Ask The Towers
Why do the builders build you?
Because bees lead us to the water pockets
See here! See here! Raven cries,
Climb down! Climb down!
Taste the rain a cavern ceiling drips
with lightning from the sky
You can paint upon a water jar.
Every morning, every evening these
Towers play lookout over farmsteads
And Sleeping Man is with you,
In the slant the seasons
make into Ancestors
When it’s time to plant
and time to harvest.
~ Greg Hobbs
Wright Paleohydrologic Survey; Hovenweep National Monument
September 27-29, 2015
Reflections on the Return to Hovenweep
Five years after our 2010 water survey of the Goodman Point Pueblo unit of Hovenweep National Monument, the National Park Service permitted us to return to survey other units at Hovenweep.
It’s the turning of the fall equinox 2015. Our group meets at Square Tower Unit on Sunday, September 27. A blood-red harvest eclipse moon rises from the east over the head and shoulders of Sleeping Ute Mountain. The Park Service has set up for the public an after-hours viewing area equipped with a powerful telescope. Earlier this afternoon, my grandson Kyle, wife Bobbie and I circumnavigated, in counterclockwise fashion, the rim trail around the Square Tower.
It’s good to be back out on the rimrock! We walk past Hovenweep Castle to the bend where a pour-off plunges into the northern fork of the canyon’s terminus. Up-gradient, we find a water pocket where bees line the edge of a puddle, perhaps settling in for a sip.
We cross a number of breached check structures the Pueblo people built to spread out and slow the flow before it plummets from the pour-off. Tomorrow’s work will involve separating our nine-member team, one to look for farm plots on the mesa top, one to descend into the canyon floor to search for water sources the people depended on.
Cajon Mesa houses five units of Hovenweep stepping down a series of pueblos trending toward the San Juan River, across Colorado’s boundary from Cutthroat through Holly, Hackberry and Square Tower units, ending at Cajon unit, at an elevation of 4,800 feet. Colorado’s Goodman Point unit is located about 30 miles to the east, at an elevation of 6,700 feet.
From circa 900 A.D., the Hovenweep people spread out across the Great Sagebrush Plain and grew a small-cob type of corn adapted by generational practice to a short growing season. They turned every spot of soil blown by wind or eroded by rain into farm plots. Beginning in approximately 1230, families gathered into communities ranging from 500 to 800 persons at Goodman Point to perhaps 100 at Square Tower and even smaller at the lower Cajon unit. The people had dogs and supplemented their diets with rabbits, domesticated turkeys and wild plants.
Cajon Mesa transcends four plant zones with precipitation averaging 15 inches annually at the upper end to six inches at the lower end. In the three days of our survey, we located three reservoir sites on mesa land above the pueblos. Two of these were dry; the third was a third full and was sprouting cattails. We conducted our work in the sixteenth year of a devastating Colorado River Plateau drought.
On the morning of Monday, September 28, we returned to Park Headquarters at the Square Tower unit from the Recapture Lodge in Bluff along the San Juan River. The night came and went as the shuttered moon plowed its way west, only to reappear slowly by moonset.
In 1974, Bobbie and I brought our six-year-old son, Dan, and our three-year-old daughter, Emily (Kyle’s mother), here. I then wrote (for it seemed such a revelation and impetus for celebration):
Convergence at Hovenweep
Two canyons, two towers,
one of the sun,
one of the moon,
from distant geographies
these two canyons
Where — now —
these two towers
at the head of the floor
These canyons hold
the gouging and the leveling
of their tributaries
that, shaping them,
have made their features
Between the walls
of their different understandings,
in the niches and the crevices,
voices feed and murmur
while these two towers stand
A flute shall play,
and through the earthen
windows of these
two figures stretching,
light of evening
light of midday.
You cannot behold such architecture as these towers set against the Four Corners landscape without the spirit building you up. How wondrous it is that these people shaped their earth to rise and shine! Dwellings, granaries, pottery kilns, wayfarer observation towers, defense bastions, astronomical sighting places. They speak of a mastery of craftsmanship in community. Framed by their majesties, the Sleeping Ute, the La Plata and the La Sal mountains.
