For Ancestral Puebloans, the Twin Towers of Chimney and
Companion Rocks may have Formed a Natural Stonehenge
Ask any realtor. It's always been about "location, location, location." So why, a thousand years ago, did Ancestral Puebloans choose the inhospitable ridge below Chimney Rock as a site to locate a village?
After all, cultivatable land was marginal on the plunging hillsides, and at an elevation of around 7,000 feet, the growing season remained short. The nearest year-round water flowed a mile away. Even liquid to make mud mortar and adobe stucco needed to be lugged a thousand vertical-feet uphill. Of course, high ground provides defensive advantages, but no evidence of warfare exists here.
That leaves one explanation for the location. It was the view. But it probably wasn't the spreading panorama of peaks and pines that lured Chimney Rock's ancient residents. Archeologists believe they built here for visions of sunrises, moonrises and an exploding star.
Two massive stone pillars, Chimney and Companion Rocks, tower at the far end of the village ridge. From the valley below, they look like stubby horns on the devil's forehead. Seen lengthwise from high ground, those two pillars form a gunsight-like notch ideal for scoping heavenly phenomena.
The 4,100-acre Chimney Rock Archeological Area lies 20 miles west of Pagosa Springs in southwestern Colorado's San Juan National Forest. Here, conifers cloak the slopes, creeks worthy of Coors labels tumble down hillsides, and trout-filled rivers meander through meadow-lined valleys. Horses lope and cows graze in Carnation-worthy contentment. This slice of Rocky Mountain color country is not where one expects to find desert-dwelling Ancestral Puebloans.
Formerly known as Anasazi, Ancestral Puebloans built their stone homes around the cliffs and canyons of the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Unlike the herd-hunting tribes of the Great Plains, these folks farmed their food.
"About 1500 BC, something really neat happened in the central Mexico highlands," explains guide Barry Wheeless. "They learned they could plant corn and harvest it year after year. That began a slow conversion from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural-based culture. We believe the Native American inhabitants of the Four Corners area came north from present-day Mexico."
Barry and other volunteers lead 2½-hour tours of Chimney Rock. We meet at the visitor cabin, a short drive off Colorado 151. Inside I find interpretative displays as well as a selection of books and gifts to buy. On a shelf sets a stuffed rattlesnake, which looks so cute with its forked tongue and tiny fangs sticking out. I think of the devilish fun I could have with one of these at home.
From the cabin, we drive up a gravel road to a parking lot near the ruins. Barry emphasizes that the site is protected by federal law, and it's illegal to pick up, tamper with or destroy anything out here.
"We don't even kill rattlesnakes. We just shove them out of the way," he assures me. The souvenir serpent at the cabin now has site significance.
We start down the paved Great Kiva trail, one of the site's two pathways. Barry explains that Chimney Rock's first inhabitants arrived around 900-950 AD, but most of what we see today came later. The lower Pit House was built in 1078 according to tree-ring dendrochronology. It's one of four structures that have been excavated and stabilized.
The dwelling consists of a rock exterior that was once coated with adobe and then whitewashed or painted. The roof would have been flat and built of branches covered with more adobe. A ventilator shaft drew in air and a square hole in the roof let smoke escape. Ladders through it allowed the only access. About the size of a walk-in closet, this pit house, Barry explains, would have sheltered an entire family.
We stop at the second excavated edifice, a round walled enclosure known as the Great Kiva. Most of these ceremonial structures were dug into the ground, but since this one lies directly on bedrock, they built it upward.
"Some real mysteries surround this place," Barry reveals. "Almost all kivas have roofs, but there's no clear indication this ever had one. There's also no sipapu, which is a ritual opening to the underworld. The Puebloans believe their descendants came out of the ground. Our religions are based sky down."
Barry stops beside a row of manos and metates, stones used to grind corn. He points out how the rock has been worn down, and how the corn flour they made would have contained significant amounts of grit.
"Based on skeletal remains, we believe that most Ancestral Puebloans' teeth were ground to the gum by the time they were around 25. That's probably one of the reasons for their 35-40 year lifespan.
The people, he says, were short and stocky. The men averaged about 5'2" and the women about 5'0". The girls were probably married by the time they were 12 and the boys by about 14. A third or more of their offspring died in infancy. While they suffered from tuberculosis, arthritis and osteoporosis, the Ancestral Puebloans' most serious health issues were probably respiratory ailments caused by living in smoke-filled pit houses.
Leaving the paved trail, Barry leads me onto a sandstone slab where the ancient inhabitants scooped a sink-sized hole into the rock. It's called a stone basin, and until 20 years ago, its purpose was vaguely listed as "ceremonial."
"Astronomer J. McKim Malville didn't have anything to do one day," Barry recounts, "so he came out, stood behind this hole and watched the sun come up. Low and behold, from here the sun rose directly over the north wall of the Great House Pueblo on the ridge. It was June 21st, the day of the summer solstice."
For people who needed to know when to plant crops, the movement of the sun, moon and stars served as a calendar. Similar solstice sightlines have been found at Chaco Canyon, one of the capitals of the Ancestral Puebloan world.
"Chaco's in the middle of the New Mexico desert," Barry explains, "where they survived and thrived for well over 200 years. They built 14 pueblos and 400 miles of roads paved with flat sandstone, yet they had no wheel or beasts of burden."
The Chaco culture expanded outwards with the establishment of associated sites known as Chacoan outliers. Chimney Rock is officially the northernmost and loftiest yet to be found.
