They represent the initial surveyors’ fascination with what they uncovered, rather than ethnically sensitive or meaningful appellations. Pueblo Bonito, the largest among them, once had over 600 rooms and 40 kivas, ceremonial chambers thought to signify points of emergence of the people.

Multiple pueblos line Chaco Canyon

Pueblo Bonito

Interior of a pueblo showing the use of wood to create floors and ceilings. The beams supported smaller branches spread at a right angle on top of them.

T-shaped doors were a hallmark of Chaco Canyon

Why so many rooms, the majority without direct light and ventilation? According to scholarly thought, many of the so-called Great Houses might not have been intended for human habitation, but predominantly for food storage, distribution, and trade, or for ceremonial and religious purposes. If vast portions of these structures were not in regular use, as some evidence suggests, what accounts for their painstaking assembly, especially since each piece of stone had to be hewn by hand, and each log of wood dragged from forests at least 50 miles distant?

Ruins the color of the surrounding rocks

The largest of several Great Kivas at Chaco Canyon

     When one wishes to escape the constant current of cars and crowds that congregate near the chief attractions, and ponder some of these perplexing questions, a variety of hiking trails afford access to more remote settlements where one finds solitude among the ruined remains. They whisper of a time when insightful people superbly employed their resources and developed an expansive and elaborate culture which still stretches the mind today.

     Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

Ancestral Puebloans Part 1: Overview

In the Four Corners region of the United States, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet and the Colorado Plateau dominates countryside and climate, the land is riddled with innumerable ruins. Ruins reminiscent of complex societies that eked out an existence in this semi-arid to arid high desert. Once formerly nomadic American Indian tribes settled, they fashioned permanent structures out of local rock and wood and plastered them with adobe fashioned from dirt and water, thereby transforming their habitations into edifices the color of the earth. They rang in what would later be called the Pueblo Period, spanning the centuries from 700 to 1300 AD.

Four Corners region of Colorado

Clusters of these pueblos lined canyon interiors and rims, or were nestled under overhangs, nearly all of them chosen for the proximity of a spring or seep that ensured a steady supply of water. Piñon pines, junipers, sagebrush, and the associated plant community furnished material for construction, firewood, clothing, and food.

Juniper/sagebrush plant community

Juniper berries, a food source

Wild animals still supplemented their diet and dress, but their hunting and gathering lifestyle shifted to one relying heavily on agriculture which produced the southwestern holy trinity of foodstuffs: corn and beans and squash. An infinite sky with an unobstructed view of countless celestial constellations inspired purposefully placed petroglyphs that precisely pinpointed vernal and autumnal solstices and additional astronomical phenomena.

Astronomical petroglyphs

Petroglyphs (rock carvings, depicted here) and pictographs (rock drawings, not shown here) are the only “written” documentation of the Ancestral Puebloans

Who were these people, to parrot my husband’s deferential question. When modern-day observers first beheld their monumental settlements, they adopted the appellation Anasazi for their architects, from the Navajo language, meaning “ancient enemies” or “ancient foreigners”. According to early observers, they seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. In recent decades, this view has been replaced by the theory that they dispersed into surrounding regions, and mingled with the ancestors of contemporary pueblo dwellers. Consequently, the term Anasazi was supplanted by the name Ancestral Puebloans.

Cacti thrive in the arid climate…

…so do lizards

Raven on ruins

Why did these rulers of remote reaches abandon their carefully constructed communities that had withstood the caprices of centuries? Nobody knows exactly, but theories abound. That water equals life rings true everywhere, but nowhere is this more evident than in an ecosystem which operates on the slimmest margin of moisture, where the presence of this essential element is indicated by scarce emerald ribbons winding through the pastels of the desert. Did they depart because of a paucity of this precious product, when one decade of drought succeeded another, as tree ring analysis suggests? Did overuse lead to depletion of the soil, to ensuing tensions, and to armed conflict over precious commodities? As one question is answered, another arises, and many remain.

Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

This is part 1 of an evolving series.

Click here for part 2, here for part 3, here for part 4.