Park Service Guides
Noreen Fritz of the Park Service leads Ken Wright, Crow Canyon archaeologist Kristin Kuckelman, Bobbie Hobbs and Sally Kribs on a search for mesa top water structures and farmsteads. Noreen’s colleague Todd Scarborough, Kyle and I descend into Little Ruin Canyon with Gary Witt, Robert Traylor, Julia Traylor and Cali McMurtrey. Across the canyon on the south side, we see Twin Towers lit by a morning glow.
Today we are searching for seeps, springs, canyon bottom plots and side terraces hugging side slopes. Our permit allows us off the visitor trails in the company of the National Park Service archeologists. It’s a jumble of rock in a temporary standstill as we maneuver so as not to slip off. Gary’s specialty for Wright Water Engineers is hydrogeology. He names the layers of Earth’s increments we pass through. Some buckle up, over and into each other.
I note in my “Level Book” some of these deposits — conglomerate, shale, Dakota sandstone, Aeolian fossil dunes, reworked cobble cemented together, the Morrison and Burro Canyon formations. I see purple and greens amidst a sea of browns. Previous oceans did quite a job here.
Gary is looking for the sweet spots that an aquifer leaks through. The young people — Julia, Cali, and Kyle — delight in sherds. Todd explains the protocol. Pick it up, turn it over, put it back! Julia is a young engineer at the Wright firm. She’s wearing a red tee shirt with white lettering: “Don’t Worry Be Hopi.” Between the lettering, lightning flashes on three rain clouds that loosen a shower of sparkles. Her dad, Robert, a Grand Junction lawyer, was once a practicing archaeologist. Cali, a Brigham Young student, has been summer interning with Ken Wright. Our grandson Kyle is with us as part of a gap semester before heading for Middlebury.
We’re getting a trunk load of design information about the various kinds of pottery and what each small piece might have been part of. Corrugated coil fragments (drinking cups?) fascinate me. Gary thinks that the available mapping has some inconsistencies relative to the location of the geologic contact in the area of the spring. Another excuse to take pictures.
Finding Springs at Square Tower Unit
Where Little Ruin Canyon splits, we follow the north fork. The way is steep and choked with hard brush. Tall yellow flowering bushes climb up above them. The open guts of looming towers watch over all who pass. There could be some places suitable for corn growing in this narrow draw — but not many. They planted where they could.
Reaching the headwall of the canyon, we crawl into a cavern situated beneath the north fork’s pour-off. The ground is moist. Julia holds up a slender tube for collecting drips trickling from the ceiling. Cali and Kyle time and count the drops. How many pots did the people need to place in shifts to harvest drips? Family by family, they must have taken their turn to bring the water home. How did they decide who collected water and when as they watched the corn stalks wither during the prolonged drought of the 1270s? Governance came down to water and food purchased through unceasingly shared responsibilities.
Noon is forthcoming. We track back to the junction of the branches and up the south fork where Square Tower stands in the canyon bottom, affronting the spring’s location with a tall look at whoever might be approaching. It’s a broader expanse here than in the north fork. We see walls, paths, foundations of cascading dwellings and possible farming terraces.
Again, our limber young people harvest and count drips from cavern ceiling seeps. Julia places a 500-milliliter plastic container under a particularly promising place. It takes fifteen minutes to fill a fifth of it. The spring must have run stronger in better water years. Tucked under the left hand side of this cavern is a rock-berm cistern. It contains a small pool of water. Gary takes a tape measure to it to assay its capacity.
Our 2010 survey of Goodman Point Pueblo’s Juarez and Mona Springs yielded significantly better groundwater discharges for supporting a population of five times as great as that of Square Tower’s. Juarez Spring’s two outlets averaged nearly two gallons per minute each, whereas Mona Springs’ half a gallon a minute was supplemented by nearby Goodman Point Reservoir.
