A WALK IN THE PARK | Bandelier & Hovenweep: An Archeological Tour

Written by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in Taking Care of Your Life

In a recent issue, I told about our visit to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. But, wait, there’s more. On that same trip, Shirley and I also stopped at Bandelier National Monument about an hour northwest of Santa Fe and Hovenweep National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border. All three parks are dedicated to the preservation of Ancient Puebloan Indian sites.


Archeologists believe the Puebloans were descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherer people who roamed the area as much as 13,000 years ago. The evidence for these earlier people is basically stone spear and arrow points. There is far, far more evidence for the civilization of their descendants, the Ancient Puebloans, who established stable villages built of stone and adobe; made increasingly beautiful pottery; grew crops such as beans, squash, and corn; and left behind a treasure trove of artifacts.

During the early Puebloan era, homes were underground pit houses lined with shaped stones and covered over with wood and adobe roofs strong enough to support people walking on them. Which they had to be because the door was in the roof. Pit houses as habitations evolved into kivas used for religious ceremonies and community activities. By about 1200 AD, there were above-ground villages at Bandelier of about 40 adjoining rooms arranged in a circle. Eventually there were even larger villages until some had grown to about 600 rooms with some dwellings that rose as high as three stories. By the time the Spanish arrived in northern New Mexico, the Puebloans had already moved on to new homes along the upper Rio Grande. Today there are eight Indian pueblos north of Santa Fe where the current residents are probably descendants of the Bandelier people.

Shirley and I spent four days at Bandelier in mid-June. We can understand why anyone would be attracted to the place. From the tourist’s point of view, the Frijoles Canyon is just beautiful. Earlier residents, however, were probably interested in more mundane issues. Like survival, for example. This is high, desert country so the first thing on your checklist has to be water. Got it. Materials for shelter? Check. Food? Check.

We camped on the dry plateau above Frijoles Canyon at an elevation of 6,600 feet in a forest of stunted spruce and pinyon pines. At night, the temperature routinely dropped into the 30s, but by 8 a.m. or so it was T-shirt warm. And it was hot enough in the early afternoon to generate brief thundershowers. On the third day, hail was thrown in at no extra charge.

Down in the canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans lived along a stream where groves of stately Ponderosa pines still grow. The tall, straight trees made excellent roof beams. (Dendochronology, the study of tree rings, helps establish dates for the dwellings.) Plenty of wood for fuel, tools, and other things too. Other plants supplied materials for sandals, rope, and woven baskets.

Water also meant that game animals were bound to visit, so their crops were supplemented with meat that was dried for long-term storage. There is also evidence that they domesticated turkeys not only for meat and eggs but for feathers that could be woven together with yucca fibers to make warm blankets and coats. This, by the way, is a skill that is still practiced by modern Puebloans.

We took the trail out to the series of cliff-side dwellings. Along the way we passed the Big Kiva. Archeologists note that it was reconstructed or repaired at some point because the bottom courses of stones are all beautifully squared off and shaped to purpose. The top portion, though, is made of rough stone just mortared into place and considerably more crude in appearance. It is rather like a once-elegant Victorian home that deteriorated over time and was then “repaired” by less affluent later residents. Because they were underground, kivas were relatively warm in winter and cool in the summer.

At the base of the cliff at Bandelier are remains of talus houses that rest on the stone, or talus, that had fallen from the cliff. The dwellings at Mesa Verde, on the other hand, are high up in huge, natural alcoves in the cliff face itself. The back walls of the talus houses were formed by the vertical cliff rock of ironically named volcanic tuff. It is not “tough” at all but quite crumbly, so there are hundreds of naturally occurring caves, most of them rather small and shallow. Some of these were easily converted to storage space. Think of them as closets and pantries. These cave rooms, called cavates (cave-eights), were typically plastered with adobe and painted. They were not, however, big enough for use as living space. Archeologists speculate that the Ancient Puebloans used them to store at least two years of supplies to tide them over during the lean years.

In addition to tuff, other volcanic rock at Frijoles Canyon was probably an attraction to the prehistoric residents. There are plentiful deposits of basalt, a harder rock good for pounding tools such as hammers and for grinding corn. There is also shiny black obsidian that flakes easily to make sharp tools such as scrapers, spear points, and arrowheads.

