Published: July 28, 2009

Elite priests living in a spectacular spiritual outpost built high on a southwestern Colorado mountain ridge a thousand years ago likely had their meals catered by commoners living in the valley below, according to preliminary new research by a University of Colorado at Boulder archaeology team.

New findings from the Chimney Rock archaeological site near Pagosa Springs, Colo., suggest that resident elites were dining on elk and deer, unlike the workers who constructed the site, who were eating smaller game, according to CU-Boulder Professor Steve Lekson, who directed the excavation. 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 said.

"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," said 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, said Lekson.

The 2009 Chimney Rock excavations were the first at the site since the early 1970s, when CU-Boulder archaeologists led by Professor Frank Eddy excavated one room of the Great House. In the late 1980s, calculations by CU-Boulder Professor Kim Malville indicated that construction periods of wooden ventilator shafts at Chimney Rock coincided with events called "lunar standstills." Such events occur about every 18 years when the full moon rises at its northernmost point on the horizon for several days at a time over a two-year period -- in this case, the point between the two spires as viewed from the great kiva.

The 2009 project -- which included the partial excavation of two rooms in the Chimney Rock Great House -- turned up pottery, stone tools, animal bones, the remains of ancient timbers and scores of burned corn ears, said Brenda Todd, a CU-Boulder doctoral student supervising the excavations. Although the site's rough occupation dates -- about 1075 to 1130 -- were previously calculated using tree-ring dates from 15 timbers, additional wood beam segments recovered this summer should help to pinpoint the distinct building episodes at Chimney Rock, Todd said.

"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," said 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, said 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 said.

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, said 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, said 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. Todd also speculated that deer and elk harvested from the forests around Chimney Rock may have been delivered to Chaco Canyon, as evidenced by bones found in ancient Chaco trash pits.

Large fireboxes at Chimney Rock likely were used to signal Chacoans at the summit of Huerfano Mesa, a plateau hosting ancient fireboxes some 30 miles to the southeast of Chimney Rock and in sight of Chaco Canyon, said Lekson. "There was almost certainly line-of-sight communication between Chimney Rock, Huerfano Mesa and Chaco Canyon," said Lekson. While there is no Chaco Great House on Huerfano Mesa, "elaborate fireboxes and shrines suggest that somebody was there to 'pick up the phone' and relay messages."

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.

CU-Boulder anthropology graduate student Kellem Throgmorton, who worked on the excavation of the two Great House rooms this year, said Chimney Rock inhabitants apparently burned the rooms at the end of the occupation. "It was standard practice for these people to close a site by burning the roof and letting the whole thing collapse down," he said. "The big surprise was that the rooms had not been cleared out completely before abandonment -- there were still items inside."

Todd said one of the rooms contained an intact pot that had been fixed into the floor and wall as a permanent fixture and also contained the jawbone of a large bear, an animal that had spiritual significance to the Chaco culture. "By all indications, this was a place for a few special people," Todd said.

Lekson said 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 CU-Boulder archaeological project at Chimney Rock began May 24 and was completed July 5, 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.

In addition to Todd and Throgmorton, the CU-Boulder team included graduate students Alison Bredthauer, Erin Baxter and Jakob Sedig, as well as CU-Boulder graduate Jason Chuipka, now an archaeologist with Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants Inc. of Yellow Jacket, Colo. "This is a tremendous opportunity for our students," said Lekson. "This is a famous site, and probably no other archaeologists will get the opportunity to work here again in our lifetimes."

CU-Boulder has been involved in Southwest archaeological excavations for nearly a century. Building on three decades of intensive research in the region, Lekson published a book this June titled "A History of the Ancient Southwest." His wife, Professor Catherine Cameron of CU-Boulder's anthropology department, published a book in fall 2008 titled "Chaco and After in the Northern San Juan."