A look at some ancient Coloradans
July 29, 2009
PAGOSA SPRINGS – When the elite ancient residents of Chimney Rock craved a haunch of venison or an elk loin, it appears they did what the privileged class of today does: They counted on caterers.
New research by a University of Colorado archaeological team at the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area near Pagosa Springs suggests that the rabbit- and turkey-eating commoners living below the dramatic sandstone mesa brought the best provisions to those who dwelled on the top.
“Obviously the term ‘cater’ is somewhat tongue-in-cheek,” said CU professor Steve Lekson, who directed the latest excavation. “But it (Chimney Rock) is the trophy house on the hill.”
The university team spent five weeks this summer digging at the Chimney Rock Great House, which was inhabited between A.D. 1075 and 1130. The team had access to two rooms for the first research dig allowed by the U.S. Forest Service at Chimney Rock since the 1970s. It is in those rooms that they found the remnants of meals to support their theory.
Under the rock floors, where the builders would have discarded their trash as they were constructing the rooms, archaeologists found the bones of small animals. Above the floor, they found the bones of larger mammals – either the elk or deer that are plentiful in that area. They found no tools to indicate the food was prepared in those rooms.
More scientific analysis needs to be done to prove this part of his theory about the elite class at Chimney Rock, but so far there is much to support the idea that it was a community of haves and have nots, Lekson said.
Lekson thinks Chimney Rock was one of the most remote outliers of the “capital city” of the Chacoan culture that flourished in the southwest between A.D. 850 and 1250. That center of Chacoan life is 90 miles southwest of Chimney Rock in northwest New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon.
Lekson theorizes some of the politically or religiously powerful inhabitants of Chaco Canyon were sent to Chimney Rock for reasons having to do with that society’s attempt to control the cosmos.
Chimney Rock was sort of a lunar observatory where every 18 years the moon would rise between the two rock spires that prompted its name. The great kiva – a ceremonial room – was directly sited on this view.
That kiva and the other dwellings on the top were built in a grander style than the hundreds of ancient rock dwellings down in the valley, where the commoners lived.
The commoners also lived closer to the source of water and would have had to haul it 1,000 feet up the mesa to slake the thirst of the elite.
So were these ancient working class folks slaves or serfs like the indentured classes in other societies?
“Maybe it was an offering of tribute. I think of it more like provisioning,” said Brenda Todd, a CU doctoral student who is writing her thesis about the Chacoan people. Todd supervised the Chimney Rock excavations.
Lekson said he also doesn’t believe Chimney Rock had a slave class like those in the Mayan and Aztec cultures, but in his opinion, “there were people calling the shots.”
His theory of class in the ancient Chacoan culture has been controversial in the past, but is becoming more accepted as more evidence is analyzed. The view of an ancient egalitarian society arose from the classless way the descendants of the Chacoans live in modern pueblos.
“Ten years ago it was a big fuss and fight,” Lekson said. “But more people are coming around to this realization.”
The materials found in the Chimney Rock excavation may answer some other questions. Corn found at the site will be analyzed for levels of the chemical strontium. Those levels may give researchers an answer to where the corn was grown, because different areas’ soils contain differing levels of the chemical.
Bones at the site will be sent to Canadian researchers to determine whether they are deer or elk and, again using strontium measurements, where they came from.
Wood from timbers in Chimney Rock will be dated in a lab in Arizona and possibly linked to the timbers at Chaco Canyon.