We spot the other team up on the rim. How many farm plots are they finding? They call down for us to climb out. We’re late for a picnic table lunch at the parking lot. On the trail up and out of the canyon we peer into Square Tower through an ancient T-shaped doorway.
Cajon Unit and Blanding’s Edge of the Cedars Collection
Mid-afternoon finds us at the Cajon unit at the end of Cajon Mesa looking towards the San Juan River. This small cluster huddles around another spring that prior research literature describes as one of the most reliable of the Hovenweep springs. But we discover the cavern ceiling spring drips are even scarcer here than at Square Tower.
Noreen vividly describes the significance of this site through her recount of an excavation that she was responsible for. One of the buildings overlooking the spring yielded a trove of ancestral Pueblo artifacts dating back to the mid-1270s, when residents were in the process of permanently departing from Mesa Verde and the Great Sagebrush Plain. We explore the site of a mesa top reservoir built to capture and spread water onto Cajon unit farm plots.
We drive to Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding to view the Cajon unit collection, which includes a stone axe head and a large beautifully crafted pot, Noreen and colleagues continue to study. This museum houses a vast display of precious Pueblo tools and art. We marvel at a turkey feather blanket some family member snuggled under during the long nights of winter’s arc. We return to Bluff for a delectable BBQ in the high desert evening air.
Holly Unit and Mesa Top Reservoirs
On the morning of Tuesday, September 29, we hike into Holly Unit to further gauge the interrelationship of the five Cajon Mesa Hovenweep units. Niched along the rims of southwest flowing drainages, they are part of a larger whole within a half-day’s determined walk of each other.
Very large boulders obliterate what must have been the spring that Holly’s residents depended on. A breached check dam perches on the edge of a plunging pour-off area overgrown by Hackberry trees, a telling signal that there’s aquifer water seeping through this site. Todd climbs down to look for a spring, but an armored mass of rock obscures the way into whatever cavern counterpart of Square Tower and Cajon units may exist here.
On cap rock overlooking Holly’s renowned solstice panel, Kristin lights up this morning’s understanding with a discussion of the possible reasons for and uses of the Hovenweep towers. The Pueblo people from Chaco to Mesa Verde knew how to build tall functional structures embracing the vistas of this incomparable landscape. The flowering of their pottery and architectural arts occurred within a physical and spiritual dimension that corresponded with the aggregation of populated pueblos, like Goodman Point and these others of Hovenweep.
They were masters of water works as well. We examine two more ancient mesa top reservoirs they built to slow and spread rainstorm runoff onto farm fields. One is dry. The other, Cajon Lake, continues to hold water in a wetland singing with birds and cattails. The three Cajon reservoirs we explore during our three-day survey appear to function as recharge areas feeding the Cajon Mesa springs.
It seems very likely that the people appreciated and capitalized on what today’s engineers call “conjunctive use.” Springs continue to yield water into a prolonged drought for far longer than they otherwise would, when human ingenuity and labor provide for unlined storage and recharge structures. These people had only wood and stone yucca-fiber-wrapped digging sticks and their legs, hands, shoulders and each other to work with.
Our experience with collecting droplets from the Hovenweep springs, in the midst of the current 16-year drought, evidences a collapsing natural resource base that prompted the people’s migrations south to the Rio Grande pueblos, the Hopi mesas, the Mogollon rim and into Mexico over succeeding centuries.
Questions for Continued Exploration
We did not have sufficient time to survey the entire watershed of Cajon Mesa and its farmable acreage. We did not explore the Cutthroat and Hackberry units for their interrelationship with the three units that we did manage to survey.
We know this from the lay of the land and the waters, aided by study of the available maps. The north and south springs of the Square Tower Pueblo comprise a water source fed by converging aquifers. That is why and how this community supported a larger population for as long as it did. D
For more information about this type of work, click here.
Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. is a Senior Water Judge assigned to the mediation of water cases and Co-Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He served as a Colorado Supreme Court Justice from May 1996 to August 2015. Greg has authored a number of books, including Living the Four Corners (2010) and Into the Grand (2012). He holds a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and has practiced law with an emphasis on water, environment, land use and transportation. Greg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.