Monday, January 25, 2010

Hovenweep Towers in Winter

The Little Ruin Canyon Trail is located at park headquarters for Hovenweep National Monument near the south Utah and Colorado state line. Most visitors arrive here during the mild portions of the year but the many mysterious towers can also be viewed during the snowy winters.

The circular, square, and D shaped towers, like the Twin Towers, are mostly perched along the canyon rim. This area is one of the best ruins viewpoints in the Four Corners as there are 10 sites to see within the 2 mile loop. The Hovenweep area received about 4 inches of snow while nearby and higher elevation Mesa Verde received nearly 2 feet during the same period.

The sidewalk leading to the trail head was cleared of snow but the trail itself required careful walking with a few icy spots. Temperatures since the snowfall have stayed mostly below freezing. During the mild seasons of the year we often forget how difficult survival in this region must have been.

The Hovenweep Castle is one of the most spectacular ruins in the region, a complex of two D shaped towers. The stone walls are two or three courses thick and dating of the wood used show a constructions date of 1277, a relatively late time in the history of this culture. The south facing canyon below the rim is cleared of snow while the north canyon rim still has a thick layer.

The Hovenweep Castle overlooks the area where a spring provides water for the site. Large Hackberry Trees benefit from the moist conditions.

Tower Point sits at the junction of the two canyon heads and has a commanding view down the canyon toward Sleeping Ute Mountain. The function of towers is not well understood, but this one clearly looks like a lookout point. There is supposed to be a pictograph somewhere below Tower Point. The trail up the canyon bottom is normally closed to visitors but rangers may lead hikers occasionally during the summer, based on demand.

I spent about 2:00 hours walking along the rim here on a 28 F mid January day, about two weeks after the most recent snow. The roads were mostly clear leading from the Cortez, CO area, a few patches of ice in spots that were always shady. I didn’t attempt to cross the canyon at the east end of the trail, but did an out and back counter clockwise hike from the trail head around to the Twin Towers and back.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pottery Shards on the Trail

On most of the hikes in the Canyons of the Ancients and other lightly visited areas pot shards will be visible. Sometimes hikers will make small displays of shards found. Studying these and other artifacts is encouraged but moving them from where they are found is usually discouraged.

The Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, CO acts as the visitor center for Canyons of the Ancients and has some good displays of pottery with some interpretive information to help understand the styles that might be observed along the trails.

The last groups of people living in the Mesa Verde area made pottery that are now called McElmo Black on White and Mesa Verde Black on White. Both types are thicker with more elaborate decoration than earlier types. The McElmo type is most common between 1150 and 1200 AD. It shows bands of triangles, checkerboards, steps and hatched areas.

Bowls are usually painted on the insides only. Looking at the examples in the Heritage Center, the McElmo Black on White had a more faded look to them. They are slightly older on average, but that may be a coincidence.
Mesa Verde Black on White is most common after 1200 AD. It has heavier designs with more black spaces, placed in segments. Bowls are decorated on both inside and outside. During this time pitchers became less common with mugs becoming more popular. No interpretation of the development of mugs over pitchers is offered, but that fact set off my imagination some. There seemed to be more examples of Mesa Verde Black on White in this collection. There is a good display of three mugs side by side.

The one of the left is notable as it features a T shape cut out in the handle, similar to some of the doorways and rock art found in the area. The doorways at the Escalante Ruin site on the hill above the museum are T shaped. Extra thirsty drinkers might like the double mug up above, though It seems like drinking from one side would cause spilling of the other side.

I’ve observed a lot of corrugated shards along the trails. Corrugated pots had indented coils covering most of the surface and were durable for cooking corn and beans. The corrugated styles can vary with the curvature of the rim. A straight rim is called the Manccos Corrugated style and is dated from 930 to 1000 AD. Slightly curved rims dating from 1050 to 1300 are called the Dolores Corrugated. Sharply curved rims are from 1100 to 1300 and are identified as Mesa Verde Corrugated. 

The Heritage Center has examples also of earlier Black on White styles are named the Cortez and Mancos. The Cortez style dates from 875 to 1050 AD and features interlocking scrolls, scalloped and ticked solids and fine lines. Also, string of pearls designs are found.

The Mancos style dates from 975 to 1150 and has triangles hanging from the bowl rims, vertical lines from the rim, and hatching with straight lines or squiggles. Without a lot of practice it might be hard to distinguish these styles from each other based on a single broken piece, but Black on White should be clear.

In the museum there are also some examples of pottery with three or more colors called Polychrome and some Red and Orange colored pottery. The southeast Utah area was the center of Red Ware pottery and the examples found closer to Mesa Verde are thought to have been traded into the area.

