This is getting to be quite the series of posts, and it’s because the ancients and their remnants in the Four Corners is just so darn cool! There is a large swath of empty country along the SW Colorado/SE Utah border called Canyons of the Ancients. It is a high plateau incised by shallow sandstone canyons, and is mostly preserved as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, along with Hovenweep N.M. Definitely you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center near Cortez, CO to plan your visit. They were very helpful.
One of my pioneer heroes, the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson, came here in 1874. It was he who first used the name Hovenweep, which is a Ute word meaning deserted valley. And that is what the main site at Hovenweep is, though it is more a canyon than a valley. Little Ruin Canyon, as it’s called, is compact and scenic. It is crowded with the stone towers for which the place is famous. There is a strong atmosphere of desertion, a ghost-like feel. All of the structures date from the 13th century, and all are well preserved in the desert air. There is a 2-mile loop trail encircling the canyon, and it starts just in back of the visitor center.
I drove from the east down the beautiful McElmo Canyon, arriving at Hovenweep just after dark. Since there was a moon and since I had slept until 10 a.m. next to Ship Rock (late night photography there), I was wide awake after dinner. So I decided on a whim to hike the loop trail in the moonlight. It was a magical time, and since nobody else was around I was able to get some interesting angles on the structures. Way cool. I almost expected to see the faint glow of a torch in the top of a tower, as a lone brave kept watch throughout the night.
This area has been inhabited by people since the ice age, but as with other evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Four Corners Region, the 1100s and 1200s saw the population increase greatly. At the same time, they built their elaborate stone pueblos. At Hovenweep and in the adjacent Canyons of the Ancients, the people built a variety of towers as part of their pueblos.
The towers that make this place unique are mostly circular. But there are also square, oval and D-shaped examples. They are mostly built near springs, and many have a commanding view of the canyon approaches. They also have line of sight communication with each other, at least when you consider smoke signals rising from them. Whether they were used as lookouts (for enemies and/or prey animals), for communication, were ceremonial, or all of the above, we just don’t know for sure. It’s hard not to be reminded of castles, however, when one sees them for the first time. In fact, a few are named as such. Hovenweep Castle, Cutthroat Castle, and a few others really did make me think of the tower-house castles of Europe, though on a much smaller scale of course.
Although there is not much evidence of warfare between clans in this area, it’s known that the area was, in the late 13th century, growing dry and getting crowded both. Water, in the form of canyon-bottom springs, was a very precious resource, and worth protecting. Although I have no doubt the towers were used for more than one thing, I think their spectacular locations (on canyon rims, on top of huge boulders, etc.) was certainly in part defensive.
Another interesting nugget I picked up, from a Hopi source no less, was that hawks and falcons were kept in the tops of the towers. Now I had no idea that American Indians practiced falconry, currently or in ancient times. So this is definitely an interesting avenue to explore.
After an awesome moonlight photo walk at Little Ruin Canyon, I left the visitor center area for an area that promised to be more peaceful come morning. Though it was past midnight, I drove up County Road 10 and camped on the rim of a canyon near the Painted Hand Pueblo. I was in the larger Canyons of the Ancients N.M. now. At sunrise I hiked down the jeep track to the Cutthroat Site, which is at the head of a small canyon near a spring.
Being there alone, as the morning light rapidly grew in intensity, with only a curious rock wren for company, gave rise to some interesting feelings. It was a bit sad, reflecting that these people had taken such care to build their secure homes, only to have to abandon them after only 2-3 generations. I thought about the turkeys running around the place, the sound of kids playing, elders sitting in the shade, unable to travel much beyond home in this rugged country.
After coffee, I strolled down to Painted Hand. Here there are several pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (chiseled). One symbol, the figure of a person with upraised arms, struck me as the emblem of a clan. Later I learned this was so. It really reminded me of medieval coats of arms. Again back to the castle analogy. This is fascinating stuff! As I traveled westward, away from Hovenweep, I followed the beautiful San Juan River into country in which it is much harder to find evidence of the Ancient Ones. But even as I enter Navajo country, where it is modern American Indian culture you encounter, I will continue to search for their ancient art and their dwellings.