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Southwest Adventure, Living & Travel


Mysterious Towers Of Hovenweep Ruins

Cortez, Colorado

Text and photos by Jay W. Sharp

In the high desert country which straddles the border between southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, the Hovenweep ruins with their mysterious towers induce a strange silence, something you cannot quite explain.

At the famed Mesa Verde ruins, forty or fifty miles to the east of Hovenweep, you hear the shouts of excited children, the scoldings of their anxious parents, the lectures of park rangers. At the Aztec ruin, eighty five miles to the east southeast, you hear breezes wandering through towering cottonwood trees. At the Chaco Canyon ruins, one hundred and thirty miles to the southeast, you hear coyotes howl in the night, sometimes, it seems, right outside your tent. At the Canyon de Chelly ruins, ninety miles to the south southwest, you hear the bleat of the Navajos’ flocks and the bark of their sheep dogs. At the Betatakin, Keet Seel and Inscription House ruins, a hundred miles to the southwest, you hear hikers talking on the trails, a motorcycle growling on the road, and cold winds whispering in the night.

Square Tower Ruin Hovenweep

In our experience at Hovenweep (a Ute word meaning "deserted valley"), you hear nothing at all for long periods. When you see the occasional visitors during the day, they seem to walk along the trails and among the ruins in deliberate quietness. They seem to speak with hushed voices, as though they were exploring the sanctuaries of the great old European cathedrals, many constructed at about the same time the early Pueblo people called Anasazi built the Hovenweep villages. You watch a raven alight atop a wall of a ruin. Without a sound, it watches you carefully, like a sentinel on a medieval fortress palisade, as you pass. In your tent at night, especially where my wife, Martha, and I camp up among the juniper and sage, you hear nothing at all in the dark stillness. You almost feel as if you are floating somewhere in space, beyond the light of the stars and galaxies. The silence reinforces the mysteries of the Hovenweep ruins and their towers.

Square tower ruin complex Hovenweep

Investigation of the standing walls, the circular depressions, the stone masonry rubble, the towers and the artifacts of Hovenweep is much like reading chapters in open-ended mystery novels. In both cases, you find clues about the authors, their origins, their cultural traditions, but you can never discover answers to all the riddles.

The Anasazis of Hovenweep, a small people, not much over five feet tall as adults, lived brief, hard lives. Children often died in infancy. Adults seldom lived past early middle age, thirty five to forty years old.

During their lifetimes, they probably belonged to clans, with children becoming members of their mothers’ clans. By custom, a husband likely took up residence with his wife near her family.

The Hovenweep people built their villages, each probably governed independently by consensus, around the heads of spring-fed canyons in Cajon Mesa, the center of the Great Sage Plain, during the twelfth century. They constructed multi-story, coursed stone dwellings and storage facilities. They built semi-subterranean, circular ceremonial chambers called kivas. They erected the strange stone towers, sometimes on precarious perches, sometimes in canyon floors, sometimes connected to kivas by tunnels.

They farmed hundreds of acres of the surrounding, communally owned land They raised the classic three Anasazi crops – corn, beans and squash – as well as some cotton. Their agricultural traditions dated to a time more than a thousand years earlier, when their ancestors began raising corn which had origins in southern Mexico and Central America. They hunted the wild animals and gathered the wild plants of the Cajon Mesa, ranging across its desert shrublands at about four thousand eight hundred feet on its southwestern end to its pinyon and juniper forests at some six thousand eight hundred feet on its northeastern end. They crafted a distinctive assemblage of clothing, woven fiber sandals, blankets, jewelry, utensils, stone tools, ceramic vessels and ceremonial objects.

Hovenweep runisThe Hovenweep Anasazi, like other Anasazi peoples, sought harmony and balance with their environment and in their lives. The quest lay at the center of their spirituality. On the Cajon Mesa, which receives only six to fifteen inches of rain per year, they prayed to their deities to deliver enough of their most critical resource, water, to nourish their corn. They vested sacred power in the agents of rain and water: clouds, which produced rainfall and lightening and thunder; mountains, which issued stream and river water; fish and frogs, which signified water. They danced to honor their deities, mark the seasons, and celebrate the harvests. They chiseled mystical symbols on rock surfaces, using them as ritual entranceways into their spirit world.

"I think that Hovenweep is the most symbolic of places in the Southwest," said Rina Swentzell, a Pueblo Indian scholar. "I think that the people there then stepped into ‘the masks of their ceremonies.’"