The remains of talus houses stretch for about 800 feet along the cliff face. Even where the houses have collapsed, you can easily see where the multiple floors originally existed. There are evenly-spaced holes about a foot in diameter that were hollowed out to support the vigas or roof beams. Vigas are still a defining characteristic of modern “fauxdobe” construction in the Southwest. So, it is clear even to the casual visitor that there were usually two or even three stories rising above the ground floor. In some places, there are ladders placed so you can climb to a cavate. The floors have been obviously smoothed and leveled so they cannot be mistaken for natural caves. Some of these cavates have more elaborate, squared-off entrances defined by an outline of shaped stones around the natural opening. Tourists love to go in there and poke their heads out to have their pictures taken.

The biggest adventure in the park, though, is the climb to Alcove House. (The use of natural cliff alcoves dominates at Mesa Verde, but there is only one at Bandelier.) As the name suggests, it is a broad, deep opening in the cliff face that is still quite small by Mesa Verde standards. Alcove House is high above the base of the cliff and reached via a 140-foot ascent on ladders. Woohoo! Not for the faint of heart. Or those with heart issues. Or small children. But everyone we met established an instant sense of camaraderie. We shared advice. Don’t ever look down or out towards the open canyon. Don’t pause for selfies halfway up. Stay focused on what you are doing, or you won’t live to do it much longer.

In the alcove are cavates with beam holes in the wall over them indicating where viga logs for roof supports would have been inserted. There is also a kiva right at the edge of the drop-off. “Oh, Great Spirit, don’t desert me now!”

There were fewer such challenges at Hovenweep. Though the basic stone architecture resembles that of Mesa Verde and Bandelier, the building sites are generally on the rim of the cliff rather than in alcoves or at the base. The reasons for this are quite simple. First, there are no naturally occurring alcoves to build in. Then, the canyon is relatively narrow and shallow, so there aren’t many suitable building sites down there either. The main attraction for early residents may have been reliable water sources at the head of the canyon. Several stone towers suggest that the Puebloans were protecting something. It may have been their vital water sources from jealous or acquisitive neighbors. The towers resemble those built for both habitation and defense that appeared all over Europe during the Middle Ages. The names given to them by the Park Service (Stronghold House and Stonghold Tower) reflect this speculation about their defensive purpose.

On the other hand, the towers might have been just an aesthetic preference. At Mesa Verde, there are towers back in the cliff alcoves where you would expect that the overhanging cliff itself was a sufficient defense. Besides, we have heard ranger talks based on varying anthropological theories: this was a harsh, challenging environment with different tribes and clans competing for scarce resources; or, this was essentially a peaceable, agrarian culture that thrived by cooperating rather than competing.

Shirley and I took the loop trail to the head of the canyon, followed it back along the far rim, and descended into the canyon to cross and climb back to the trail head. We can attest to its challenging environment. So could others. We met a couple about our age resting on boulders in the shade of one of the rare, stunted pinyon pines. She was rather red in the face, and he was looking a little distressed, so we asked if they needed water or help. Assured that they did not, we continued on. A few minutes later, we met three EMTs hurrying down the trail. Evidently, hikers ahead of us had reported concerns about the red-faced woman. Seniors often seek to avoid encumbering others with needless solicitude and will stoutly deny the gravity of their symptoms. (I know an old guy who had a heart attack down in Bryce Canyon but didn’t let a minor annoyance like that keep him from climbing out.)

The archeological evidence indicates that Mesa Verde, Bandelier, and Hovenweep were built and thrived at almost exactly the same time (according to the tree rings), so there must have been a rather widespread cultural revolution underway similar to the burst of cathedral building in medieval Europe. Likewise, at the end of the 13th century, the Puebloans apparently all decided simultaneously that it was time to pack up and get out.

My personal theory was inspired by the example of the red-faced woman. After giving it a go for a couple hundred years, the Puebloan women banded together and said to their husbands, “You know what, this ain’t nearly as much fun as you said it would be. How about we find a place with more shade and water? A Holiday Inn Express with a swimming pool would be nice. Maybe order some Margaritas and Mojitos.” So, they all moved to Santa Fe.

Shirley says the theory still needs a little work. But she agrees that visiting the Ancient Pueblos was just a walk in the park.

LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site. ❦