U.S National Park Service Hovenweep Website
Human habitation at Hovenweep dates back over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people continued to use the mesa for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900 A.D. these people started to settle here year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil on the mesa's top. At its prime in the late 1200's, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.
The inhabitants of the Hovenweep area during the late 1200's, referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly Anasazi), excelled in architectural and craft skills as well as farming. Hovenweep is most generally associated with the Pueblo II/Pueblo III transition (A.D. 900-1300). The majority of the standing prehistoric structures at the monument were constructed in the early to mid-1200's. By evidence of masonry and architecture, as well as the predominance of Mesa Verde pottery at all of the Hovenweep villages, it is apparent that the people who built these structures were part of the Montezuma Valley/Mesa Verde culture. The buildings that visitors to Hovenweep see today are the remnants of the settlements these people built during the high point of their occupation of region. The structures here are numerous and varied. Some are square, some D-shaped, some round, some measuring nearly four stories tall. There are towers, kivas, pueblos, room blocks, granaries, check dams, and farming terraces. The ancestral Puebloan's masonry is as beautiful as it is complex, and many of the structures are precariously built atop rock outcroppings, still standing after almost 700 years. Many theories have been offered as to the use of the buildings at Hovenweep. The famous towers could have been used as celestial observatories, defensive structures, storage facilities, civil buildings, homes, or any combination of these. Archeologists have found that most of the towers were associated with kivas (religious and social structures), giving some evidence toward a ceremonial use. Around the towers are piles of rubble that indicate that there were many more structures in existence than are seen today, leaving archeologists to ponder over the actual function of these towers. While we do not know the uses of some buildings, we do know that the people who built them were successful farmers. They terraced their land into farmable plots, formed catch basins to hold water run-off, and built check dams to retain the soil that would normally wash off the cliff edges by erosion. Storage caches along the canyon rims still exist and can be spotted by the discerning eye. These caches would have held dried crops of corn, beans and squash for later use. Some believe that stored crops would be plentiful enough to last through anticipated dry years as well.
The masonry found in the Hovenweep area is very distinctive and shows considerable skill in construction techniques. Structures at other locations in the region, even the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to architectural detail. In brief, the tower walls have the following characteristics:
1. Wall stones are thick blocks taken from sandstone containing calcium carbonate. One flat rectangular side forms
the visible wall face, while the other stones within the walls are irregular.
2. Wall faces were dimpled with a pecking stone to resemble flatness.
3. Coursing was incidental to the use of rectangular faced stones.
4. Mud mortar was sometimes used, with the intent of closing voids between stones.
5. Spalls were used to support stones in place. Spalls were also used to fill in spaces between stones after the walls were constructed.
By the end of the thirteenth century the people of Hovenweep and the surrounding region (such as Mesa Verde and Kayenta) packed up and left the area, presumably moving southward and joining with the people of the Hopi and Zuni. Several theories have developed as to the reasons for the ancestral Puebloan's departure. Some say they were forced out by hostile neighbors. Others say a combination of overpopulation, overuse of the land, and a 20 year drought beginning in the year 1276 made the area uninhabitable. Most likely it was not just one factor but a combination of many which caused the ancestral Puebloans to decide to leave their elaborate homes.