Southwest’s ‘high society’ led pampered life


Chimney Rock is one of scores of Chaco outliers in the Southwest and perhaps its most dramatic, seated at 7,600 feet in altitude above the San Juan Basin.

U. COLORADO (US)—Elite priests living in a spiritual outpost on a Colorado mountain ridge a thousand years ago likely had their meals catered by commoners living in the valley below, according to an archeology team’s recent discoveries.

The findings from the Chimney Rock site near Pagosa Springs, Colo., suggest that resident elites were dining on elk and deer, unlike the workers who constructed the site. They were eating smaller game, according to Steve Lekson, who directed the excavation and is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The royalty at Chimney Rock—an “outlier” of the brawny Chaco Canyon culture centered 90 miles away in northern New Mexico that ruled the Southwest with a heavy hand from about A.D. 850 to 1150—were likely tended to through a complex social, economic, and political network, Lekson explains.

“While our analysis has only begun, there might have been two different groups at Chimney Rock—those that built it and the elites that inhabited it,” says Lekson, curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. “It looks like the elites were calling the shots.”

Chimney Rock is one of scores of Chaco outliers in the Southwest and perhaps its most dramatic, seated at 7,600 feet in altitude above the San Juan Basin. Located 1,000 feet above the nearest water source, the site—marked by a pair of twin rock spires—harbors a Chacoan-like “Great House” and great kiva that some archaeologists believe were built as part of a lunar observatory, says Lekson.

The 2009 excavations—the first at the site since the early 1970s—included the partial excavation of two rooms in the Chimney Rock Great House. The project turned up pottery, stone tools, animal bones, the remains of ancient timbers, and scores of burned corn ears, says Brenda Todd, a CU-Boulder doctoral student supervising the excavations.

“There seems to have been a ritual connection at Chimney Rock that was part of the mystique of the Chaco culture, and it included a desire for power over the cosmos,” says Todd. “Harnessing that power by taking over this spiritually significant piece of landscape seems to have been an important thing for the Chaco elite.”

The CU-Boulder team is making full use of new archaeological technologies developed in the past few years that should reveal more about life on the ridge, adds Todd. The team hopes an analysis of mineral signatures within individual corn samples recovered at Chimney Rock, for example, will reveal not only where the corn was grown, but the specific sources of water it was drawing on from around the Southwest, she notes.

Although few Pueblo people were living in the area prior to A.D. 850, they began moving into the nearby valleys once Chimney Rock was established, says Todd. “I think the people drawn to the area came in to serve the elites at Chimney Rock. And I think the elites who were living here probably came from Chaco Canyon.”

The link between Chimney Rock and Chaco was strong, adds Todd. Timbers used in the massive Chaco Canyon Great Houses and great kivas may have originated from the Chimney Rock region, since there are few pine trees around Chaco Canyon.

Unlike Chaco Canyon—which was the hub of the Southwest Pueblo culture for about 300 years—Chimney Rock’s occupation was “short and sweet,” lasting only about 50 years, said Lekson. For reasons still unknown, the Chimney Rock occupants abandoned the site about 1130, never to return.

Lekson says the Chaco culture—which held political sway over a region twice the size of Ohio for centuries—likely began disintegrating into warfare by the middle of the 12th century. He believes a spiritual tug-of-war involving Chacoans triggered some to migrate north toward Aztec, N.M., then later south to a site known as Paquime in northern Mexico on a vertical line he calls “The Chaco Meridian.” Thousands of other Chaco people likely split off and moved to other pueblos south of Chaco Canyon, Lekson believes.

The Chimney Rock project is part of a larger effort by federal, state, and private groups to investigate, restore, and stabilize the site. The partnership includes the U.S. Forest Service and the volunteer Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, which conducts guided walking tours at the site during the summer.

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