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Chimney Rock is an archaeological gem

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By Rob Witwer

Between Durango and Pagosa Springs is a hidden gem of Colorado history. Before prehistoric dwellings were built into the cliffs at Mesa Verde, Ancestral Puebloans created a small settlement on top of a mesa near two dramatic pillars of stone. The place is called Chimney Rock.

Chimney Rock is located on the northern end of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, but it’s unlikely the people who lived there were predecessors of the Utes. The Ancestral Puebloans (also called Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies”) lived in the Four Corners area about 1,000 years ago, and are believed to be the ancestors of the modern Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona.

The Chimney Rock Archaeological Area contains 200 homes and ceremonial buildings, only some of which have been excavated. On the self-guided walking tour, it’s possible to see mounds of dirt beneath which lie ruins untouched by the hands of modern humans. These will be excavated in time, but archaeologists are in no rush to uncover the secrets of the site.

Just this summer, archaeologists from the University of Colorado are excavating and stabilizing a ruin called the Great House Pueblo, which sits on the flat top of a hill directly opposite the twin spires of stone, 1,000 feet above the river valley below. The day I toured the site with my sons, we were told that the jawbone of a bear had been found the week before.

Work on the Great House Pueblo began in 1076, 10 years after William the Conqueror led his Norman invaders into Britain and became the first King of England. At the time it was built, the moon rose directly between the two rock towers, giving the location spiritual significance to Chimney Rock’s inhabitants. In 1093, the moon’s cycle (called the “standstill of the moon”) again brought it into position to rise between the towers, and at that time the Great House Pueblo was significantly expanded.

But the most compelling thing about the Chimney Rock settlement is that it appears to have been summarily abandoned in 1125. There is evidence the buildings were deliberately burned down, but there is frustratingly little information about how or why. Archaeologists have found strong evidence that Chimney Rock’s residents didn’t disappear but rather moved to several different sites in the Four Corners area — including Mesa Verde.

Chimney Rock offers something that even Mesa Verde cannot — stillness. In the quiet it is possible to imagine, just for a moment, what it was like to live in North America four centuries before

Columbus made his journey.

Be sure to check out Chimney Rock next time you’re in the Four Corners area. You can learn more by calling 970-883-5359.

Rob Witwer, who lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House.