About a century after the Hovenweep Anasazi built their villages and broke their fields around the canyon heads of the Cajon Mesa, they – like other Anasazi across the region – abandoned their area, departing slowly over a period of years, leaving behind a tangle of mysteries.

They left, archaeologists once thought, to escape a long, severe drought, but the Anasazi apparently just moved to other locations which suffered the same drought. They could have left, some archaeologists now argue, not just because of drought, but also because of depleted wood resources, pressurized internal disputes, unraveling social ties, dwindling trade relations, unsustainable group interdependencies, failed religious leadership. They may have left, still other archaeologists think, because they came to believe that they could never succeed at Hovenweep and other regional locations in the search for harmony and balance.

What factor, or combination of factors, caused the Hovenweep people and other Anasazi to abandon their homes during the same period over a large region? No one can say for sure.

Archaeologists suggest that the Hovenweep and other Anasazi people may have broken into small groups as they abandoned their villages, and those groups could have drifted south and southeastward to join existing pueblos in the drainage basins of the Little Colorado River and Rio Grande. They would have lost their identity as they became absorbed into new communities. They left no clear record of their journeys, although migration stories enrich Pueblo oral history.

Specifically where did they go? No one can say for sure.

Joe S. Sando, a Pueblo Indian scholar, thinks that "…they were filled with longing for perfection in their society, harmony with their environment, and so they moved from time to time to other places with better sources of food and a better environment."

Edmund Ladd, another Pueblo scholar, echoed Sando, when he said, "They were traveling because they were looking, searching, for the center place."

The abandonments and relocations raise questions about the Anasazi region in general, but the towers hold mysteries for the Hovenweep ruins in particular.

The Hovenweep people built increasingly larger and tallerl towers over time, an indication of the increasing importance of the structures. They built them (in cross section) in D-shaped, square, rectangular, circular or irregular outlines. They located them, often with perilous entryways, on canyon ledges, canyon bottoms, even atop large boulders. In some of them, they built viewing ports, suggesting lookout or, possibly, defensive structures. In some, they left ceramic vessels, stone tools, stone grinding basins and food plant traces, suggesting living, working and storage areas. In some, they incorporated wall openings which admitted shafts of sun at summer solstice, suggesting solar calendars. For some, they constructed tunnels which led from the towers to kivas, suggesting a ceremonial function.

Why did the Hovenweep people, unlike other Anasazi, concentrate on building increasingly large towering structures with various cross-sectional shapes, in differing (even dangerous) locations, for apparently diverse functions? Why did they hold the towers in such importance? No one can say for sure.

The towers remain one of the enduring mysteries of Southwestern archaeology.

The six major Hovenweep ruin clusters, five on Cajon Mesa and one just northeast of the mesa, were made a national monument in a proclamation by President Warren Harding on March 2, 1923. They are administered today by the National Park Service. Several roads, most of them with graded dirt or gravel surfaces, lead from all directions into the Hovenweep National Monument.

The NPS maintains a ranger station, a campground and three trails at Square Tower Ruins, the most accessible of the six. The station, open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. has a restroom and drinking water, and it offers books and other items for sale. The handicapped-accessible campground has restrooms and drinking water and thirty one campsites, each with a table and a fire grate. The NPS charges a camping fee of six dollars per night. The trails, which are not handicapped accessible, total about two miles in length. The NPS has marked them with rock cairns. The NPS does not maintain facilities or trails at any of the other ruins, which are all more remotely located.

Archaeologists have done relatively little investigation of Hovenweep, especially in comparison with the work they have done at Chaco Canyon and other Anasazi sites. They have stabilized none of the standing walls, which are therefore especially susceptible to damage. Visitors must treat the ruins with respect and care to protect them for the future.

For additional information about Hovenweep, contact:

    Cortez Chamber of Commerce
    808 East Main
    Cortez, Colorado 81321
    1-800-346-5628
    1-970-565-3414

    Hovenweep National Monument
    McElmo Route
    Cortez, Colorado 81321
    1-970-562-4282
    email: hoveinfo@nps.gov

    For a good overview of the Hovenweep ruins, read Ian Thompson’s The Towers of Hovenweep, the source from which I extracted the quotes by the Pueblo Indian scholars. For a good overview of the Anasazi, read Anasazi World by Linda S. Cordell and Dewitt Jones.

Related DesertUSA Pages
Hovenweep National Monument and Maps
Ancient Peoples


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