Houses of Stone and Light

Hovenweep National Monument

Staci Amidst all the natural and supernatural splendor of the Four Corners, I am not sure I would have chosen this spot to build a major architectural complex.

The cluster of square or D-shaped ruins hug an unremarkable ravine in the midst of rolling flatlands which are occasionally punctuated by a taller mountain or deeper canyon. Hovenweep is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and usually windy. It is not that close to a sacred mountain and these days at least has only a few weed-like juniper trees for wood.

But upon closer inspection, there is something else going on at Hovenweep. Aesthetics may indeed have not been very important at all. Hovenweep - a Ute Indian word meaning 'deserted valley' - seems to be guarding something. Most of the buildings are constructed at the very edges of cliffs - neither safe nor accessible. Some are built over boulders or jumbles of rocks. Many seem to guard seeps or springs. And they were abandoned inexplicably in the late 1200s.

'Inexplicable' is a word I find myself using a lot here in the Four Corners. Many things I run into here are 'inexplicable.' Ruins, canyons, towns, petroglyphs, pictographs. Enigmatic, you could call the place.

The entire Four Corners region holds a plethora of Anasazi ruins and evidence of habitation which marks perhaps the greatest concentration of significant archeological sites in America. Indians used complex architectural techniques to build cities in unimaginable places, used surprisingly sophisticated hydrological tools to irrigate crops, adhered to a religion as complex and meaningful as any today, and held a cohesive culture which thrived for centuries amidst the desert.

About 2,000 years ago, according to current archeological thinking, Archaic Age hunter-gatherers started to grow corn, beans squash, amaranth and other crops in small fields in the region. At first they probably lived in shallow caves or beneath overhanging cliffs but later built pithouses. About A.D. 700 they moved into small villages of multiple-room apartments. By the turn of the millennium (I should note, that is the Christian millennium) they were living in the multi-story dwellings found in places like Hovenweep.

A Unique Place

Square Tower In his book 'The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons,' government explorer John Wesley Powell described visiting the Pueblo town of Oraibi, in northern Arizona, in the 1870s. Powell's description might be the closest we have to recounting what life may have been like in the time of Hovenweep:

'Oraibi is a town of several hundred inhabitants. It stands on a mesa or little plateau 200 or 300 feet above the surrounding plain ... The streets of the town are quite irregular; and in a general way run from north to south. The houses are constructed to face the east. They are of stone laid in mortar, and are usually three or four stories high. The second story stands back upon the first, leaving a terrace over one tier of rooms ... In like manner, ladders or rude stairways are used to reach the upper stories. The climate is very warm and the people live on the tops of their houses. It seems strange to see little naked children climbing the ladders and running over the house tops like herds of monkeys. After we have looked about the town and been gazed upon by the wondering eyes of the men, women, and children, we are at least called to supper. In a large central room we gather and the food is placed before us. A stew of goat's flesh is served in earthen bowls, and each one of us is furnished with a little earthen ladle. The bread is a great novelty to me. It is made of corn meal in sheets as thin and large as foolscap paper ...'

Today, of course, tourists are not served corn bread. A short walk at the park leads among the main ruins: the symmetrical Twin Towers, the stunning Hovenweep Castle, the mysterious Rim Rock House. The Castle might be the most interesting. There, portals appear to align the sunlight from the summer and winter solstices and spring and autumn equinoxes. Evidence of sophisticated calendar-making, such precise measurements of sunrises and sunsets may have been necessary so villagers could prepare for religious ceremonies surrounding the solstices and equinoxes. Being farmers, it was important to know when to plant and when to harvest based on the position of the sun, not the whims of the season.

Established in March, 1923, Hovenweep protects some of the nation's best examples of pre-Columbian architecture. The round, square and D-shaped stone towers are unique in the Southwest. Though known among early area settlers, the place was popularized by William H. Jackson, who in 1874 came across the homes. 'Hovenweep,' his name for the area, is a Ute word for 'deserted valley.' Though I visited the Square Tower unit of the park, Hovenweep National Monument actually stretches from Utah into Colorado, protecting a line of similar villages.

History, Re-set in Stone

Hovenweep House Though many of Hovenweep's ruins have not been rebuilt, archeologists have had to fortify and strengthen some structures since they were threatened by deterioration. But unlike some less accurate work at other historic sites, one can not easily tell that the ruins have been fixed. Instead, they stand stoically, unaware of the passing centuries, looking over the little canyon and broad, empty plains. Interesting fact: banking on the good restoration job here, the College of Eastern Utah, based in Price, is now offering classes in historical restoration. The class will be taught here part of the year.

Hovenweep park, its campground and visitors center are open year-round; bad weather, such as heavy rain or snow, can render some local roads impassable, however. Inquire locally before setting out on unimproved roads. An all-weather road leads to the park from the small Navajo Nation town of Aneth; two other paved roads lead from Blanding, Utah and Cortez, Colo.. The park stretches in to Colorado, though most of the ruins are in Utah. Other cliff dwelling-type ruins can be found in the area outside of the park; consult detailed maps for their locations.

The nearest 'real' town to Hovenweep is Bluff, and in Bluff a real good place to stay is Recapture Lodge. Recapture Lodge is a real throwback. There is a serve-yourself breakfast each morning full of interesting people making interesting conversation. Though rooms do have televisions, there is a slide show each night and a study full of books and maps.


Warning: Read at your own risk. Always carry water in the desert. Think of home often. Good coffee can be had in Monticello. If you are looking for something to read, I would suggest 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' by Dave Eggers.

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