Located in the southwest corner of Colorado just north of the New Mexico border, the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area is home to hundreds of archaeological sites. One of these sites, the Chimney Rock Pueblo, is known for its dramatic setting high atop Stollsteimer Mesa, which is marked by two rocky pinnacles. Archaeologists do not know for certain why this particular place was chosen for settlement or what its purpose may have been. However, based on the presence of a Chaco-style Great House and other similarities to the great cultural center of Chaco Canyon to the south, the Chimney Rock Pueblo is known as a Chacoan Outlier community. Of all known outliers, it is the northeastern-most, highest, and most isolated from Chaco Canyon.
While there is evidence that people were living in the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area at least as early as AD 600, these early sites are located primarily in the valleys and lowlands below the mesa. The sites probably represent small groups that hunted and practiced limited farming. Archaeologists disagree as to whether the indigenous population eventually began to move up to the mesa from the valley below or whether there was an influx of new settlers from Chaco Canyon to the mesa top.
The people of Chimney Rock, like their Chacoan counterparts, probably lived a communal life guided by ceremony and social traditions. They were subsistence farmers, growing corn, beans, and squash in small plots below the mesa. To supplement their diet and during dry years, the residents of Chimney Rock would have relied on hunting, primarily small animals such as rabbits and turkeys, and on gathering the wild plants, such as Banana Yucca, that grew abundantly in the area.
Tools were generally made from local resources, such as bone or wooden digging sticks for farming, stone or bone cutting and scraping tools for processing animal hides, manos and metates for grinding corn, and bows and arrows for hunting. Pottery was used for cooking, storage, and carrying water. Clothing was made from animal hides, fur, and plant fiber and was sewn using bone needles or awls and thread made from plant fiber.
The structures built on the mesa top include the Chimney Rock Pueblo (Great House) and a Great Kiva. Both are similar in design and construction to those found at Chaco Canyon. Tree-ring dates resulting from excavations during the 1970s show that construction began on the Chimney Rock Pueblo in 1076, with a secondary phase taking place in 1093. Subsequent excavations have yielded tree-ring dates as early as 1011 and 1018. The similarities between construction techniques found at the Chimney Rock Pueblo and the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon have led recent researchers to conclude that the Chimney Rock Pueblo is clearly Chacoan. It could have been built by immigrants from Chaco or by the local population under Chacoan direction.
Significant research conducted at Chimney Rock Pueblo dates back to the 1920s, but archaeologists do not agree on how to interpret the site’s function. It has been proposed that the Chimney Rock Pueblo may have played an integral role in the Chacoan economic and ritual system, serving as a guesthouse where people who came to the pueblo for ritual or economic purposes could stay. The pueblo may also have functioned as a source of raw materials and a resource collection point. Construction at Chaco Canyon required large amounts of timber, which was not available in Chaco Canyon but was readily available in the Chimney Rock area. Studies have shown that some of the ponderosa beams used to construct three of the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon most likely came from the San Juan Mountains, near Chimney Rock.
Chimney Rock may have been part of a long-distance trade network with Chaco Canyon at the center. It has been theorized that Chaco was a ceremonial center used as a gathering place for a dispersed population. The ceremonies held at Chaco were related to the redistribution of goods (such as timber, corn, pottery, and meat). It has been suggested that Chimney Rock would have occasionally been a host for such ceremonies and would have redistributed timber and big-game meat to the non-local peoples who traveled there. In exchange, the inhabitants of Chimney Rock would have received prestige items, such as turquoise and obsidian from New Mexico. A study of feather holders, small clay objects found at both the Chimney Rock Pueblo and Chaco Canyon, demonstrated that those found at Chimney Rock were not made from local clays, thus leaving open the possibility that they were imported from Chaco.
Lunar Observatory Theory
The construction dates for the Chimney Rock Pueblo support the theory that it may have functioned as a lunar observatory. Research has demonstrated that at the time of the Northern Major Lunar Standstill, which occurs every 18.6 years, the moon rises between the two pinnacles when seen from the Chimney Rock Pueblo. The two major construction dates of the Chimney Rock Pueblo, 1076 and 1093, as well as the earlier date of 1018, coincide with the Northern Major Lunar Standstill. The 1011 date also coincides with the Northern Minor Lunar Standstill. The ability to track lunar and celestial movements would have allowed residents to keep a calendar, which could have had both practical and ceremonial functions.
The occupation of Chimney Rock Pueblo was brief, and by approximately 1125 the inhabitants had left. As with the reasons for its original construction, the reasons for depopulation are not entirely clear. A decline in the influence of Chaco Canyon could have had a destabilizing effect on the outliers. The growth of another community to the southwest at about the same time could have been a factor. In addition, the fact that the climate was becoming drier may have played a part in people’s decision to leave Chimney Rock. They went south to the Rio Grande Pueblos in New Mexico or west to the Mesa Verde, Hopi, or Zuni Pueblos.
The Chimney Rock Archaeological Area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and was designated a national monument in 2012.