"There was an influx here of people from Chaco Canyon starting about 1050 AD," Barry explains. "The Chacoans were the elite living at the very top of the mesa."
We cross the parking lot and begin to climb up that way on the steep and rocky Pueblo Trail. Taking a breather, Barry points across the valley toward a distant butte known as Peterson's Mesa.
"There's a Chacoan-style pueblo on that ridge," he says. "If you stood in its Courtyard and looked east, you would see the sun rise between Chimney and Companion Rocks at the summer equinox."
Besides its role as a calendar site, some speculate there may be another factor involved in Chimney Rock's location. It could have been used by the Ancestral Puebloans for long distance communications. Barry points out Huerfano Mesa about 65 buzzard-flying miles away. From its summit, both Chimney Rock and Chaco Canyon can been seen. Using the mesa as an intermediary, messages could have been relayed between the two distant sites.
"A young lady decided that she was going to prove that communications link for her high school science fair project," Barry recounts. "She got three groups of people, each carrying a big dressing mirror. One came here to Chimney Rock. One went to Huerfano Mesa. The third went to Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon. They had no trouble signaling each other back and forth. The natives theoretically would have used fire at night, but the Forest Service wouldn't let her do that experiment."
The Pueblo Trail passes over a structure bordered by rock walls running to cliff's edge. To reach the Great House beyond, visitors would have to go through it just like modern-day airline passengers must pass through TSA security to get to the gate, albeit the Ancestral Puebloans probably got to keep their sandals on. Archeologists named it the Guardhouse.
We continue to the site of the Great House Pueblo, which bears at least 35 rooms and two kivas. Estimates say six million stones, 5,000 logs and about 25,000 tons of adobe mortar went into its construction.
"If you look along the base, you'll see part of the original wall with its intricate use of small stones. At Chaco, we see at the same type of construction."
Ancient people worldwide followed the cycle of the sun. They knew that every day from the winter solstice onward, Ol' Sol rises slightly to the north of where it rose the day before. Finally, at the time of the summer solstice, that northern progress comes to a screeching standstill like my wife at the sight of a snake. It then shifts into reverse, rising farther to the south each day until six months later it hits the brakes again at its winter solstice standstill.
Like the sun, the moon also rises from various points along the horizon. While the solar cycle repeats itself every calendar year, the moon's offset orbit makes its cycle take 18.6 years. That northernmost point from which the moon rises is called the major lunar standstill.
"If you're standing on the north side of the Great House at the time of the standstill, you'll see the moon come up directly between the two spires," Barry points out. "We believe the main reason that the Great House was built here was because of the lunar cycle."
Monitoring the sun makes seasonal sense, but it's difficult to figure a practical value for keeping track of an 18.6-year lunar cycle. Yet archeologists see similar sites around the world, the most famous of which is Stonehenge in England. Chimney Rock remains the only known standstill sighting site employing natural topographic objects.
Barry then reveals another interesting anomaly in the Great House. Unlike most Ancestral Puebloan buildings, the opposing walls of this structure are not parallel. The south wall is offset by a few degrees, and archeologists pondered why. Astronomers provided a possible answer. From the stone basin below, the south wall lines up perfectly with a position of a 1054 supernova, a heavenly event which awed humankind worldwide.
"A supernova is when a giant red star collapses on itself and blows up," explains Barry. "It's the most violent event we know of in the universe. Suddenly there was this light above the horizon almost as big and bright as the moon."
A half century later, around 1100, a cold, dry period began in the Four Corners area. With growing seasons shortened, residents soon decided it was time to leave. They burned their roofs, packed what they could and moved on. The site remained unoccupied until 1936 when the Forest Service built a fire lookout next to the ruins. Fortunately, the interloping tower has recently been removed.
As we start down the trail, I ask Barry how the Chimney Rock site interrelates with the inhabitants of Mesa Verde and other native groups who occupied the Four Corners region.
"They were all here about the same time, but each had their own center. We know there was trade. They probably were friendly. There's no sign of warfare. The lifestyles appear to be very much the same, and there are a lot of similarities in the architectural styles. We think they were just neighbors like people living in Texas and Oklahoma at the same time."
"They irritated each other that much!" I gasp.
To accentuate the site's astronomical past, Chimney Rock volunteers host a variety of summer events. Night sky programs around the time of the new moon allow visitors to gaze at the star spangled heavens through telescopes. At full moon programs, guests hike to the Great House and watch the lunar orb rise while a Native American flautist plays traditional music. It won't, however, actually appear between the stone pillars until the next standstill in 2025. In July, a Native American Cultural Gathering features costumed dancers performing in the Great Kiva.
Chimney Rock is not for everyone. The walk to the top may challenge out-of-shape visitors, and the tours are small, casual and not highly choreographed. Compared to Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon, some may find the size of the site underwhelming. For others of us, the smaller scale offers a degree of intimacy not found at the big guys. Here, I feel I'm part of the place and not an outsider looking in.
Back at the visitor cabin, I see the stuffed rattlesnake staring at me. Out comes my wallet. I can't wait to see the glee on my wife's face when she discovers her little gift coiled in some unanticipated spot at home. The question is where best to surprise her with this unexpected treat. After all, the magnitude of my wife's screaming exhilaration will be all about location, location, location.
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The Chimney Rock Archeological Area lies 20 miles west of Pagosa Springs off U.S. 160 and Colorado 151. The site is open from mid-through mid-September. Guided walking tours depart daily. Contact the Chimney Rock Interpretative Association for information about visiting the site.