I thought the most interesting pottery display in the Heritage Center was the side by side of two flute players. The bowl on the left is McElmo style and Mesa Verde Style is on the right. Flute players are often called Kokopellis but the interpretation is more complicated than the popular culture recognizes. I haven’t seen any flute player rock art in the Mesa Verde or Canyons of the Ancients area, though there are many to find in nearby Utah.

The left side bowl is identified as being from the Knobby Knees Stockade, which I think is on Cahone Mesa in an area that was supposed to receive water from the McPhee Reservoir Project. It is somewhere in the vicinity of Lowry Pueblo. Many of the pots on display list the site where they were found, and some of these sites are within the Canyons of the Ancients and can be visited.

A station in the museum has four dissecting microscopes set up with samples of pottery and other artifacts for a close examination. There are several boxes of samples to look at with interpretive information built into the samples. Very small signs are embedded in the sample cases to explain what you are looking at.

 It is a very creative exhibit and I haven’t seen anything similar at the other regional museums at Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, or Edge of the Cedars. Some of the features pointed out are the type of temper material added to the clay to prevent cracking. Studying these tiny grains provides clues to when and where the pottery piece was manufactured. The types of paint used can be distinguished under the microscopes also. The subtle differences between vegetal and mineral based black paints are among the examples.

Another exhibit where pottery pieces can be handled is an unnoticed drawer below one of the cases of whole pots. The display shows some of the regional styles represented as broken pieces as a hiker might find them. These different styles could be found anywhere due to trade.

One of the questions posed is was it the pottery that was traded or was it the contents of the pot.  Some time spent in the Anasazi Heritage Center might inspire the desire to examine these pieces in the field and leave them there for others to do the same.

One area where there are numerous pot shards visible is in Ute Mountain Tribal Park, particularly in the Mancos Canyon portion of the full day tours. All visits to Ute Mountain Park are guided and visitation is light, so the shards have remained mostly in place. The guides don’t seem to object to the creation of small displays of interesting shards as others sometimes do. The Kiva Point short trail and the Red Pottery Village have an overwhelming number of pot shards to view.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

Canyons of the Ancients-Large Ruins Rarely Seen

Yucca House is a strong contender for most obscure National Monument. This large ruins site rests in the level farming area between Mesa Verde and Ute Mountain in southwest Colorado. Several miles northwest of Yucca House is the lightly visited Goodman Point Unit of Hovenweep National Monument.

Two more large but lightly visited sites are on Cannonball Mesa and in Woods Canyon, both parts of the relatively new Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Yucca House was accepted as a National Monument in 1919 and has remained unexcavated the whole time since then. For visitors, it is somewhat difficult to visit as it remains as large rubble mounds overgrown with greasewood without any development for visitors. The area surrounding the site today is used as agricultural land that looks like it might be more productive than the areas on top of Mesa Verde.

The Yucca House site has obvious green marshy spots where springs still bubble to the surface. The setting is interesting as it rests in the shadow of Mesa Verde and may have been visible from the west rim area.

Mesa Verde may appear as an island of cultural development, but the valley areas below were also populated in ancient times. There are isolated preserved sites in the areas away from Mesa Verde but modern development has mostly obscured the remains of that civilization.

The Sand Canyon area has well known trail system that leads to many small ruins sites. Goodman Canyon is the next canyon to the east. At the head of Goodman Canyon is a large ruins site that is one of the outlying Hovenweep National Monument sites. Like most of the canyon head locations there is a spring providing water.

 It was the first site to receive Federal protection when it was withdrawn from homesteading in 1889. There are no visitor facilities at the Goodman Point Unit and no signs pointing it out. For a visitor, there are some paths to follow and there is some current excavation with some peeks into trenches and piles of collected sandstone bricks. The short brochure says there are 42 different sites to find here, but I think it will appear to most as one very large site.

On the southwest side of the Canyons of the Ancients Monument area is the large Cannonball Mesa site that seems to receive little attention for such a large site. It is relatively easy to hike to and has a number of still standing walls. The terrain has fewer trees than Mesa Verde and most of the rest of Canyons of the Ancients. Like Goodman Point, the site is at the head of a canyon with a water source trickling out of the canyon wall.

The Woods Canyon Pueblo site seems to have been chosen as an example of a canyon rim living site to develop into an educational unit for schools.  It seemed to me that after studying the site in school, the students might want to actually see it, but it looks like a difficult location to bring a class of students.

Logistics of visiting aside, the site is arrayed on a somewhat steep slope above a creek that has year round water and farm fields. Most of the structures are rubble piles with a few intact wall sections near the canyon rim. Most of the area is obscured somewhat by the Pinon and Juniper forest. There are some examples of the use of large boulders as foundations for perched buildings.